Archive for September, 2011

This Lucky Life

September 28, 2011

Okay, not only was I born to a great family in a great situation in one of the greatest countries in the world. I was lucky enough to be born in 1986. This birth year afforded me many luxuries unbeknownst to mankind since the dawn of existence. Modern medicine, the discovery of vitamin C, and manifest destiny be damned. I’m talking about getting to grow up with Super Mario, The Internet (it really should be a proper noun, no?), and Jon Stewart. And all of these things were somehow perfectly timed so that I was the perfect ripe age to enjoy each to its fullest. But that’s not all.

I have been a very blessed sports fan throughout my life. Michael Jordan was the hero of my childhood. When we had eaten dinner, done the homework, and nothing else stood in our way, the question wasn’t, “What should we do now?” but “Who are the Bulls destroying tonight?” Watching him nearly nightly for the better part of my childhood was a sports dream. As I grew older I always thought, “Wow, that was great to watch him – but maybe I was too young to appreciate it.” The funny thing is, I kept thinking that until tonight, when I realized that I have been watching baseball’s Michael Jordan for 10 years now.

No, not the crappy Michael Jordan playing for the Chicago White Sox’s minor league affiliate. I mean Albert Pujols.

As I child I hated baseball. Boring and stupid. But then Mark McGwire happened. His forearms were too big not to be a fan. The homeruns. The records. The Cardinals! Now, I feel a bit guilty about him being the bait that got me hooked on baseball, but whatever man. I also started skateboarding because of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, but that won’t be written on my tombstone. As Mark McGwire’s character on the Simpsons once said, “Do you want to hear the truth (about steroids in baseball) or see me sock some dingers?” Of course we want to see the dingers socked and will willingly turn a blind eye to the rest. The best thing about McGwire is he cemented my love for the Cardinals, which gave me just enough time to be there before Albert came on board.

I remember his first season. It was just too good to be true that a rookie could make such a huge impact for a full season. It was like they got this super-veteran sent to them in a 21 year old’s body. Then I remember each subsequent season, thinking, “There’s no way he can do it again…”

Around the time I went to college in 2004 it was just assumed that he was going to produce .300/30/100 for the rest of my life. It was magical. You knew you were watching greatness in its purest form. It was beautiful, inspiring, and pure joy.

There are so many memories with him. I will never forget him temporarily erasing Brad Lidge’s career with the most monstrous homerun in playoff history. Who cares that the Cards lost that series – the moment will live forever. At times for me it was more about Albert than it was about the team.

2006 brought a World Series victory while I was studying in the heart of St. Louis. The mayhem that ensued, on a night when I was decked out as MAD TV’s Marvin Tikvah was one of the best nights of my life. It felt like many more rings were on the way.

Although that hasn’t happened, it doesn’t even matter. Yes, the Cards are in the midst of a historic comeback run to get into the playoffs (reminiscent of their shenanigans prior to the 2006 playoffs). And they have been competitive almost every year they’ve had Albert. That’s why it has been so much fun to watch them year in and year out. But most of all, because of him.

And now I am sitting here wondering where my adult hero is going to go next year. Tomorrow could be his last game for the Cardinals. If that’s the case I will be sad for sure. It will break my heart to see him in another uniform. But at the same time, I know his career will always belong to the Cardinals. Perhaps his best years are behind him now (although that’s not saying much considering his astronomical production). Just like when Mike made the mistake of coming back after hitting the game winning shot to win his 6th championship and was fat and slow on the Wizards – I will probably block from memory any epilogue to his Cardinals chapters.

So I want to take my audience hostage for one entry and dedicate this to a guy who has made me smile so many times in the past 10 years.

A mancrush for the ages

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Creations of Necessity

September 25, 2011

Living in a world where you don’t have everything is actually kinda nice. It forces you to be creative at times. I lived without a fridge this summer and somehow I am still alive. I buy only what I need/will use and eat leftovers promptly. When the gas, water, or electricity goes out I just adjust my life accordingly (cold meals/no bathing, use stored water/use the aghbyur [spring] outside, and candles). There is no Target in Vardenis. Thus, for some of my household needs I have reverted back to my childhood building skills, when I used to make little cities out of blocks or shoe boxes.

Here are some of my creations:

Bathroom Shelf

Sent with love from my mom, this USPS Flat Rate Box was turned into a handy bathroom shelf, also with love. Now my glasses and contact lenses have a precarious place to rest during their downtime. When it gets droopy in the middle I just flip it over. And cleaning is a cinch – just pull it out and flap it vigorously! Best of all, it’s only fallen down twice, a way better rate than any fancy shelf you’ll find back home.

Not ideal, but neither is a soviet bloc apartment

Hyut Incense Holder

My daily hyut (juice) habit and some leftover incense from Aga led to my very own Apple Juice-themed incense holder. Just pop your incense into the hole and hope it fits. If not, make another hole with ease. No need to buy some hippie wood-carved incense holder when you have a nice collection of Hj8 cartons at your disposal.

Incense: A great alternative to BO

Gerkules Dustpan

And now, introducing my latest creation: The Gerkules (Oatmeal) Dustpan. Worthy of Russia’s finest oats, and now my dead skin cells and hair, this little guy makes sweeping fun. No longer am I forced to use toilet paper to try to scoop up that pile of dust. I simply sweep it into the Gerkules Dustpan and go about my day worry free. And yes, it works just as well as any plastic dustpan you can find in the States. It even leaves that fine little line of debris that is impossible to sweep into the dustpan so you just sweep it into the corner and wonder if you are a bad person for doing that.

I love you Gerkules

I often get odd looks from other PCVs when I tell them that my bank account balance is not hovering near 0. In fact, it has quite a few zeros due to something I call SAVING. I get odd looks from Armenians when I tell them I live alone. Yes, I cook, clean, do laundry, and even wipe my own butt. I know it’s all hard to believe but it is possible! Creations like these help me do it and have fun in the process.

Happy Independence Day Armenia

September 22, 2011

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Armenian independence from the USSR.

Now, American Independence Day is arguably one of our best holidays. The Armenians don’t do it up quite like we do, perhaps because it’s hard to fathom a celebration of such magnificence, but they do partake in their own interesting customs.

Locally, there was a gathering in the town park. The park, which is usually empty save for a few old guys on a bench or the old lady operating the soviet-era carousel ride, was bustling with everyone in town on hand. There was the handicapped guy, the cool Irish-beard guy, the kid that always cries at the YMCA, the director of another NGO in town that loathes me for not coming to help them, the mayor, and more. There were a string of performances by students of the sports school, music school, and some sort of youth Army club. We stood there, the 3 Americans, and weathered the initial storm of attention. I served as a beacon for any teenager who spoke English, standing a good foot above the rest of the crowd. You could feel a nice energy and busyness to the town which is usually lacking. I realized that they are probably starved for community events like this one. Later there were fireworks. They lasted only a matter of seconds, which makes complete sense. But it felt like nothing! A reminder that America is the land of plenty.

Nationally, the focus was all on Yerevan. The center was shut down for days to prepare and practice a large parade in Republic Square. I didn’t get to see the parade on TV, but I did see pictures online. I am still a bit shocked at the makeup of the parade. When I think of parades, I think of homemade floats carrying random groups of people in costumes, pleading for a candy throw, admiring the Shriners’ funny cars, covering my ears as the fire engine blasts its horn, and waving at friendly police officers. And later in life parades meant playing trombone while marching in formation, doing the same song over and over. I never associated parades with the military.

The Ballistic Missiles that keep me safe (Photo: ArmeniaNow)

In Armenia apparently a parade is meant for the military. Maybe that’s how parades originated. Regardless, it is odd for me to see these pictures of massive military vehicles being shown-off. There was nothing but soliders and vehicles (besides a small group of marching priests). There was even a Russian troop in the parade. One “military expert” wrote an article and claimed that the parade was not a show of force. He compared the showing to Azerbaijan’s parades, which ARE a measuring stick. But the Armenian parade was just, “Meh, let’s put 4,000 soldiers and 3,000 armored vehicles on display for fun – not to show our military strength.”

I’m sure there is something cultural to pick out of the way they did their big parade. The military has played a large role in protecting Armenia and keeping it independent these last 20 crazy years. And I know they are proud of what they have. As a small nation, there is probably a need to reassure the public that, “Hey, we can kick some ass if needed.” But it also seems a bit odd to me that they are giving this huge show of military strength while trying to work out a peaceful solution with Azerbaijan. Besides that, I feel there is a lot more here to celebrate than just the military. Their musicians, artists, actors, dancers, singers, accomplished athletes, kids, NGOs, and famous people were left out of a parade that could have been a lot cooler and a whole lot less serious.

Anyway, I’m sure there is something cultural that I’m just missing. The Independence Day was interesting. It made me thankful for our own and the way we celebrate it (gotta be the best in the world). For a people that are thousands of years old to be celebrating their 20th anniversary as a new country was also fascinating. Many people I know have lived through the transition to independence, which breathes life and meaning into a holiday that we often take for granted.

The Visit

September 20, 2011

Dear Readers,

I am not dead. Apologies for my tardiness.

It’s now been over a week since my family left Armenia (it feels like longer). The visit still hasn’t been fully absorbed yet. Kind of like when you pour a bunch of water on cracked dry earth and the puddle takes a while to soak in.

There is a lot I can say about this visit, but I’m not going to bore you with all the extreme details of what we ate, who got mad at who, and when we had our bowel movements. Instead, I will give you the rough overview of what we did and then try to offer some reflection on this oh so very rare occurrence.

Sunday, Sept 4: Go to Yerevan so that I can be at the airport when they arrive. Frugalness win of the day: Refusing the hotel’s 9,000 AMD airport service and finding a local marshrutka going to the airport for a cool 200 AMD. That’s $25 versus $.50 people! Did I mention I am a poor volunteer??

Monday, Sept 5: Meet family at airport at 1 am. As the only Anglo in a sea of Armenians at the arrivals gate, I felt, well…at home. We catch up and go to sleep around 4. Wake up and do Yerevan, including Cascade, Opera, Blue Mosque, Covered Market, Café, Restaurants, and more.

Tuesday, Sept 6: More of the same. Genocide Museum and Memorial, Peace Corps Office, Noy Brandy Factory Tour, restaurants, cafes, etc.

Peace Corps Office

Wednesday, Sept 7: We leave for Vardenis. Arrive in Vardenis in early afternoon and proceed to knock out an unprecedented amount of stuff. Seriously, we did more in 1 day than I do in some months. Visit the Y, drink coffee, picture time, meet super Sako at the posht (post office), invade the lavash factory, go to local stores to meet my shop owners, church, cemetery, haircut for Dad, khachkar (cross stone) lessons and more coffee, dinner at my house, and finally, 2nd dinner at my friend Anna’s house.

$3 haircut by Laura's host bro

Thursday, Sept 8: Another day bursting at the seams with accomplishments. Vardenis State College, meet my language teacher, Vardenis market, Noradus, Hayravank, several hours in Solak with my host family, then finally arrive at our hotel. Drink beer while observing European tourist group behavior as the sun sets over Sevan behind us.

Hayravank all to ourselves

Friday, Sept 9: A well-deserved day of nothing. Get burned on the beach, bad. Make a note to future self that 15 months without being shirtless outdoors and an intense 2,000 meter altitude sun for several hours is like one of those Gary Larson “Trouble Brewing” Far Side strips.

I found the perfect place to stage my Napoleon Dynamite wedding

Saturday, Sept 10: Back to Yerevan. Vernissage, café, people watching, dinner, and more people watching.

Sunday, Sept 11: Wake up in the middle of the night to say goodbye.

As you can see, it was a fast week for us. Since we did so many things and traveled to several places, we barely had time to catch our breath. Add to that their jet lag, being in a foreign environment, and my tour guide duties, and you get a very tired group of Crookshanks.

So, I’ll start the reflection by answering the questions that, without fail, every Armenian asks me.
Did they like Armenia? Yes
Will they come back? No
And the statement that follows these questions without fail:
You have a very beautiful family.

What did it mean for them? I think that they all had an interesting experience. They got to see a foreign country through the lens of a resident. For their first overseas plunge they visited not a Western European magnet, but rather an ancient, often forgotten land wedged between Europe and Asia. They were able to see a very cosmopolitan capital city and contrast that with the stark countryside. Most importantly, they were able to meet and interact with locals on a level that tourism seldom allows. My parents both said that being invited into people’s homes was one of the most powerful parts of the trip.

Of course they are still processing the experience, as am I. When I go home in November I’m sure we’ll be able to piece it together with each other’s help. Like I said before, there was so much, so fast, that you need some time to make sense of it. I’m sure different things stood out to each of them; it will be interesting for me to hear which.

What did it mean for me? First of all, this trip was an often-used flotation advice in the pool of mental health during the first 15 months. Even if they suddenly did not come 1 day before their scheduled arrival, the trip would have served a purpose. Just the mere idea of seeing them in Armenia got me through some lonely days and long marshrutka rides. When I actually saw them, it meant a lot that they would come all this way, to use up a trip to Europe for Armenia and for me. It was a breath of fresh air, something to look forward to, something to enjoy, and something to recharge me in a sense.

As surreal as it was to have them in Armenia, being with your family is like putting on a pair of worn-in sneakers. You know that they are yours, they fit, maybe they aren’t perfect and neither are you, and you know that if you step in a puddle there is that one spot where water will leak in on the left sole, so maybe you get a little soggy and uncomfortable, but you still choose to wear them because you love those shoes.

In that sense it was like 15 months had not really passed. But in another sense, it was very apparent to me.

As one of my PCV friends put it, it must be weird to have your America come to Armenia. And it was. Sure, I went through all of the adjustment to Armenia. It was hard. It’s a different place. I know that and didn’t expect my family to understand anything that was going on. But to actually deal with it, to hear an American color commentary on everything that is going on, was a bit exhausting. It’s not because it was my family. It was because they are non-PCV Americans in Armenia, which I had never really dealt with before.

That part of the trip surprised me the most. I didn’t really feel like myself. And maybe that was the realization that I’m not the same guy who left America. I knew I wouldn’t be, but this was the first slap in the face in that regard. There are many more slaps to come. I am not Armenian and never will be, but sometimes I do feel it a bit.

So, the trip was a success. I am extremely glad that they came here and were able to see my life. Thanks guys, I love you.

Greetings from Vardenis!