Thursday, January 31, 2008

Get over yourself

Today was another stupidly traumatic trip to get my hair cut. In recent years, I have learned to wear glasses on these occasions, so that I can just take them off and stare ahead blindly, rather than study my wet head for twenty minutes to determine if, where, how, and the degree to which I am/might be/could be/definitely am/holy shit, what if I am, balding. So today I was in the chair and when the unsmiling yet sort of friendly Russian lady asked what I wanted, and I said really short all over, she said:

"Oh no, it is too cold outside. And it would show your bald spot."

Wow. Wow. I started sweating from the forehead as I thought about how there was nothing hypothetical about her statement; this bald spot was here, and lo, it is mine. This started the same old wheels turning (vanity clanking into self-esteem, etc) but then I actually tried to stop this process.

Hold up, I thought. I considered that I'm already married, and that I'm rapidly approaching the end of my 20s. I thought of how, sometimes, when I catch my reflection unexpectedly, I can sort of see myself as a generic man, anywhere from 25 to 50, looking not like myself or a young upstart or a 22-year old, but just looking like a grown up man. I'm not saying youth is over (even though it is), but that I'm a man, baby, and this is what happens sometimes, and there you go.

The cool part of me, the part that reads short stories and is going to be a high-powered lawyer, was telling myself all this to combat the part of me that was sweating out my forehead. What this means is that my future looks less like Mitt Romney and more like some sort of John McCain/Mike Huckabee situation (maybe even a modifed John Edwards). But that's cool.

Instead of panicking in the chair, today I feel like I actually stopped myself from having a stupid and pointless attack of vanity and self-esteem. There are things I can control, and things that I can't. Really, what it all boils down to is: who the fuck cares. And I look good anyway.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Too early

Today I got to my class fifteen minutes early, which meant the lecture hall was deserted except for me and the professor. He is unflaggingly friendly, so by sheer force of will he managed to extract some small talk out of me, when my actual impulse was to sprint out of the room and return when everybody else was there. After some extremely forced banter, people started trickling in, and soon all 80 or 100 seats were filled and class was underway.

Midway through, of course, he picked me to demonstrate the day's topic: how to serve someone with papers when they're sued. "Now if I want to serve Mr. Dunn," he bellowed, in his distinctive Long Island twang. My blood rushed in disparate directions as I looked up to see him bounding towards me, holding out a fake summons. He repeated the process several times (what if I rejected it? What if I said nothing? What if I put it in my pocket?) all the while repeating my name, rolling it around his thick accent. Instead of its usual, neutral mid-Atlantic pronunciation, it was like the D of my name was followed by a 'th' sound, and he seemed to separate the two N's so that they each vibrated in the air, painfully, like a bad hit with an aluminum bat.

I can never move to Long Island, I thought. And stop getting to class so early.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ditch that

It might have been the best moment of the entire week. Since mid-December I have been rocking to an album called "Love/Hate" by The-Dream, the force behind last year's mega-hits "Umbrella" and "Bed." Despite his irritating moniker and completely unnecessary hyphen, he has come up with the best R&B album I've heard in a really long time. I bought this album almost on a lark and have been completely taken with it. Of the twelve tracks, I love ... eleven of them. The whole album is incredibly unified and coherent -- not to say that the songs all sound the same, but they share many common vocal elements, giving Mr. Dream the chance to play with these pieces in exciting and unexpected ways. The music is fast and hot and sexy and catchy -- it's not morose, it's at a party and having a good time.

So I have been listening to this cd constantly for over a month now, my attention wandering from track to track, trying to pay attention to how the songs leak into each other and why exactly this thing is so strong and nearly perfect. On Thursday night I went to hip hop, not sure what song Russell had picked for the next few weeks, and then he starts playing the track -- Oh no he did not, is what I think, as track number nine, "Ditch That," starts thumping through the speakers. I spend the rest of the class elated, rocking my game face and mouthing the words, but also trying to tone it down so I don't look like a nerd, and then ultimately not caring and letting myself get swept away in the music.

It was that first moment that did it -- recognizing the track immediately and knowing how the rest of the time would be, drowning yourself in this song you already love for the better part of an hour. It was like walking into your own surprise party. It was as good as it can be.

Friday, January 25, 2008

"A Man in a Passion rides a mad Horse"

Today I spent an inordinate amount of time being pissed off at other people. I went up to school to do some work, and in the empty, cavernous reading room two horrible girls chose the seats directly across from me in order to pretend to study, talk -- not whisper -- on their phones and to each other, unpack and chow down on a grossly broad variety of snacks, and (best of all) chew with their mouths open like cows wearing trendy black leggings and Ugg boots. Then on the subway and on the walk home I kept encountering the kinds of people who lumber along the sidewalk yet drift horizontally the entire time, or the people who cross the street and reach your sidewalk in order to cut you off at precisely the worst possible moment. I admit that I am a pretty impatient and obnoxious person in some ways, especially as a pedestrian, but at least I walk I in a straight line with a constant speed. Who are these people, waddling along at weird angles and then darting up ahead? Why can't they get out of my way?

These were the charitable thoughts I was mulling over when I went to Chipotle and pulled out the New Yorker to read about Ben Franklin. In his various writings he compiled a lot of sayings, and made up a bunch himself, and I was surprised at how sharp they were. They were like little arrows of truth piercing my bad mood: their simplicity, humor, veracity and comical 18th-century punctuation and spelling really got to me. It feels good to live in the same moral universe as Ben Franklin, that these ideas still resonate and carry some truth through a few hundred years.

No Gains, without Pains.

He is a Governor that governs his Passions, and he a Servant that serves them.

If you wou'd not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.

A Man in a Passion rides a mad Horse.

Strange! That a Man who has wit enough to write a Satyr; should have folly enough to publish it.

Talking against Religion is unchaining a Tyger.

Force shites upon Reason's back.

And finally:

The Master-piece of Man is to live to the purpose.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

January 20, 2009

A year from today, a new President will be inaugurated, and the page will finally, finally turn. George W. Bush has fewer than 365 days before he shuffles back to Texas to clear brush and ignore history for the rest of his happy, stupidly lucky, star-crosssed life.

But, fortunately for us, we get a new President! Let's rank our preferences, shall we?

8. Romney - Worst possible outcome. Silver lining: he's not really a Republican. Unfortunate personal attribute: When going on a family vacation road trip, he put his dog in a crate, and tied that crate to the top of the car. Instant disqualification.

7. Huckabee - A little too much into the ol' Christianity. Laughable ignorance of foreign affairs. Unfortunate personal attribute: When his grotesque son hanged a dog at Boy Scout Camp. To clarify: he hanged a dog at Boy Scout Camp. That is not something you typically do at Boy Scout camp, or in the general practice of Christianity, in my experience.

6. Giuliani - An ass, but I persist in believing he's too much of a pragmatist to really drink the Republican Kool-Aid. Still, enough with the fear-mongering. Unfortunate personal attribute: shady business dealings with mafia types, offspring who loathe him -- both very bad signs.

5. Thompson - Someone needs to give this poor man permission to stop running for president. He's not enjoying it. You can tell he just wants to go home and try to remember how to deal with his freakishly young children. If he gets bored at home, he could record books on tape, or read to the blind.

4. Edwards - I liked him better in 2000, before he got angry and populist and started yelling about all the heads he cracked in junior high school. Maybe Elizabeth could run instead. Still, he's on the right side of our national argument, this time around.

3. McCain - A very honorable, decent, smart, noble, heroic man. Unfortunate personal attribute: party affiliation. I voted for him in the 2000 Virginia primary and maybe I would do it again. But I don't want to validate W., in any way, by succeeding him with another Republican.

2. Clinton - Smart, competent, detail-oriented, occasionally inspiring, increasingly presidential. Unfortunate personal attribute: Bill. Every time I want to support Hillary, here comes Bill huffing along the campaign trail, turning red as he spews crazy talk, clouds the issue, creates unnecessary new controversies, and ushers in a relapse of Clinton fatigue. Note to Hillary: who's campaign is this, anyway? Put a muzzle on your dude and we'll talk.

1. Obama - Please, Lord, let this be one of those times when idealism and inspiration turns into something real and powerful, and doesn't get flattened like an origami crane on the interstate. Is he the visionary leader of a new era of politics, or Carter/McGovern/the next victim of the GOP's destruction machine? I'll take my chances; I'm sticking to him. Electability is nothing more than faith and action.

Fired up, ready to go.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

New York in peril

Lately I've been spending a lot of my recreation time watching New York get destroyed on film. I'm not sure how this came about, but each weekend seems to bring another scenario in which my city gets attacked, invaded, evacuated, abandoned, burned to a crisp. A few weeks ago I saw "I Am Legend," in which Will Smith is the last human on Manhattan, trying to find a cure to stop the agile, nocturnal zombies who have taken over the island. Last night I saw "Cloverfield," in which a bunch of insufferable twenty-somethings document, Blair Witch-style, the destruction of New York by an unexplained thirty-story tall reptilian monster (complete with skittering monstrous babies), with a little help from the US military.

"Legend" was a lot better than "Cloverfield." "Legend" seemed to take things more seriously, and it was interesting to watch Will navigate a Manhattan that nature had reclaimed. In fact, I enjoyed watching him hunt and forage for food and sustenance in the eerie city a lot more than the conventional zombie blood-fest that the movie ultimately became. "Cloverfield" was pretty bad. The characters were boring and obnoxious, and the camera work was a little too jittery. The monster was interesting, but things were never as scary or thrilling or tense as I hoped they could be. And in the absence of thrills, I was left to focus on the movie's greatest sin: its use and waste of 9/11 iconography.

Early in the movie, we saw a cloud of dust billowing through a narrow canyon of streets; this was followed by the images of people, coated in dust, wandering in a daze. I thought it was galling that the film dared us to recall 9/11, yet didn't ask us to think any further about its actual implications. None of the vapid characters of "Cloverfield" even muttered the word "terrorism" when the destruction began, whereas I think about it every time the lights flicker on the subway. And this gap -- the fact that we were supposed to enjoy this B-movie popcorn flick about the literal destruction of New York, while pretending (suspending our belief in reality) that 9/11 had not happened -- really bothered me.

There is something fun and delicious about imagining catastrophic ends to things. This is why I used to imagine huge fights between me and my friends, or to think of contingency plans for what I would do if I were abducted. The more bizarre the scenario, the better: giant alien monsters knocking down empty, people-less buildings? Translucent zombies sprinting past known landmarks and intersections? Sounds great. Yet the addition of the symbols and markers of 9/11 adds a depth, a realness, that spoils the fun and poisons the well. As fun as it may be for others to dwell in the fantastical depictions of a barren New York, I think I'm finished for a while. The end of New York would require the end of no small part of myself and the people and things that I love.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Back home in the city

I've been back from Armenia for a week, diving into the usual old ways of living, navigating the same old familiar ways around the city. It's been very refreshing to return to a developed-world hotspot like Manhattan, where my biggest gripe is not with chronic unemployment, urban blight, or the oppressive legacy of communism, but rather the fact that sometimes my ipod mixes up album covers and shows the wrong artwork when a song is playing. This really makes me angry, and I'm sure it's equally aggravating to live in a country without infrastructure, or to be a subsistence farmer. I'm sure of it.

Jet lag kicked my ass both going to and returning from Yerevan. After a solid 18 hour journey from Armenia to my apartment, I didn't really sleep that night, and instead took an involuntary nap when I went to see a matinee showing of "Sweeney Todd" by myself the next day. I really liked the movie, and the songs were about as good as musical theater gets, although I wonder if I would have liked it more had I stayed awake through it.

One awesome thing about coming back has been the frenzy of political activity going on here. We woke up early in Armenia to watch the Iowa returns and to see Obama deliver one of the most inspirational speeches I can remember. And everyone has been buzzing over New Hampshire, when Hillary let herself actually be human for a moment and became as real and genuine and admirable and honest (and presidential) as she has ever seemed, and my friend John McCain basically tarred and feathered Mitt Romney, but then proceeded to give the most boring, soporific speech I have ever heard. If I could not stay awake for "Sweeney Todd," McCain's acceptance speech made me pass out directly onto the coffee table, where I lay unconscious for three days until I was reasonably sure he had either shut up or been wheeled away by one of his aides, staring down at his text and muttering about entitlement reform.

I've been devouring all the political commentary I can get, waiting for the newsweeklies to arrive each Monday with pages and pages of analysis, commentary, predictions, schadenfreude and glee, checking the blogs and newspapers incessantly all day to chart the course of whatever debate, scandal, or teapot-tempest has captured the media's attention. This is an exciting time, with so many people engaged in the political process, and so many of us lucky enough to have the chance to participate. With only a moment's hesitation I actually registered as a Democrat so I can vote in the primary here on February 5th. I definitely don't consider myself a Democrat, but I will dress up as Susan B. Anthony to stake my claim in this thing. This is democracy! This is America! And after a couple weeks away in a strange and unsettling place, I love it all more than ever, when I can actually stay awake for it.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Armenia journal: January 5-6

Dateline: New York. I made it back. Of course, there was a price to be paid: 36 mostly sleepless hours, leading me to my present nearly-catatonic state, and the fact that L is still half a planet away, since her own trek home from Yerevan isn't until Thursday. But, despite the fatigue and exhaustion, I will add the final notes from the trip, buoyed as I am by the bright cozy decadence of American culture.

1/5. Snowed all day. Thin rainy particles in the morning gave way to fatter, swiftly falling snowflakes later on. I estimate at least 4 inches, maybe 6, as I trudged back and forth to the laundry room for one last emergency load. We wrapped up "Big Love" and I began reading Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass." We set out for a walk in the afternoon to the neighborhood store: returning empty Kilikia beer bottles for a deposit (it tasted good at first, Rolling Rock-esque, until an unpleasant aftertaste settled on your tongue) and picking up some other goods. Walked through tire tracks and along drifting snowbanks by the side of the road. A pack of 5 or 6 stray dogs was bounding through the snow, leaping happily and wrestling with each other. As we walked, that stray puppy we had seen several days earlier -- the dog I wanted to take home -- started following us again! He looked happy, too. I was happy for him, I guess, and the life he made among the houses and the dirt and the rubble. Something was working.

Armenian Christmas was the next day, Sunday, so we went to a big holiday dinner at a restaurant for the Peace Corps staff. One of the most endearing attributes of the Armenian people is their ability to punctuate any meal with a series of lusty, heartfelt, generous toasts. As the dinner progressed we toasted the volunteers, the Armenian and American peoples, our families, our mothers, our sisters, our children who don't exist yet. Being a sentimental fool myself I was touched by the way these great burly Armenian men spoke of the virtues of love and family, of their hopes for the new year, of the goodness of God and the great providence that united us all there. The dinner itself was delicious: the usual spread of meats, cheeses, pickled vegetables, lavash, etc, along with two kinds of trout, the traditional Christmas eve meal. And this trout was delicious, falling off the bone and tasting clean and fresh. I ate my portion so quickly the waiter returned and brought me another chunk, including the head. This was unnecessary. I would also note that I drank vodka, again, according to the old precept, "when in Yerevan, do as the Armenian men do." Every time I took a swig of it, causing my cheeks to pinch up and my whole body to shudder, I would look at L and point angrily at myself and scowl and mouth the words, "I'm a man," to make clear she knew it.

1/6. Still snowy and wintry. Finally saw a first glimpse of Ararat as we drove to the airport. The flights home were long, and tedious. The first flight, to Paris, was overrun with hateful French children who loitered and pushed on chairs and annoyed me. I tried to give them dirty looks strong enough to influence their behavior, but not so strong that they would tell on me. I spent an hour in the Paris airport seeking out The New Yorker, to no avail; I settled for The Economist and didn't care for it. The flight to JFK was uneventful, but an exercise in patience and an example that maybe I really am growing up, since being trapped in that tiny cabin with the boorish fat Americans and the rude brittle French people made me want to throw a tantrum.

And now I'm home, not sleeping, expecting the light switches to be Armenian and whispering "excuse me" in pidgin French in the hallways at law school. I look forward to mulling over this trip for a few days. Armenia is a more complicated and tragic and beautiful place than I could have thought.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Armenia journal: January 3-4

1/3. A decadently lazy day. We stayed home all day, protected from the cold and the snow, and read books and watched "Big Love" on DVD. During the day the only time we went outside was to walk around the back of the house to the cellar to do laundry. To walk outside in jeans and longjohns and a sweater, boots loosely tied up as you slide and mince along the patio and the pathway to the laundry room, quickly gauging the snowfall and the cloudy gray oblivion of the sky as you go, and knowing there's a nice warm house and a cold Coke waiting inside for you -- it felt like the best of winter. We eventually geared up to walk to a restaurant in town, Cactus, the only Mexican place in Yerevan, for dinner. The Nepali host greeted us with a "Namaste" at the door. We had really good margaritas and mexican fare as the fashion tv network blasted at us from the wall -- the models strutting around in bikinis would not be ignored. It was nice to walk through the city at night, and to feel like I'm starting to get my bearings a bit. Everyone here is dressed in all black outside, fur coats are de rigeuer for the women, along with spiky stilettos; in our baggy winter coats and hiking boots we looked like granola-crunchy hippies from a completely unimaginable world.

1/4. Another wonderful, ridiculous day of idleness. To our credit we did leave the house to venture out for some food -- we walked through the light snowfall to a couple of grocery stores to pick up cheese and salami for lunch, as well as lavash (bread) and some other items. At one grocery store the employees wore garish orange blazers. We passed a street of very nice and well-tended houses, which was a stark change from what we usually see as we meander into the city.

Also, finished Crime and Punishment. Good but not as mind-blowing as I hoped. Got lost in some of the philosophy. Still left with embarrassingly basic questions like, "Why did he do it again?" "Why did he confess?" "What am I supposed to glean from this whole thing, really?" I see how this book could persuade or dissuade someone on the verge of criminality; as a law-abiding citizen who plans to keep it that way, I didn't feel like I gained a lot there. Except maybe if I am mugged I'll have more empathy for my assailant, if that's even something I should want in the first place.

Also, L woke me up early to check out the Iowa caucus results. Shocked and overjoyed to find my man Obama with a decisive victory. Surprised Hillary was way back in 3rd, but Edwards won't last. Happy that Huckabee came in first, too, since that's bad news for my mortal enemy, the plastic automaton Mitt Romney. And of course don't forget Rudy lurking in the shadows, with his mafioso associates and children who hate him. I'd really like to see McCain get the nod, and he's looking great for New Hampshire, although he's competing for the same moderates as Obama. Also, Obama's speech this morning was amazing and inspiring. I want him to be our president.

Patriotism, from half a planet away! David Brooks summed it up best -- it's an exciting day to be an American.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Armenia journal: January 2

1/2. Woke up for a last morning in Goris. Before we drove back, L and I wandered through the village in search of Cokes and snacks for the road. Most shops were closed for the holiday, but we entered several of them to see what they had. We always said hello in Armenian (betev zez), and the shopkeepers were usually stone-faced middle-aged men who could not care less about us. It was amazing to walk into a store and see the shopkeeper scowling at you with a look of such boredom, even before he could register who we were. Once they know we're Americans (amerigatsi), of course they will loathe us; these guys loathed us even before we clanked into their grim little shops. Ultimately we found the main drag of town and bought some sweetbreads and these coconut cakes from some nicer shopkeeper women. They seemed happier to see us, charmed by our efforts to say happy new year. Most of the stores also had an attendant little kid whose job it was to run errands and stare at us.

The most notable things about the ride back: the driver, Armen, had a lead foot, leading to a much choppier and bumpier ride; we saw several vehicles at the side of the road for maintenance, whose passengers would stare at our car and turn their heads as we passed; and we passed through a mountain range blanketed in snow -- at times all you could see were the rolling mountains meeting the sky, all of it the same blinding white color; no tracks or signs of life besides the narrow ribbon of road and the latticed metal structures holding up the power lines. But even then, your perspective was so skewed by the unceasing whiteness of the whole field of vision that these structures almost seemed randomly scattered throughout the landscape, rickety little towers stuck here and there among the plump white snow. It was amazing -- it seemed like a myth.

Went to a colleague's house for dinner. The cabbie on the way there was extremely sour and unpleasant; as we entered the car he yelled at us about slamming the doors, before any doors had even been closed. Midway through the ride he pulled the car over to the wrong side of the road, got out, walked over to a trashcan and hunched over it for a few minutes -- I don't know what he was doing. At first I was intimidated by his inexplicable rage, but then I just got irritated with it. "What's up your butt, Armenia?" is a motto of this trip.

Went to Vahogan's house for dinner. Wife Marina, son David, mother-in-law, two friends (including most attractive Armenian woman ever seen). An amazing spread: pickles, pickled beets, hot dolma (ground beef wrapped in cabbage), vegetarian dolma, meat patties, blintzes, bread, nuts, cheese, chicken salad, etc. Our host offered many beverages but Lee's words from earlier in the day ("the women drink wine, men drink vodka") came back to haunt me, so as I write this I'm feeling a little gross, after the main beverage of my meal turned out to Followed by Armenian cognac, which was smooth and delicious and like hot tar in my throat. Our host made many generous and heartfelt toasts about his hopes for the new year, Armenian culture and history, his hopes for our visit and future stays in country, etc. Except one toast was overrun when his lovely and fun wife started up karaoke on their DVD player. We Americans sang "Satisfaction," "Love Me Do," "Killing Me Softly," and others. A very fun night.

Maybe that's where Armenia is right now, in a lot of ways: someone offering an expansive toast on the history and culture of the great nation, while at the same time someone is cranking up the karaoke to sing some old western pop hits.

Armenia journal: December 31 - January 1

12/31. Woke up and embarked on a four-hour drive to Goris, a village in the southern part of the country. We drove through the mountains, and Mt. Ararat (the legendary landing site of Noah's Ark, which everyone around here treats with the same historical certainty and accuracy as I do the Civil War) should have been visible to the south for large portions of the trip, yet it was not due to that signature Armenian cloudiness. As we left Yerevan the city gave way to stubby fields, covered with something like permafrost, like a winter desert dusted with snow. We were driving through many many vineyards, and for one stretch there was a series of small stands covered in blue tarps where they sold the local wines in two-liter soda bottles. Momentary lust for a Coke. Ultimately the road took us high into snowy mountains, where there were no signs of life, just thick blankets of snow covering the peaks and valleys, along with some powerlines running alongside us.

Took a detour to Norovank monastery -- drove into a narrow canyon that gave way to this stone monastery built on some higher cliffs. The buildings (two small churches, some other structures) were made of the same tan rock as the cliffs themselves; rose organically upwards. One church was two stories high; the bottom story was locked off, but there were two odd, narrow stairways rising along the front, around the door, creating a triangle where the steps met 20 or 30 feet up. "Are you going to climb the step?" This had never occurred to me; Henry darted up so naturally I had to as well, brushing the sand off with my hand and edging upwards along the narrow stairway. Concerned about falling and breaking bones. At the top my hands were soaked and brown from dusting off the snow; inside was an open, empty sanctuary. Very beautiful. Made it down without incident. Norovank = new church; noro = new.

Ultimately we arrived at Goris: a town, larger than I expected, filling a narrow valley in the mountains. An odd place for a town, I thought; it seemed like the sunlight would be very limited (in fact, sun rises and sets later here). All the buildings in the city are made of the stone, and look somewhat uniform (and perhaps German-style, we heard). For once, the balance seemed to tip in favor of "European," rather than "Soviet." The city was laid out in a regular grid pattern, all the buildings were two stories and many had drain pipes sticking out into the street or path from the second story. Deep open gutters ran along the streets and shunted water off to a rushing creek a block over from the hotel. The hills surrounding the city were marked with dramatic stone pillars, jutting up from the earth like angry canine teeth.

Stayed at Hotel Goris, a regular Peace Corps haunt (I think). Great shower, very comfortable, furniture from Ikea. We had satellite tv and caught many interesting channels, including Arab Sex Club and Arab Girls TV. How the hell do you explain that?

Spaghetti bolognese for dinner. Champagne and scrabble to ring in the new year (32 points for "Zen"); asleep before midnight. To think a year ago we were in the cardiac ICU in Honolulu; this year we were tucked in a small village in Armenia. I don't dare predict where we'll be next new year's, but to be in a predictable location may be nice.

1/1. Breakfast at the hotel: rolls, apple jelly, that wretched salty cheese (Lori). Took a cab on an hour-long drive to Tatev, a monastery and village. Two felt Santas hung by the corners of the windshield in the cab; a cross and small plastic doll of a girl (Santa's granddaughter?) hung from the rearview. The driver blasted Armenian pop as we all bounced around in the back. He was not super friendly. We drove along treacherous mountain roads, snowy and icy, and I reminded myself of the driver's assumed expertise in these conditions. No seatbelts, of course; I considered how this would be a bad way to die. I thought of how runners write their phone numbers on their shoes in case something happens to them. Sometimes I would close my eyes and pretend I was a hostage.

Tatev monastery: looked like a fort. Fortified walls, rooms and nooks and crannies and passageways. Dramatic and medieval, fun like a playground to roam and explore. Walked up to the tops of the walls, looked at the amazing view of the snowy mountainsides all around us. In the sanctuary we could hear someone chanting. There was a crane by the sanctuary, but it's left over from Soviet times; many churches have cranes still attached to them, relics of a time before the works in progress ground to a halt.

We went to pick up a Volunteer to take back to Goris, for a festive dinner that night in our hotel with several volunteers. She met us as we drove to the village, picking along the road with a young local kid. We drove back to her host family's house and went inside, past stalls for cows and a horse and chickens. Inside was the mother, daughter, and grandmother (Tatik) a massive woman with a leathery, warm face and a bit of a moustache and goatee. In the room, there was an old-fashioned stove; an oblong Christmas tree (seemed like a hunk of a branch of something) with lights and tinsel; a recent TV; walls covered with traditional and musty wallpaper. There was a table covered in a New Year's feast: meats, nutes, dolma, drinks, etc. We had some cups of bitter black coffee (I downed all of it) as we communicated through smiles and the translations of the peace corps volunteer. Even the cabbie came in and enjoyed some coffee and refreshments -- I think his name was Sevan. There were all friendly and incredibly warm; it made me want to be a volunteer. As we left a chicken stormed L and me and whapped me in the leg as it fluttered past. Yes = ha, so you would see people nodding and saying very seriously, "ha, ha, ha." No = che, like the revolutionary.

Later that night a handful of other volunteers met at the hotel for dinner, board games, puzzles, and cake, courtesy of Lee. They came from the neighboring villages that speckled the mountain valleys. They chattered away and seemed to devour each other's company; it must be lonely out here. I was impressed with their language skills, although they also seemed so, so young. Fresh out of college, and living in a village an hour away from a small village four hours away from the capital of Armenia. What? I admired their courage, or bravado or whatever made them dive into such a daunting experience.