23 November 2015


When someone in the street asks for directions I gauge them quickly. When they ask with open, desperate faces I want to believe they want to know which way to go. But, there are some people that use this as a test to see if you are kind, open, if you are trusting. They use this as the first step. There are times when I do not stop, just shaking my head and feeling terrible for judging them but at the same time I have a family and cannot be a fool.

Two times this week people asked me for directions, like most of the weeks in my entire life. In Italy, in New York, in Moscow I seem to bear an invisible badge that suggests I know where places are, and can explain how to find them. So often, this is beyond me but the situation presents itself like a fast moving clock, banging away on every hour.

The first was a woman on a side street close to our apartment, her hands held out as she spoke asking how to get to the metro which is not close. I was with E, and she looked up at me as she always does when I tell people how to get somewhere, with this combination of laughter at my bad Russian and a strange calm as I told them about landmarks, about the simplest way to find the place not using rights and lefts but numbers of buses.

"Just stand here and wait for #20, or walk that way and cross the big street and wait for #11."

The second was a man asking how to get to Park Pobeda on a Sunday afternoon. I asked to make sure this was where he wanted to go because it was quite far from the center. We were less than a kilometer from the White House and could see it from where we stood if the air was not full of mist and snowflakes. I explained to him it was far, and how he should go back towards the big metro behind us. He stared at me with a blank look on his face, like a doctor with test results he does not want to share. I wondered, maybe he did not understand me. I tried to explain things a different way, taking out my phone to show him how to get there on an actual map.

"No, no thank you." The man said, resting a hand on my shoulder in one gentle act. "I'll take a taxi."

He walks away, in front of me because we are both going in the same direction on the same street. I drag my feet under me to create some space. He is not poor. He wears a European man purse snapped to his belt that slaps against him as he makes his way. I think he can afford a taxi. He walks in front of me for some time and at least he is going in the right direction I tell myself.

16 November 2015

more than winter (the fool)

I was forwarded a mass email warning last Monday, in Russian of course. I asked N to translate it after we had dinner. It said there was a concrete threat of terrorist activities over the next weekend - starting from Friday and ending on Sunday, to stay away from train stations, concert halls and shopping centers, away from government buildings and monuments. I had hoped it was just some junk mail inviting me to join a gym. The Russian news was full of stories about an increased police presence, security sweeps, random searches, trained dogs sniffing packages. 

The next day I decided it was high time to bring some film to the lab, taking E from school and maneuvering the metro chock full of people even at three in the afternoon. She held my hand as tight as ever. People were running like football players through airports in old commercials, knocking people over, no apologies, no head turning briefly just linebacker moves left and right. It was Tuesday. We took the less popular trains and stations, avoiding Red Square entirely. What did we all learn in NYC so many years ago? Not to live in fear. Not to change our lives, not to hide like frightened rabbits in tiny apartments. The greatest example to set was a life well-lived. 

After dropping the film off, I took her for a cupcake and some lemonade at the Magnolia Bakery outpost that opened in Moscow last summer. The frosting and the sprinkles looked so magical to her behind the glass and she declared the lemonade to be top notch. We bought an extra one for N, knowing she would probably just nibble a corner of it. 

On the way home, an old woman in a droopy uniform stopped me before we went through the turnstiles. She wanted to inspect E's schoolbag which had ended up on my shoulder as it often does. I thought of my unshaved face, the baseball hat on my head but could not imagine why we were stopped, as E was holding my hand. Who could we be besides an innocent father and his daughter? I gave the bag without argument, just annoyed and they checked it. No nod, no "now you can go," just a blank stare. E looked up at me, confused. I told her to shake it off, that maybe they stop every fifteenth person no matter who they are. A part of me just wanted to roll my eyes at the old woman being part of some comprehensive anti-terrorism force. It felt like another charade, another chapter of the Emperor's New Clothes which describes most days here.

I went back to pick up my film two days later, in the middle of the day by myself. I sent N a text at each stage of the route, letting her know I was ok. The metro was quieter today, as handfuls of militia with Kalashnikovs swinging from their necks walked the platforms, yes one or two dogs sniffing at people's heels. I thought to buy cupcakes for them but then just wanted to be back home, quiet and warm, maybe with V taking a nap or nursing or banging on her new toy piano. 

In the same station as Tuesday the old woman was stopping a young man, a giant beard hanging from his chin, a goofy homemade hat cocked on his head  - a sort of 21st century Russian hippie. She was checking his bags. I felt a strange sense of relief at the randomness of her actions, and at the same time the same doubt that any of this was effective. 

At home, I began scanning the negatives. It is like Christmas every time I see the pictures for the first time, strange epiphanies, reminders of the things I shot and forgot about, the roll in the drawer for weeks before I made it to the lab. I took E from school, made dinner, curled up and slept heavily with the windows open a crack letting in the cool air. 

Two days later I began to see the reports coming in out of the corner of my eye, assuming it was something small, news being shared to beat the silence, to fill the void. I got up to pee in the middle of the night and saw the pictures of Paris. I wobbled on my feet, sat down, reading half-awake and then suddenly wide awake. A wave of shame ran along my arms and up the back of my neck. Maybe there were attacks planned for Moscow too and that mass email I got on Monday was real. I felt like a fool. Paris had been attacked and no one saw it coming. Maybe Moscow was next, maybe New York. No one knows until afterwards. I walked through the house, looking at E asleep, her legs twisted around the blankets, the red heart that glowed on her wall with the tiny lamp inside it. I looked at N and V, caught in frozen moments of grace. I looked out the windows, knowing soon it would snow again, soon the grass would be hidden, the ice, the grinding wheels, the grit and muck, soon more warnings being sent, more police in the streets, more headlines, that more than winter was just beginning.

09 November 2015


E does not draw people with one eye any more. She draws pictures of her favorite super heroes now. No more imagined street scenes of New York, no cool girls in high school with striped socks and skinny legs. There is one headphone in her ear most of the time, if not both. She has a soundtrack to her life, pop music on a perpetual repeat. It isn't that I am against these things. She is almost eleven and her life is becoming her own. Every parent wishes for that. It is just an adjustment for me, always imagining her as that little bird that wanted to marry Spongebob, the girl with the box of magic markers and a wild imagination. 

Her guitar stands in the corner of the room like in so many films from the 80s - an idea, a prop, a smart thing to fill space collecting dust. I bring V into the room once or twice a day to bang on it a little, her tiny hand resting on the neck all whoops and howls yanking the strings half by accident. Guitars need to be played or they dry up. They need warm hands and attention. 

A camera stands on a tripod. E is making pictures she does not show me. Maybe they are presents for her friends on their birthday. Maybe they are just an idea and she does not finish them. I don't pressure her. Of course she knows I want to see them but I do not push. She has her own ideas, her own mysteries. 

Sometimes I feel like an asshole, reminding her to wash out her lunch box, to brush her teeth, to take a shower, to clean her room, to throw out a garbage bag sitting on her floor for three days. I am the other soundtrack that repeats reminders, lame chores and sorry news. But, she does her homework all by herself. 

She keeps tabs on my progress as I edit the film she acted in. E hovers behind me, mouth twisted as she studies the software, the cutting of masks, the color correction, the stabilization, the grain removal, the grain going back, the finessing. She knows this takes a lot of time and when I think it is getting there, I show it to her. She approves of this tiny face on the screen from a year and a half ago, from a different life. 

02 November 2015

messy clocks (to be seen)

The walk to school in the morning happens in darkness now. E's hands are shoved into her pockets, boots dragging across the dry, cold asphalt. We talk very little, maybe about what I should make for dinner. How many times back and forth across this little park, the fountains turned off now? How many times across this intersection, where the cars run three or four at a time through the red light no matter how many policemen are watching? We have both lost count.

I follow the faces to keep myself sane. There is of course the man who plays accordion in the underpass, but he appears randomly. There are people we pass every day, like a messy clock. The woman with the face like a potato that begs for loose change. She crosses herself every time a person passes, eyes lowered, standing perfectly still. I saw her in the street once, hands waving around, laughing. The exact opposite of the persona she shares in the dim fluorescent light of this wet tunnel.

There is the school nurse, short with red hair going grey who pretends she does not know who I am. There is a school teacher for a different class of fourth graders who does the same. There is a young woman who helps the children get downstairs and put their coats on. We would call her a recess aide back home. Her face is round, legs like a piano but she still wears skirts and boots with spike heels. She also looks down as we pass each other every morning.

A man with long grey hair and sneakers walks quickly. He lights a cigarette without stopping, shoulders flung back, chest pressing into the cold air.

A woman with long dark hair does not walk. She swishes. She wobbles on high heels, some odd smug look painted large on her face. The path littered with dead leaves is her catwalk. Chin poking out, eyes, half-lowered she does look at me sideways as I pass her. Maybe she sees the paper clip I fixed my parka zipper with. Maybe she thinks I should get a shave. Maybe she just likes to be seen.

26 October 2015

pianos (a different life)

There is a strange hush over the neighborhood. Each overcast weekday feels like a misplaced Sunday morning. The ground wet, the leaves yellow and beginning to rot, the cars puttering through the puddles all become a little symphony. Old women carry plastic bags of carrots and potatoes. There are babies in muddy strollers, most of them asleep. 

The wind does not howl. The crows are still acting wild. barking in little packs in the tree tops.

There is a pile of pages, a towering stack of them, neatly lined up on my little white desk. The pen sits ready. A cup of good coffee is growing lukewarm. I have already begun to accept the new name of this book, Papa on the Moon. 

The door bell rings.

Typically it is a salesman, or shady looking people offering cheap internet service. I ignore the ring most of the time, and then tiptoe to the peephole, deciding if the silhouette in the hallway is dangerous or not. I rarely open the door anyway. Whatever it is, we don't need it.

The bell rings, over and over. I grit my teeth, and open the door. It is a policeman, his automatic rifle swinging from his neck. He is not so tall, his hat cocked loose on his head. He speaks quickly and I try to explain that I can only understand about half of what he is saying. "A man" he says over and over. And then our apartment number. I think he is saying the man is drunk and that he is our neighbor, or that he has a piano and he says I am playing the piano too loud, or maybe he is our landlord and he is drunk and says we have a piano. But there is no piano in our apartment.

I offer to call N, to get some translation but he shakes his head, waves his hand for me to follow him. I take my documents, lock the door. We go up a few floors in the narrow elevator. I cannot imagine what is going on now. There are paramedics in the stairwell, and another policeman. A man with black hair stands in the center of them. He could be from Azerbaijan, maybe Tajikistan. A plastic half-gallon jug of beer sits on the dirty tile floor at his feet. 

I begin to guess that the drunk guy said he was coming to see me. There are quick words. Obviously he has no idea who I am. The policemen tells me to forget it. They got the wrong apartment number I guess. The man with black hair wobbles on skinny legs and looks at me with giant sad eyes.

Back downstairs, I lock the door. sit back down, and stare at the pile of pages, these old stories from a different life.

19 October 2015

the imaginary numbers

There was a farmer down the road when I was a boy. He was Polish and raised goats, milking cows. He made his own maple syrup like everyone else. Every day or two I would climb into the filthy white Ford pickup and sit next to my father. I would hold the milk pail, drumming against it as we drove. We would arrive, maybe Mr. Kluzak was playing with his goats, even trying to get them to butt heads with him for a laugh. We filled the milk pail and I held it hot between my knees on the way back home. Milk is warm I would tell myself - not cold like in the giant refrigerators in the supermarket in plastic gallon jugs. This curious little truth nagged at me. 

Years later, I am haunted by handfuls of these sticky truths. They repeat in my ears, a humming whisper, a stale reminder of what I already know, or that I should know better. My cheeks run red as I step outside of myself hoping E does not notice. She catches everything these days. Being the parent of a ten year old has thrown me for a loop. Too many ideas have been set in motion to be unsaid, too many habits gone wild. I had no toys with batteries when I was her age. We were too poor and it was not such a strange idea back then. 

Price Chopper was the supermarket we went to, paying mostly with food stamps. I would go to the metal bin of broken electronic toys with my brother, jabbing at them, making frantic attempts at some crude football game or with real luck an Atari left unattended. The salesman would eventually find us, leaning in and saying something like "I'll give it to you cut and dry, you either buy something or you walk away boys." He really spoke like that, like a substitute science teacher. 

I found a game, four white squares across and four down. It had a working battery but the plastic that showed the instructions and the numbers for each square had been ripped off. It had to have had a price of one or two dollars on it, not more. Somehow I got my mother to buy it for me. I spent days, methodically pressing buttons, flipping the little switches imagining what mode I was in, listening to the little electronic songs it burped out. Sooner than later, I surrendered. It was junk, useless, nothing I could bring to school and flash in front of anyone to make them jealous. 

12 October 2015


The snow comes, the way it often does in October. A minor threat, a few hard flakes that children spy and shout about. Parents lift their heads for a moment, maybe sharing in the excitement or like me they do anything to avoid looking out the windows. The flakes are giant, drifting around as leaves flip from branches in handfuls. The view from E's bedroom is white. 

This is life in Moscow, for natives and expats alike. The promise of winter is realized two weeks into autumn. Of course the flakes will go away. This is just an overture. But the next morning, the ground is spotted with drifts. Winter coats are pulled from the backs of closets, spotted with the early mud from last Spring. E hates her coat, or more the idea of having to wear it. I feel the same about mine, resenting its orange lining, angry at the zipper. 

I still have pickup shots to get for a story that takes place in late summer. I have found a strange building, an inspired bit of Soviet architecture. It is far from the center, half in the middle of nowhere. On Sunday I cram the camera in an unassuming bag, a tripod, and directions. There are flakes whipping around in the sky but by force of will I tell myself not to trust them, they are just to trick me into staying inside. They will melt away, and the sky will open up. They have to.

Ducking into the metro, there is a full-on snow flurry. The flakes are stinging my cheeks, leaving them wet and clammy. I take the trains, march with everyone else through the muddy hallways, the slick escalators, everything smelling of ammonia and horse sweat, of stale cigarettes and diesel.

Outside the metro I climb the stairs to the street, seeing I am in the wrong exit. Back under, through a labyrinth of boarded up corridors and then a different path to the street. This one is right, but it was labelled "polyclinic" so I had assumed it was the wrong one. The snow has changed to freezing rain. I make my way, the bag slung across a shoulder, my neck craning to see street signs and house numbers. Giant orange trucks roar past me, carting garbage. Eventually I see I am going the right way, and I walk slower. The numbers are climbing. I need to get to 63. 

Before I realize it, the rain stops. The wind falls. The building appears, but there are plenty of plywood boards across the fence around it. It is not in use, just a lonely yellow backhoe standing in the front lawn. I shoot from across the street for the hell of it, and then poke the camera through openings in the fence, tilting up, framing around tree trunks and avoiding the piles of dead leaves on the ground. We are still holding out for late summer, even if the sky is pale grey. The trees are full of green leaves. 

And then, the sky does open up for just a few minutes. Guards are coming out, one at at a time to ask me who I am, what I am doing. I tell them I am making art photographs, that I like this architect very much. They stare at me for a long moment each time, and decide I am harmless. By the time the fourth one comes out, I know I should get moving. The best is done, no need to linger.

On the way back to the metro I see the familiar red and white smoke stacks climbing from behind some buildings. They are from central heating plants. I wander into a small park, then find a set of train tracks, and barbed wire fences around them. A vista opens up, and a train is arriving. I set up the camera, my hands cold, fumbling with the tripod as I level it. There is a even a patch of blue sky. I record all I can, holding my breath.