Moved

The time has come for me to close this blog.

I am reestablishing shop at http://christineslocum.net. My name is permanent, not even changing for my marriage, so I expect this to be the last URL for personal writing’s sake.

This blog chronicles three years of my mid-twenties, which were spent living in Seattle. The move was the first dramatic change, and many more followed. It is a very public documentation, and other time I will sand away some of the more mediocre essays to let the better ones sit. When this URL expires, I may move it over to my new site.

I keep a diary, and it shifted from verses to prose. When my memories are not in my head, they reside there, closed. One particularly bad year’s journal is wrapped in cellophane, partially to protect it, and partially to protect me from being tempted to ruminate. This blog is another memory storehouse, only it is public. Is that wise? I am a mother now, should I keep my struggles closer to the vest for my daughter’s sake? Time will tell.

I am now a Syracusan back in Syracuse. Happy reading.

 

If There Are No Risks, You Don’t Need Courage.

You can never be too safe.

This is the lesson from the United States government. Ignore the experiences of Soviet citizens and those of the Eastern Bloc, for whom government surveillance was the instrument of social control and strict ideological obedience. There are terrorists, they attacked us, and we must never permit this to happen again. The word “terrorist” is thrown around like kryptonite to anyone who suggests that maybe we’d be OK risking death if it meant we could keep our civil liberties. No. The government must ensure that we preempt terror activities. We must watch anyone with non-dominant political beliefs. We must watch anyone with non-dominant religious beliefs. We must watch anyone that our technology permits to be watched, rules or no rules. You can never be too careful. With the ways that policy decisions and discourse tend to flow, one would believe that the only acceptable course of action would be the one that minimizes the perceived danger in order to maximize safety.

We should be rethinking this strategy. First, one danger may be traded for another one. If the United States government is watching its citizens as closely as everyone seems confident it is, we are trading the danger of terrorists for the danger of a tyrannical government. All of us have broken rules. Society needs rule breaking to shift and change. This is part of the reason free speech is so important in a society. If it is true, as George Bush suggested, that “they hate us for our freedom,” it would seem that this is our shining, defining attribute. The surveillance solves the problem by removing the circumstances needed for our freedoms to exist. As Moxie Marlinspike notes, “If everyone’s every action were being monitored, and everyone technically violates some obscure law at some time, then punishment becomes purely selective.” When do you become selected?

Second, we curtail innovative thought by cultivating a culture of fear. On a personal note, I am nervous about moving forward with some entrepreneurial endeavors for fear of not being able to co-support my family. Any innovation that I could theoretically provide right now, before I get the courage, is stifled by fear of economic privation. On a societal level, if one is afraid that their ideas could get themselves on a government watch-list, only the boldest and most fool-hardy will challenge the status quo, even if the status quo is in need of being challenged.

Our political approach to terrorism is akin to a phobia – we are willing to change the otherwise treasured character of our society to avoid being attacked again. Are terrorists more terrifying than the tip-toe steps our government is taking towards emulating repressive regimes? The lesson is not to be so afraid of our fears that we cannot see that the fortress we are creating is becoming our prison. The fact is that the world is dangerous. Day-to-day life requires a banal courage in the ever-present possibility of death. Our civil liberties require that we practice that banal courage diligently in the face of global insecurity.

Buffalo Version 2013

My family is house sitting in Buffalo. It is an old Victorian house near Elmwood Village, upper level. Our mission: water the plants. If “plants” paints a picture of diminutive foliage in a few small pots, be advised you should reconsider your mental images. Our charge is a balcony wide garden of cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, swiss chard, beets, carrots, herbs of many types, and zucchini, blurring the line between “urban farm” and “balcony garden.” We get to eat what comes ripe while we are here. There is a charcoal grill and a kitchen stocked with finest kitchen implements available. There is not a better house sitting gig. We are lucky it was offered to us. (Thank you!)

———

Will and I used to live just outside of Buffalo, in a town called Snyder which sits on the northwest border. We were both graduate students in departments housed in the Amherst campus. With one car between the two of us, we wanted to be close enough to walk to the campus if the car broke down, a possibility (and eventual reality) given its age and condition. We were slaves to the practical back then. I envied my friends in Buffalo proper. They lived near the action, the cultural centers, and in the neat, if elderly, dwellings. We had a lot of fun in the bars, the parks, friends’ homes and exploring.

We moved back to New York State three years, almost to the day, after we left Buffalo. I remember driving on I-90 West, looking over my shoulder and seeing the Buffalo Central Terminal disappearing into the distance thinking, “This is it. Time to move on.” I did not expect we would come back. Here we are.

Will and I have been re-scouting Buffalo, trying to discern if there is space here to raise our daughter and any future children. I pass through familiar streets and wander down Memory Lane. At the same time, my eyes scrutinize them as a stranger would, because I am considering this city with different criteria.

—–

Buffalo is the sort of city that has fallen apart enough that it requires an imagination to think of what it was like when it was the wealthiest city in the United States. When you start to imagine the past, the present and future follow. This is a city for dreamers.

Being back in Buffalo, in the nicest part of the city, feels like coming to visit an old friend and discovering that the relationship has irreversibly changed. The basis of the friendship: shared values, shared hobbies, and the shared context of experiences diverged. The dreams you had look different now, and the city remains the same.

It is an imperfect analogy: Buffalo has changed – people seem to believe it is on the up-and-up after decades of dropping down. You know that Goo Goo Dolls’ song, “Broadway?” It was about Buffalo. It’s dark, it is vacant. These days, perhaps some light is creaking in. We arrived the day of the City of Night celebration. My alma mater just hosted a president and is expanding in the city proper. Some of the novelties of Seattle, like coworking spaces, are in Buffalo now too. The vacant grain elevators are being redeveloped. There is talk of a second coming. Some of it smells like the empty yearly ritual of declaring this season the Buffalo Bills’ rebuilding year: the city has spent decades tumbling.

The dreams are seductive and the reality is troubling: the school system, the vacancies, the violence, and the fact that allegations of corruption sound awfully plausible (and I have social connections which tell me that corruption is a New York epidemic). The cheap, somewhat derelict housing, which was OK when I was in my early 20s, now looks like a dangerous place for a small child to be. I worry that the city’s rough edges would abrade my baby’s fresh skin. I never worried before: I was old enough to take care of myself.

The flip side is this: my husband and I are clever people privileged with education. We would find opportunities here. His family has deep roots here, thus we have the irrational fondness (and economic status) that keeps most of the city’s occupants natives. Our other candidates are cities in similar straights with fewer job opportunities by virtue of their size (ie Syracuse and Rochester). The house my father grew up in is now a rental on the South Side of Syracuse, a shadow of the beauty he talks about. Buffalo’s malady is a common one.

—-

I doubt these questions are unique to my family; likely they are considered by all of them. As for us, we leave tomorrow, to head to a small town outside of Rochester, and then back to Syracuse. It remains to be seen if our return to Buffalo is as visitor or resident.

Learning to Live With It

We recently bought a Subaru Outback to celebrate our move to the transit-challenged land of Central New York State. It was manufactured during my freshman year of high school, making it now twelve years old. Anything that wears as much rust and years on it is an obvious risk. The size of the vehicle was perfect for our family. Oh, did I mention it was an Outback Limited, coming with all the bells and whistles that 2001 had to offer? It has leather seats, moonroof, sunroof, and, key to Syracuse winters, heated seats and mirrors. With that said, the price was right and we haggled it down. It was a risk, albeit a less expensive one.

We took it to the shop for inspection and the check engine light turned itself on. Great. That’s a fail for the New York State inspection. The shop did some work on it. The light went dark just long enough for the hole to punch through “August” on the inspection sticker. Miles passed, and those orange words illuminated my dashboard again. It’s the same old message, P0302, Cylinder 2 misfire. The detonations in the second piston are off. Those explosions are what runs the car. Great.

We* cleaned the injectors, replaced injector #2, replaced spark plugs and wires, searched for leaks, and nothing. There are other things we could do, such as replace the coil pack, or shove $100 bills into the pistons and hope for the best. As of now, we haven’t gotten to the root of the problem. There are whispers in my family that we never will. Perhaps the problem is actually the check engine light. Maybe the wiring is messed up. Sometimes Subarus erroneously message misfires. Is the car running well? Yes. It is only occasionally rough at idle. Some advice I am receiving is to live with the light.

Fixing things, closure, making a place tidier… I am at peace when I have a sense that all is right and organized into the proper order of things. Broken item? Fix it. Disorganized room? Re-arrange things. Dispute with a friend? Time to make up. Sometimes that is not possible. Sometimes the circumstances leave things up in the air. Sometimes they need to stay that way.

It is uncomfortable.

Since cars can kill you, we’ll likely take our Outback to a trusted mechanic/family friend in Will’s hometown. Depending on what he says, we’ll fix it… or learn to befriend that orange light, just as I have needed to learn to let things go.

*We means that Will did most of the work, my father provided tools, experience and assistance… and I fed our perpetually hungry daughter.

This Too Will Pass

I’d been away for so long, I forgot the things I loved about this place.

Before my husband joined us here, I took Daughter out for walks in the evening in the neighborhood. The stroller soothes her in her fussiest time of the evening. Perhaps she is enjoying the tree branches, or the clouds, or the sounds of the wheels. I ask her, and am greeted with wide and gorgeous steel-blue eyes engaged with the world, and especially the sky. The answer to my question is unknown, and unimportant. I love her instead.

My apartment in Seattle was wonderful. It was spacious with wide windows that overlooked Crown Hill, Phinney Ridge, and on a clear day, the Olympic Mountains. We could savor the sunsets from the balcony that faced them. I made a point of watching the sunset every day before we left. I nursed Daughter to sleep and watched the colors change. “This is where you came from,” I told her. “But this is not where you will grow up.” One day, from Will’s arms, she peered into the sunset herself. She did not look away, and cried when Will moved away from the window. I was so proud of her. At a young age, perhaps motivated by curiosity, she understood that the colors and light were worth looking at.

Walking through my parents’ suburban neighborhood in the greater Syracuse Metro area, I watched the sunset too. The clouds here are different, but stunning. They billow high into the stratosphere, picking up different colors from the setting sun. She peers at these too, looking up from her stroller.

When I was in high school, I waited for the bus at dawn during the winter months. I would grab a window seat and, presuming I actually finished my calculus homework, look out and watch the Lisa Frank-like colors over the high school during sunrise. I was in marching band, and three times a week in the autumn would be at the high school during sunset. Football fields mean wide exposed sky. This was the place where I learned to appreciate the sky. I had forgotten that.

Each day is different, transitory, and never to be repeated exactly. The moments are savored, and gone forever.

So it is with raising our daughter. She is growing so fast. I forgot some parts of what I love about Syracuse; I never knew what I would love about raising my baby. Lately it is clear that life is water, pouring through my hands. You can try to grab it, but it drips through and passes on. I feels as though I should tattoo “this too will pass” on my wrist, for it is the most enduring truth I have encountered so far. It inspires the patience to cope with the difficult parts of child-rearing and inspires the presence of mind to prevent me from taking for granted the sweet moments as they are in my life.

I am trying to ensure the happy moments with Daughter do not share the fate of the sunsets which I had forgotten about.

Review of Buy This Land: Buy this Book and Support a Non-Profit, Gain Insight Into How the World is Changed

When opportunity knocks, open the door. If your door is silent, open it anyway and figure out the way to make your dreams happen.

That seems to be the lesson of Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li’s self published Buy This Land. This book is the autobiographical account of the founding of Agros International. Agros International is a Seattle-based non-profit which provides a sort of real-estate micro-loans, aimed at poor farmers to get them on their feet and provide the dignity of supporting oneself. Its founding is the combination of serendipitous circumstances and tenacity on behalf of the founder, described in this 305 page book. I really liked this book, it gave me a lot to think about, though I’ll admit to struggling through some parts of it.

Eric Parker asked me to review Buy This Land, citing my review of Bob Goff‘s Love Does. If I was interested in reviewing it, he offered a copy of the book. I love to read and find that sort of offer irresistible, so I happily accepted. Soon after, I received a heavy envelope from a law firm and freaked out. I thought I was being sued. Nope, it was the book; the law firm bore the name of the author and I just forgot about it. Oops. Inside was a very kind hand-written note thanking me for reviewing it. I would like to thank Eric for this opportunity. I am at a cross-road in life discerning my path. Buy This Land is a timely read for me and it pretty much fell into my mailbox.

Li, like Goff, is a Seattle-based lawyer whose faith inspired him to make a difference in the world. The backgrounds between the two men are quite different. Li is an extraordinary person. He is the son of a Chinese diplomat who spent his childhood living abroad. He is now an American, born in India, of Chinese ethnicity who speaks fluent Spanish as a result of time in Central America and English courtesy of time in Australia. His passions and unique experience positioned him to begin Agros.

He is extraordinary not just because of his history, but also in his tenacity and temperament. Some people are completely undeterred by difficulty. They get a goal, they figure out a way to accomplish it, and they do it. Li is one of these people. He is a more pragmatic Bob Goff. Whereas Goff can be impulsive, Li is thoughtful, leveraging a strategy and social network to accomplish his altruistic ends. I suspect that his early exposure political policy via his father’s background in diplomacy empowered him to accomplish several other impressive things besides founding Agros. You’ll have to read the book to find out what they are.

The book begins with Li’s childhood, progresses through his education, his law background, and then tells of the founding of Agros in great detail. The book ends with a discussion of the essential traits required to found an organization like Agros and discusses the future. He is inspired by his faith, and mentions its role, but does not proselytize at all. I think this book would be easily accessible to people of all faiths for that reason.

This book is a greater pleasure to talk about than it is to read.  See, there are two parts of any good story: the content of the story and the way it is presented. The content is great. Li’s life is indisputably inspiring. The story of Agros is a must-read for anyone who has the entrepreneurial spirit to start a non-profit in a country in the global south. I suspect that the struggles the organization went through is likely a familiar tale to others who have attempted similar endeavors. The story is inherently interesting because Li is an unusual person who does unusual things.

The presentation can be dry. I suspect Li’s training as a lawyer contributed to a very matter-of-fact retelling of his life. If other stories are slices of life pressed and squeezed to have rising actions, climaxes, and falling actions… Buy This Land stayed true to the pace of the way the story was lived. It has none of these literary devices. The language describes emotions instead of being emotional. Dialog and moment-to-moment experiences are rare. The pace of the story grinds to almost a halt in some places where the retelling is clinical or exceptionally comprehensive. There is no suspense to this book because you know it ends with a successful non-profit. The question is how, and the answer is very procedural. Sometimes reading about procedures can be fascinating, and other times you’re a sleep-deprived new parent who feels like she’s reading a chronology. (Your mileage may vary.) The page turns because you are curious, and if you find that you are not… When you get to those sections, keep reading. There is more insight to be gleaned, but it requires patience.

Overall, I’m grateful for the book. It came into my sights as I am re-evaluating the hows and whats of my life. The birth of my daughter reorganized my world, and presented some logistical challenges in my life. I find that I am drifting into more cautious endeavors. Li’s book reminded me that caution can inhibit success; great success always requires great risk and great passion. Fearlessness, faith, and enthusiasm are requirements for accomplishment. That is a fact which is easy to forget.

I wholeheartedly recommend Buy This Land to anyone who wishes to start a non-profit, or who wishes to tackle social problems or a far-fetched goal. Chapter 11, “Essentials,” should be copied and circulated on its own. Idealists, dreamers, and the cautiously big-hearted would benefit in having this book on their shelves. A lack of inhibition, when combined with commitment and a sense of possibility, can accomplish a great deal. The world does not change by accident alone. Skip Li’s life is a compelling example of this.

It’s totally worth the read, and you can find the book here. All the proceeds go to Agros, International.

Changes

We are leaving Seattle.

Daughter motivated this change. It was a hard choice, as the Pacific Northwest is so compatible with Will’s and my way of being. Worse, we know so many wonderful people here that we are going to miss very much. We’ve kept in touch with our loved ones in New York by virtue that our roots are there. We never really dug out our roots, even as we planted ourselves elsewhere.

That we stayed grounded in our home areas was telling. We still belong there too.

I am frustrated to pieces with so many facets of the cultural-political context of New York State. We are not returning due to a fondness for patronizing laws or high taxes which get squandered by corrupt officials. We are going back to New York State so Daughter will grow up knowing her kin. We’re chasing a less expensive cost of living which will allow us to provide a more comfortable life for Daughter, and any potential siblings she may have. We’re going back so we can be proper members of our families again, offering assistance when needed and cease missing every wedding, birthday party, Thanksgiving, and Easter. The hope is that Daughter feels grounded in her roots and knows the people who already love her so much without even bothering to meet her. Ultimately, family is more important and we are just too far away.

We are leaving soon.

I am also leaving this domain.  I never really liked the moniker, “Seattleite From Syracuse;” it was just a placeholder. It is now as inaccurate as it is disliked. Many entries will disappear: I am changing the format of this site to be more of a collection of essays as opposed to a public diary so many will not be relevant. Frankly, part of me cringes reading some of the older entries either due to being too personal (in the “Why would anyone care about that except voyeurism?” category) or lousy writing. Google analytics say that particularly bad cases are not read often, but still.

Anything I am keeping will get 301 redirected, which is exciting as it means Will will be teaching me a new skill. Between the move and my infant daughter, the changes will be slow. My hope is that once the dust is settled, it will be firm enough to plant something in, to stay put for awhile.

Why I Am Not Using My Daughter’s Name In This Blog.

Back in December of 2009, I met a stranger through my writing. After some time corresponding with over email, they invited me to meet in person. The email exchange had been an interesting one, so I agreed. We settled on meeting in a public place during daytime on the University at Buffalo South Campus. For various reasons, I decided it was prudent to look this person up before seeing them face to face. (Sidenote from Older and Wiser Me: When you find yourself with that thought, and you’re not Terry Gross, this may be an indication that you should reconsider the meeting.)  As “Looking Someone Up” pretty much means “Consult Google,” I typed this person’s common first name, uncommon surname into the search engine, not expecting to find much.

Well, without much trouble at all, I found out that this person graduated from a high school near the one I did. I learned that their mother was a somewhat public official in a nearby town to the one my parents reside in, a fact discovered in spite of how this person and their mother do not share surnames. Turns out their father was a men’s rights activist of sorts working in the telecommunications industry before opening a small, later failed, business.  Their parents had been divorced since 1992. This person had a sibling with a birthday in the same week as they did, two years their junior if three grades apart. Then there were the other internet footsteps, a deleted livejournal (as we all had one of those in our teen years, eh?), forum posts on tech sites, and so forth. No criminal record that I could discern. The point is that it was far too easy to find out some fairly personal history about someone who was a stranger.

To be honest, I felt considerable guilt, like I had violated their privacy, even if this exercise suggested they had none. Upon meeting this person, I immediately confessed my internet searches. As I recall, they were surprised but unoffended. Given a social norm in which you learn things about people because they volunteer it directly to you, I was a bit surprised by that reaction at the time. They made a comment like, “Privacy is an illusion” or something to that effect if not those words, and then a joke about exchanging social security numbers.

I was able to find out so much about this person because:

  • This person used their real name on the internet. The footprints were thus really obvious.
  • Courtesy of an uncommon surname, it appears they are the sole occupant of their full name and so all Google results point to them without noise.
  • The internet forgets nothing, even if some of it gets buried.

After this experience, I became much more deliberate in the ways I left breadcrumbs across the internet. Stalkers would have a bit more trouble finding me blind – my name is shared by eleven other people, some of whom have more significant internet presences than I do. One of those people are in my home town holding political office. My husband, Will, has a first name which is one of the most common verbs and a fairly common noun in the English language coupled with a common surname. He is effectively un-Googleable: all results are noise. I have some public spaces, like this blog and my twitter account, but I try to be very careful about what is shared there.

Why tell you this story? Well, this experience highlights what led to my decision not to share my daughter’s name on this blog. You see, she is the only person with her name. If you google her name now, Google says there are no results. My goal is to keep it that way for as long as possible.

While I love Anne Lamott’s writing, I wince with how much, and sometimes unflattering, information she shares about her friends, relatives, and acquaintances. I do not get the sense she asks for their consent. There is a risk involved with befriending a writer, certainly, that you may end up in their work. She’s repeatedly expressed a lack of guilt for the information shared, arguing that she is being truthful. Well, yes. What about privacy? I know more about her son Sam than I should, and I wonder if the mother of Sam’s child bargained for the exposure she’d receive as a result of dating Anne Lamott’s son. There is a lack of shielding, and I am uneasy with it.

My daughter is my responsibility. As soon as she was born I looked into her perfect eyes and decided that I would do what I could to protect her and teach her to navigate this world. I do not want being the child of an occasional writer to be a liability for her. The last thing I wish is for a middle school classmate with a crush on her, or someone with more nefarious intentions, entering her name into Google and finding her mother’s blog, and more about Daughter than Daughter may wish be known, or getting used for some sort of social networking hacking.

That is the risk of the information age, where public information is not just a reputation known in people’s heads, but archived in 1′s and 0′s on sites for all to see. Information is the currency of this society, but unlike money, sometimes one is best served by having little available.

She is a part of my life and world, which is what I write about. So for me, the option I am going with is to describe, but not name.

This is a really long way to let you know that my daughter, as she appears on this blog, will be known simply as “Daughter”. She actually has a beautiful name, but it is ultimately hers to share. The stranger I wrote about above had no one else except for local newspapers revealing things about their life, and that was enough to find out too much. I need not contribute to worse for my daughter.

If you write, how have you decided what to share about your family?

How the Boston Bombings Reminded Me to Be A Skeptical Media Consumer

I found out about the Boston Marathon bombings while I was at work. I read the New York Times during my downtime. Generally nothing noteworthy happens, but this time something did. An explosion at the Boston Marathon. Who bombs the Boston Marathon?! I thought to myself, rather shocked. I kept hitting “refresh” on the Boston Globe, wanting to know more. It is an awful crime.

After I went to bed last Thursday, my husband stayed awake and finished his work. It was very early in the morning when he joined me, admitting that he was following news in Boston surrounding the pursuit of the suspects. Huh? Oh, they found them? I’ll read about it in the morning.

Over my breakfast, I read the news and it said that the suspects were of Chechen origin. Chechen?! 

I was dumbfounded.

—–

In summer 2008, I received a scholarship from the US State Department to learn Russian in Russia. It was all-expenses paid immersion program; I effectively won the lottery. The State Department felt it was wisest to send us to cities that were considered more “provincial”, knowing that residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg recognize foreigners easily and often spoke English. The point of the program was to spend eight weeks speaking only Russian. I spent that summer with about twenty other Americans in Asktrakhan, in south west Russia, being mistaken for a horrendously socially awkward Russian until my accent gave me away as foreign.

A week after I left Astrakhan, Georgia and Russia went to war after Georgia invaded South Ossetia and the territories claimed independence. It was part of a longer dispute regarding the sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It was one piece nationalism, one piece power and control. Russia is huge, and as far as I am aware Astrakhan was never directly affected by this war. If you are curious, your family sleeps sounder when you are not in a foreign country which is at war. My parents, and their friends, looked at a map, saw how close Astrakhan was to the Caucuses, and breathed a sigh of relief that I was sitting at their kitchen table reading The Post Standard’s comics.

Violence has been common in that territory. In addition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there are the issues regarding Chechen nationalism and Russia’s grip on the country. The Beslan hostage crisis was fresh in my memory despite its incidence was four years prior. My Russian professor regularly lamented the botched handling of the Dubrovka Theatre hostage crisis, where the Russian militsia killed hostages in an attempt to disable the hostage takers. It is a long standing dispute, and it was always over there, in the Caucuses, far away from home. The violence was a reminder of a easily forgotten form of American privilege- we live in a mostly peaceful place.

Five years later, my first reaction after reading the ethnic origin of the Boston suspects was disbelief. The second was, “Oh my god. Not here too.” My third was confusion: the United States and Russia are not exactly close, trusting friends. There is no reason for Chechen nationalists to alienate the United States – those weary of your enemies are potential friends. The US has been critical of human rights abuses in Russia, and Russia has been critical of anything it can be of in the United States. When Russia tries to say, “Look, this ethnic group is dangerous, let us enact some more repressive rules,” this attack would provide fuel to the fire and hand Russia a potentially powerful ally it did not previously have. Chechen terrorism in the United States just does not make sense, unless you are the sort of person who believes that Muslims like killing people.

When I was in Russia, I stayed with a family that was half ethnic Russian and half ethnic Tatar (a minority which tends to be Muslim). That was not unusual among the host families, and we were told by our teachers that Astrakhan was unusually diverse. Remember: Russia is a multi-ethnic society. While around 80% of citizens in the Russian Federation are ethnic Russians, there are over 160 other ethnicities of migrants and indigenous peoples. Astrakhan was located not far from the Caspian Sea, from Kazakhstan, and the Caucuses. It seemed all the marshrudka drivers (think Econoline sort of vans operating on bus routes) were from the Caucuses. In Russia, the most common faith is Orthodox Christianity and the second is Islam. With that said, it appeared that most people observed their faiths with a fervor you’d expect from the average American Methodist – a part of their lives, but one piece of many. Muslim women didn’t usually wear hijabs, considering it old fashioned. My host family’s observed neither the Christian nor Muslim side of their heritage. This was familiar to me, as the lack of zealotry and enthusiasm resonated with my experience with interfaith families and general practices of religiosity at home. This is to say, if someone suddenly became religious, it is easy to see where that would be weird. It is also to say that formerly Soviet citizens seem to have many stories of moving from place to place.

—-

In the next few days after the Boston bombings, I found myself with the unusual experience of having first hand experience with some of the points that were being tossed around the media.

Some of it was pretty trivial. I have actually visited the birth city of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Elista, if the Russian wikipedia is accurate about the location (which borrowed from a Kyrgyz press release). It’s a city known for having the largest Buddhist temple in Europe.

When NPR described “Jahar” as a “nickname” for Dzhokhar, I shook my head. No, that’s not a nickname, that’s his name. It is actually a closer English spelling of how “Джохар” sounds. ”Дж”, transliterated into “Dzh” is the closest thing you get to a “J” sound in the Cyrillic alphabet, and “х” is more of a hard “h”, like in Hanukkah, which is transliterated into “Kh”. The emphasis is on the second syllable. The Cyrillic alphabet bulldozed over whatever ethnicity the first name is from (Internet suggests it’s the Hindi Johar?), and then the Cyrillic to English transliteration was just as awkward.

Something similar happens with my surname. I have two visas from the Russian Federation, and my surname is spelled differently on both of them, despite the fact the Russian Embassy had my passport and the first visa when issuing the second. They determined the spelling. My surname has a “c” with a “k” sound.  On one visa it is a “k”, and on the other visa it’s “c”,  which is the Russian “s”. Sometimes the Roman “c” is transliterated into “ц”, which is the “Ts” sound. There are three different ways to transcribe my surname, if you are a person who is unfamiliar with how it’s spoken. My visas were applied for with the same passport, information, etc.

It is with that background that I heard others criticize the FBI for what appears to be a lack of clairvoyance.  Senator Graham claimed the FBI failed to note a trip the elder brother took to Russia because one of a misspelling of his name on the Aeroflot manifest. As I said… that would be easy to do. The US government clearly knows exactly when I have left and returned – I have an RFID chip in my passport and heck, they paid for my trip the second time around. Does the Russian FSB? Who knows.

I flew on Aeroflot once, from St. Petersburg to Moscow and then I took a connection to Volgograd in 2008. Aeroflot is the legacy airline of the former Soviet Union, and the Russian government is a majority owner. My memory is not filled with recollections of competence. The aged planes seemed to have more duct-tape than one would find preferable and they failed to transfer our entire group’s luggage from the St. Petersburg leg to the Volgograd leg. Oops. That they would misspell a name does not surprise me.

Russia suggested Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a threat and holding what they considered extremist views. Let’s have a chat about what can constitute “extreme views” in Russia. It can mean a variety of political dissent. Russia sent two women to prison for two years for the crime of cussing about Putin in a nearly empty church. When they say someone is a threat, and don’t elaborate, does that mean that they are a dissident journalist or someone who had the gall to protest against Putin? Heaven forbid you try to run for office against the ruling party. Think about that the next time you criticize President Obama or former President Bush, or when you write about your anti-capitalist tendencies. Russia does not protect freedom of expression as it is protected in America. Now Russia has disclosed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was discussing jihad with his mother, but without knowing that prior, what was the FBI to do?

Turns out the younger brother had a Vkontakte account. (So do I.) What’s not mentioned is that his wall hadn’t been touched since March 2012, and it doesn’t seem like a particularly active account, at least not prior to gaining infamy. Anyone can post on the walls of folks in VK. Some of the articles’ description, like how the younger brother valued “career and money”, do not acknowledge that it was an option chosen from a drop-down menu of generic orientations. Other options include “Family and children” or “art and beauty”. This article states that his last post was from “19 March”, leaving the reader to believe it was a month ago, when on VK it says “19 March 2012. Come on. VK suggests he logged in the night before he was captured, but what does that really mean? I logged into my account last week.

It was weird. Generally I do not have much familiarity with some facet of the world being discussed in the media, and almost never more than the journalists reporting on it. It seemed like the nuance and context went out the window in a quick and dirty attempt to fill air time.

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I share this experience for the reminder it gave me: be a skeptical consumer of the media. Be a little cynical of all of the media, even NPR, even the outlets that you generally trust with the perspectives that land most comfortably on your eyes and ears. They probably are not quite getting the entire picture.

When do you cease to be a “young adult”?

At the Super Bowl, some of us were having conversations about what constitutes becoming “middle age”. It was mostly folks from my church’s Young Adult group in attendance. My husband and I were on the young end of the age distribution curve, which ranged from 23 to 36, median age was probably about 31 or so. To answer the question of middle age, people tossed potential life events around, things like houses and careers. I was mostly quiet. At 26, you hope you’re pretty far from “middle age,” as least for the sake of your longevity. One fellow, who is 36, said to me, “It’s when you have kids.” I raised my eyebrow and said, “I’m a full decade younger than you.” He replied, “Touche.”

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The UUA’s age boundaries for “young adult” are 18-35. It never seemed like an adequate meter to me. The phase of life metric being used above makes more sense: age as a state of mind. The problem with generalizing over chronological years is that it’s a brush painted over a very uneven surface. The paint pools in some places and barely touches others.  What does the average 19 year old have in common with the average 34 year old?

I presume the goal was to catch a phase of life which roughly correlates with the ages, perhaps the “Quarter-life Crisis”, or the seeking and uncertainty that comes with transitioning into adulthood and coping with what Erik Erikson calls “Isolation versus Intimacy”. Effectively, you are trying to figure out what you want to do in an with your life, and with whom. This article describes the quarter life crisis in five stages:

“Phase 1 – A feeling of being trapped by your life choices. Feeling as though you are living your life on autopilot.

Phase 2 – A rising sense of “I’ve got to get out” and the feeling that you can change your life.

Phase 3 – Quitting the job or relationship or whatever else is making you feel trapped and embarking on a “time out” period where you try out new experiences to find out who you want to be.

Phase 4 – Rebuilding your life.

Phase 5 – Developing new commitments more attuned to your interests and aspirations.”

I read that and laughed, “Hey, I did that.” You’ll fine me somewhere in step five, with my exit from graduate school, new(ish) job at a non-profit provider of housing to the homeless and the unexpected, if pleasantly surprising, conception of my soon-to-be-born daughter. In any case, you would think that once that existential question is figured out, crisis over, right? Whip out your pen and cross it off the list, you’re done. Sell your angst on Craigslist and pack up the Uhaul: It’s time to move into that new-found certainty.

Nope!

My life is still uncertain in so many ways. I just stopped tightening my grip on everything and gave up on trying to control the outcome of every facet of my life. My thoughts are considerably less existential, and I spent much of my energy concerned about meeting the needs of my family. In that way, I resolved one of my personal searches for meaning in life and resigned myself to the fact that I will make the world better using only the imperfect methods I am capable of. Oh, and I need to raise a child whose needs her mother and father to have their act together. Which means I need to have my act together.

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I am now 27. Using UUA guidelines, I have eight years before I age into what the UUA would consider a full, unqualified adult. Now, the “Young Adult” designation and programming was created to stem the really high attrition rate of those who are born UU. It is often called the “bridge to nowhere”, that youth are “bridged” into the adult community but spent most of their time in the faith community isolated from it. They age from the youth programming and cons to find an alien community on the other side which poorly resembles the experience offered to children and teenagers. As far as I can tell, youth programming teaches kids to go question their faith (which is not a bad thing) and go out into the world with the mental and intellectual resources that the youth no longer require it. To boot, the isolation and frequent transition into college means the social ties that keep people in a group are severed or perhaps did not exist.

The Young Adult groups and programming are there to create social networks and a place to belong for those who age out of youth programming and experiencing transitions. It is meant as a place of welcome any other person in the age range who can relate to the members of the YA group. It is also meant as a pass through experience, or else there’d be no upper bound of age. (What do you call a YA group with no upper age boundary? Church.) You’re there, you relate, you have companionship and  then when life and time changes you move on. In my church that has sometimes meant to different phases of life, different roles at the church, different parts of the world, etc.

It occurred to me recently that if I were to start attending another church, I do not see myself getting involved in another young adult group. If the church lacked one, I would not feel inspired to start one up. This is not commentary about young adult groups. They are fine, and serve their purpose well. It is not a complaint that the YA groups would not be meeting my needs as a soon-to-be parent. It is more of a comment that I have changed, and seek different ways to be a part of a community.

I feel like I have phased out of the part of life where affinity group discussions about various figure-it-out topics are magnetic. I do not have the answers, yet I am less drawn to the conversations. I belong in the community at church, have friends in Seattle, and do not feel tied to a niche. My current involvement in the Young Adult Group at my church (which, honestly, has been pretty minimal in the last six months) has been purely out of affection for the people who are in the group. They are my friends. Heck, two gals from church threw me a wonderful baby shower, in addition to the fantastic one my mother threw me. I go to church in hopes of seeing my friends, in addition to the sermon and spiritual centering that I get from church. To be honest, often the people are the stronger draw.

If I were to attend a new church, I think I would be seeking something else, and I would be more concerned with whether a community was family-friendly and fond of small children. While I am in Seattle, I will be integrating my new phase of life into my current congregational community. If I were to go elsewhere, I would be seeking a congregational community that fits my phase of life.

Certainly this logic is not unique to me… Or is it?

At what point does one cease being a “young adult”? Relying on the 18-35 age range is as ineffective as trying to pin a number on “middle age”. Have you felt as though you were no longer a “young adult”? What inspired the change? I am really curious and would be glad if you could share.