The vampire’s confession

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  Peccavi in extremis, I’m afraid.

It has been … ages since my last confession, a time beyond recall.  I must say I have been rather good, but for one irresistible indulgence.  How shall I say it?  Out with it, then.

Father, I am a vampire.

Yes, I heard that gasp, involuntary though it was, through this rather flimsy barrier.  Why bother, I wonder?  Is it to protect my delicate sensibility, or yours?

No matter.  The sins I have to confess surely blow through such refinements like a spring squall through a spider’s dewy web.

Where shall I begin?  The burgher’s rich, leathery Sangiovese, or the light Beaujolais of girls in the springtime?  Ah, the sublime innocence, with just a touch of peppery insouciance!  I confess to a weakness for the unpresumptuous, even coarse, at times.  A cheap Zinfandel, just this side of plonk, fills the bill more often than I’d like to admit.

There was a certain lawyer, officious, but charming in his utter unawareness, a Malbec, precisely sour, and his lovely Shiraz of a wife.  I dream of her still.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a profound appreciation for the refined as well.  How can I neglect the rich Barolo of the bishop, or the tawny Port of the late monseigneur, aged to perfection?  Yes, that was me, I’m afraid.  But look at the bright side, we have you, as a result.  I saw you walking to the confessional, with your springy step, that optimistic, wide open demeanor that refuses to be daunted.

I believe I fancy a nice Grenache, on such a fine, sunny afternoon.

Correspondence from the dawn of time

Archaeologists have uncovered a stone slab with what appears to be the earliest correspondence ever.  The hypothesis is that the slab was exchanged with each new entry.  Here is a transcript.

Not the slab, but stone like it.

Not the slab, but stone like it.

Hi

Why do you give me this?

No reason.  Just Hi.

What you want?

Nothing, just friend.  What wrong with that?

Here a small circle has been carved, with a curved line in the lower half, and two dots in the upper.

What this shit?

It’s like face, smiling.

OK, haha.

BTW, I have plenty hides, for you, cheap.

Here are just random chips, odd symbols, in a pattern suggesting anger.  There appears to be the figure of a man, decapitated.  The rest of the slab is blank.

____________________________________________________________________
Photo credit: http://www.newsgd.com/travel/routeofthemonth/200606080058_60340.jpg

Mail order bride

On a long bus ride into the past, watching Riga Center slip by, I become aware of the two voices from the seat behind me. He speaks American English, slow, measured, clearly enunciated. She speaks language-school English, without undue inflection, practiced.

– Riga is a very nice city.
– Yes, very nice.
– I saw a sign somewhere, on the Maxima, I think. It said 00-24.
– Yes, it’s means it’s open 24/7.
– So, if it says 8-22…
– Yes, of course.

(pause)

– Once I walked 2 hours to buy a book. I will show you where; it’s on this line.
– You walked 2 hours?
– I wanted just to walk.
– I hope it was a good book.
– Look, there it is, the bookstore.

(pause)

– There’s a bus with a thing to connect to wires overhead.
– Yes, we call them trolley busses.
– In Paris and London, they have subways.
– They wanted to build a subway here…
– But the electricity is in the rails, not overhead, like here.
– But it was not popular.
– Oh, look, there’s one on rails. They stopped those in San Francisco. Too hard to maintain.
– Yes.
– My ex-wife wants 50% of everything. She will only get 25%.

(pause)

– Graffiti. That means it’s not a good place.
– Yes, outskirts, not so nice.
– Suburbs.
– No, outskirts.
– No. City, suburbs, then country.
– No. Outskirts.

(pause)

– Nothing to do out here, I guess.
– No, it’s nice.

My stop, time to get off. I can’t resist turning around. I see a grey man in his 50s, either fashionably unshaven, or just lazy, can’t tell. Beside him is a rather plump young girl, attractive, a determined look on her pleasant face. I hope it works out. I’m not very optimistic.

Riga party line

If you doubt that Eastern Europe is very different, consider this comment I heard at a party in Riga:

“I can’t drink beer or wine; my doctor told me to stick to the hard stuff.”

Someone else, having been told the stuff he had just poured into his glass was wine, and not flavored hooch, recoiled with horror, poured it out, and went straight for the vodka, hoping, no doubt, it wasn’t just water.

And these are the sober types.

I told a story of my profligate grandfather, who drank a bottle of vodka every day, finally expiring at the age of 85. Well of course, they said. What pathogens could survive such an environment?

Of course, all that booze was accompanied by heroic amounts of food: pickled herring, lox, unidentifiable but delicious cured meats, olives, pickles, cheeses of every variety, salads composed of any and all imaginable vegetables, all accompanied with sour cream and dill. Copious dill, always. Someone brought a massive traditional klinger, a thing like a giant pretzel, filled with fruit compotes and dressed with fresh berries. To be eaten with shots of cognac or vodka interspersed. Moderation, you know. Of course, you could always go one-stop, and eat the heavenly en-booze-iated fruit salad. Did I mention that all of this was unspeakably delicious?

This was followed, as the evening grew long, by the actual meal: marinated pork kebabs grilled to perfection. And, had I tried the klinger? I really should, you know. Perhaps a bit of cognac, to settle things?

There was, all in all, approximately a week’s worth of eating and drinking in one sunsetless evening in late June Latvia. I begged off and left the party as twilight began its descent, a rather late and hesitant affair up here at the 57th parallel. My host was dismayed at my early departure, and asked if I was well.

Walking to the trolley stop afterwards, I passed reeling youth, shouting, singing, ignored by more sober pedestrians, treated like a late spring squall, alarming, but not serious. It all seemed oddly calm.

Publish, perish

“I really like your blog.  You should publish that stuff sometime.”

Ever hear that? It’s an interesting point, this question of what counts as publishing. Certainly, when you press the “Publish” button and send off your work to the ether, it is made public in a way that anyone can access. But is it publishing?

Put another way, would Walt Whitman, famous self-publisher, have been content to be a blogger?

Self publishing, except possibly for Walt, carries an onus to start with; that’s why vanity presses are called what they are. As if convincing a paying publisher somewhere of the value of your work removes vanity from the picture. Ultimately, WordPress, Blogspot, Tumblr, and even Facebook and Twitter are vanity presses, well within the usual meaning of the term. Walt would undoubtedly have been all over them.

So, what do people mean when they say you ought to publish your blogs? Two things, I think. First, there is a long standing distinction between publishing in a serial medium, such as a newspaper, magazine, or, yes, blog, and publishing a book. Dickens, Conan Doyle, Mitchener, all followed serial publication with book publication of essentially the same material. The distinction even allows, perhaps invites, revision. Serial publications are akin to drafts, in a sense.

The other thing people mean, however, goes to the heart of vanity vs. commercial publication: It’s not “real” unless you’ve convinced someone else that it’s worth an investment of time and money. The implication is that anything published commercially is better than anything self-published. A trip to any bookstore (if you can find one!) should disabuse you of that notion, but there it is. Commercial publication is still regarded as proof of value.

It’s not enough to have the heart of a poet; you need the soul of a salesman to really arrive. I wonder, though, how much of all this is changing, and how fast.

Welcome home, Mom and Dad

Hey, welcome back. It’s been – what – almost 70 years! My God, the time flies. You’d think after all that time you’d hardly know the place. I guess that’s true, in a way. I mean, the big shopping centers in the Old Town, and on Dzirnava Street; nothing like that in your day. I know, I know, the city market; it’s still there, still huge and bustling, but in an organic way, like mushrooms and dandelions. These other places, well, you know them from America. Conceived and built from scratch by speculators long before anyone guessed they wanted them, and yet wildly successful, fulfilling God knows what lack. How could they be here, of all places?

I tried to find your old place on Ernestine Street – ridiculous, I know, since I don’t know the number. I did find a lovely little park, filled with trees and hillocks and children’s swings. I imagined you lived in one of the houses facing it, and watched your boys playing there.

What’s that? Oh, the graffiti. Ugly, isn’t it? Another import from outside. Partly copied from those Americans you never quite figured out, partly welled up from within during those cold grey years under the Dogma. I know, the people making it were never alive in that time, but cultures have a way of making hurt live on long after real grievances have gone extinct. My God, look at the Israelis and Palestinians, after 3000 years!

Still, there’s a lot you’d find familiar, I’ll bet. Just today, I was strolling in the Forest Park. You know the place, at the end of the trolley line, past all the cemeteries filled with the dead from wars and ordinary life. I’ll bet you’d find a few old friends in those places! A bit overgrown these days, at least in parts, and amidst a few soviet apartment buildings I guess would break your heart, covered with, yes, graffiti. I should have warned you. But at least the graves are well tended.

Near the canal by the Old Town, boys and girls still lay out their blankets on the grass, and give each other such joy as they can under the circumstances. Their soft laughter blends so well with sparrow’s songs, I can hardly tell the difference sometimes. I know you sat together here often; if I only knew the spot. You’d be shocked, though, to see how little they wear these warm summer days, not like the elegant suits and dresses of your day! Still, there might be a twinkle in your eyes. It is nearly midsummer – full breeding season here.

They still have those wooden boats, you know, to cruise out to the river in. I bought a straw hat just for the purpose. I wonder if you ever did.

Russian voices are everywhere. I doubt that would bother you. I still remember warm evenings of food, drink and fellowship with the Russians and Jews who came to share dinner with you when I was growing up. I never understood what you talked about, but it was grand, judging from the atmosphere.

There’s music everywhere, of course. I think you would have been shocked to find otherwise. I’m glad it took me this long to show you around. A few years ago, when I first came here, there were sour faces everywhere. Not so long before that ordinary people died in the streets for independence. The long gray shadow of the Soviet Union still cast its spell. Now, people seem to have forgotten how to be cynical, in spite of hard times lately. I mean, here’s a people who, despite centuries of conquest and exploitation kept their own language and culture, and sweet, cheerful demeanor. Okay, so maybe it’s because no one bothered to eradicate it. Still, it was there all along, invisible but strong. The last century was not the longest or worst period they’ve survived.

Did I tell you, there’s been a renaissance of tradition? That music I mentioned: yes,there’s the ubiquitous hip-hop, metal, and pop drivel, but rather a lot of traditional stuff as well. I doubt you’re surprised; music is music, as any Latvian will tell you. Today in Forest Park I passed an old man (Old! He was probably my age!) playing songs on the accordian I’ll bet you could sing along with. And in the Old Town, I saw a little girl, maybe 10 years old, playing a lap dulcimer and singing, with a beautiful clear voice, songs I heard from you, I believe even before I was born. The old religion is everywhere, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Christian sourpusses. But wasn’t it always like that? The old oaks and elms, the thunder and fortune, could always accommodate a god or two in excess.

Dad, don’t listen for awhile, I’m talking to Mom now. I know you were afraid you were going to hell. Personally, I doubt you’re anywhere other than in my heart. But if you are, it’s not hell. You knew the value of the old ways, you felt the pulse of gypsies beating in your heart. There is no god worthy of the name who couldn’t stand that, who couldn’t see the beauty and righteousness of it.

Dad, I have no way of knowing what horrors you passed through. I know you were a good man, and I know you never wavered in doing what you thought was best for us. I took me a long time to forgive you, longer still to forgive myself. At last, it’s done.

I can’t quite grasp what it was to see it all crumbling, to watch the poison seeping into such a rich well, to leave it all so utterly behind. Did you really think you’d ever come back?

Anyway, I’m so glad I could show you around the old place. I hope you enjoyed it.