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Apr 25, 2008

Colorado Tease

That is what they call the spring season here in Colorado: the Colorado tease. It may snow at night, only to go up to 60 the next day. The weather is not just changing quickly; the astonishing fact is that it keeps doing it for over a month: back and forth, back and forth. The atmospheric pressure is like a mad see-saw, sending people with blood pressure into emergency rooms, and taking the rest off balance. And of course, all is complicated by the expected cabin fever. It is a nervous time of year, doubly so in Colorado. I hear reports of otherwise mildly mannered professors blowing up in class and yelling at students. I learn of one or another intrigue brewing where should normally be none (no real reason). Moreover, I find myself off-balance and irritated about all the wrong, small things. Is it the weather? Are we all tired at the end of the school year? Is it the pressure swings?

What is the difference? One of the signs of maturity is the ability to observe yourself and people around you, and notice the changes, so you can adjust. I guess I am average at that; sometimes I notice things a bit late, and I don't always know how to deal with them. Some people are a lot better, but most are terrible at this. Most people I know pay no attention to the subtle shifts in the emotional pulse of a group to which they belong, nor are they able to monitor their own emotional tonus. Most people will attribute their own mood changes to good or evil actions of others. I am just wondering why it is, and how we all be educated people without such a basic survival skill.

(As I was typing the previous paragraph, I caught myself thinking that its tone is a bit too harsh, a bit arbitrary and perhaps tiny bit dogmatic. How can I claim that most people are quite ignorant of their own emotions? How do I actually know that? Is this the consequence of the same weird atmospheric phenomena, or actually a good point? Where does my authentic "deep" self end, and the untrustworthy and shifty emotional layer begins? Oh, well, I will stick to my claim here anyway; after all, this is not a peer-reviewed journal. So please ignore all of this as complete and utter nonsense.)

Hellenistic philosophers and Buddhists both call for control over one's emotions, but what they mean has nothing to do with suppression of one's emotions. Rather, they meant a way of knowing one's own emotional self, and then being able to detach oneself from destructive emotions, or at least reduce one's dependency on them. But I am not even talking about some spiritual discipline; I want basic, rudimentary awareness of the one's own and the collective emotional tone. And it is possible, because I know at least a few people who are extremely good at it; so good they put me to shame. This does not seem to be an in-born quality; I bet it is a skill, and a bit of an effort and attitude. It's the ability to say the right thing at the right time, to see when someone in trouble and reach out to that person. And especially important is the ability to see a whole group of people (colleagues or students) as if it was a single organism, a person who can be also in trouble, or in need to unwind, or something like that.

By the authority entrusted to me, I thereby declare the week of emotional literacy. Everyone at the School of Teacher Education must learn to pay attention to him or herself, to notice when you are angry or irritated, or happy and calm, and make a mental note of it. No, better yet, you must keep a journal. The, I order people to think about others in the same way: think who might need a friendly conversation, and offer it. I command people to stop worrying excessively, and to invent some sort of breathing technique, no matter how bizarre or ineffective. Then teach at least one other people the technique. All must report on their findings and experience to me next Friday. In writing. In triplicate. 10-20 pages. Single-spaced. 10 point font. Thanks in advance.

Apr 18, 2008


Mister blog, I am back. I took a trip to Russia where I attended a conference at my alma mater, the Novosibirsk Teachers' University. I then went to Roslavl in Western Russia to see my Mom, my brother, and his family.

Going home has to do with resurrection of old memories, bringing back old anxieties, but also reliving the good memories. It is fascinating to observe oneself; not just what cognitive memories still there, but also, how much your body remembers. I could not recall some names, but have an indelible map of our old building. Some episodes came back vividly, in full force, while others are completely gone. The narratives we construct about our own lives are so incomplete and fragmentary; the only way to remember your life is to go to the places where you have been in the past, and look for triggers of old memories.

But people in Russia are not really interested in my nostalgia. They have lived through some difficult and eventful years. Let's see, I missed two military coups, a depression twice as deep as the American Great Depression, and then unlikely economic recovery; they experienced chaotic democracy and returning authoritarianism, went from deepest national humiliation and dramatic population plunge to a new sense of national pride, and the relative stability of Putin's era. I had a very different experience of immigration. This chasm in experiences creates interesting disconnects. People who I have been friends for years suddenly do not find some of my jokes funny. Their language is now interspersed with words I find annoying and distasteful; they are probably equally irritated with my language that now has traces of the English syntax. For some reason, the English words that are flowing freely into Russian usage I find especially irritating. Less troublesome are the criminal slang expressions that have invaded mainstream. The Russians did not freeze in time when I left; they kept thinking and working, and acquired a whole new set of ideas and skills, new institutions and habits.

Coming home creates this very ambivalent and delicious feeling of familiarity mixed with estrangement. People and things are the same and yet not the same. The interplay of recognition and misrecognition, of being completely comfortable and accepted yet being alienated, separated by an invisible membrane. A classmate of mine, who was the social center of our little group, gave me a run-down on the entire cohort (we had about 25 people in it). One of our classmates is serving a prison term for contract killing, while others are successful businessmen. Most are still in education. None of the stories really surprised me, but none was also entirely predictable.

Coming home disturbs the familiar-unfamiliar continuum, and creates another class of feeling, which has to do not with re-experiencing the past, but with imagining yourself in an alternative life. What if we all stayed home?