Sociological Observations of a Chronic Migraine Sufferer: Pain, Stigma and Superpowers

When I was a child, I wished for one superpower. Magically and instantaneously, I would be able to make other individuals experience my migraine. Just for, like, five minutes — and then I would take it right back, promise! I was sure that those five minutes would give anyone a sufficient taste of what hellfire inside one’s brain and eyeballs feels like, so that they would never, EVER be cruel to people with migraines again.

I made a stern oath to myself that I would not abuse my power and only unleash it on meanies who actively taunted others in pain and needed a lesson in compassion. Granted, that was a lot of people… But it would be a win-win for all involved: my targets would benefit from the humbling experience of learning what real pain felt like and I would get a tiny bit of satisfaction in seeing empathy advance in the world. Also, presumably, those people would stop bullying me over my migraines and let me suffer in peace. Those were my fantasies in grade school.

Alas, despite wishing super extra hard, I never manifested the ability to will others to learn compassion (this dream went out the window right alongside my childhood conviction that learning to fly is only a matter of practice…)

As an adult consolation prize of sorts, I did develop the much less miraculous skill to critically analyze and discuss migraines as a sociological phenomenon. That is: to see migraines not just as my personal hell but as a serious medical condition afflicting many, many others that is overlooked by social policy, understudied in pharmaceutical research and given a bad reputation in public opinion.

As such, it has become plainly obvious to me that the social hostility and lack of support surrounding migraines is more pervasive and more debilitating than most people realize. Anyone suffering from chronic migraines will tell you that, in addition to the punishing physical agony, there is also the crushing indignity of having to convince others that it is, indeed, real pain and it does, actually, hurt real bad.

So, I want to talk about migraine stigma. But not just as a victim of it. Between bearing the actual pain and facing endless scrutiny and ridicule about it, migraine sufferers pick up advanced physical and mental sensibilities and coping skills they might not even be aware of — and this needs to be acknowledged.

To contextualize my personal experiences, I asked Dr. Joanna Kempner, the author of Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health (Public Library), a major authority on the sociology of migraines and a fellow migraine sufferer herself, to comment on my observations and to fill in the socio-historical gaps.

Observation #1: Social Stigma toward Migraines Adds Huge Insult to Injury

I developed migraines at the age of five and, despite my best efforts, they have been with me ever since. I have a very intense memory of my first migraine too. It was at a summer rental at the countryside, where I stayed with my Grandma and Mom. I remember being overcome by crippling pain but it was so new and overwhelming that I could not pinpoint or articulate its location at all. I recall my Mom looking very worried gently shaking me by the shoulders, repeatedly asking what’s wrong. I didn’t know. My entire being was engulfed in a kind of agony I didn’t have words for. I just kept screaming “My soul hurts!!!!! My soul is on fire!!!!” over and over to the complete shock and confusion of the adults.

Months later, with the help of sympathetic doctors, my condition was diagnosed as migraines. I was extremely fortunate that, from the start, my immediate family were very supportive and did all they could to help and comfort me. But the rest of society was not understanding in the slightest. And I am not just talking about school bullying, which was substantial and came not only from students but from teachers as well…

In the Soviet Union where I spent my childhood, there existed a pervasive belief that migraines are the imagined disease of the disgraced aristocracy. The proletarian folk wisdom held it that fancy nobility invented and faked migraines in order to lie around, do nothing, get out of confrontations and just be melodramatic about themselves. There was even a little rhyme about it in Russian, “Мигрень — работать лень,” which translates to “Migraine: too lazy to work”. I heard this little ditty more than a few times before I was old enough to even know what “work” means. I still vividly recall the sweaty pig-like face of a far-removed adult relative gleefully chanting those words in my face. I just kept on massaging my temples and pictured my superpower kicking in right about now.

When I told Dr. Kempner of this experience, she wistfully reassured me that the United States has a similar history of connecting migraines with the truancy of the privileged classes. Since the 18th century, migraines have been associated with the intelligencia and with upper-class people who use their mind too much,” she told me, “And people who have sensitive nervous systems.”

Isn’t it interesting that migraines is one of those health disorders that people link with specific “personality trait” stereotypes? Migraines have been, basically, seen as the “lifestyle disorder” of “bluebloods” and “eggheads”, i.e. highly privileged individuals with weak nervous constitutions who could afford this whole “taking the day off to curl up in a dark quiet room with a migraine” shtick. A simple online search for “athletes with migraines” ought to dispel these stereotypes in a pinch.

But the migraine stigma does not stop at the misguided conflation of psychological and socio-economic myths. It goes on to sexist delegitimation. Human females are afflicted by migraines disproportionately more than males, making up approximately three quarters of the migraine-affected population. And, historically, women’s aches and pains have been given lower priority compared with male-centered medical conditions. Just as the “mysteries” of feminine pleasure go “unsolved” while erectile dysfunction gets all the attention, funding and insurance coverage, so have women’s ailments been historically under-researched, misdiagnosed and half-treated.

So, it is “on brand”, so to speak, that women’s complaints and descriptions of their brutal migraine symptoms have been questioned and re-interpreted by the medical community and dismissed by regular folks. In my experience, patriarchal reasoning behind the delegitimation of migraines in women goes along the lines of:

  • Women are dramatic about everything, so why not ignore migraines along with all their other overblown imaginary problems? (Amirite ladies?)
  • Women are ‘designed’ for pain (because childbirth!) so, you know, tough nooogies, God’s will, deal with it. And since they have to suffer anyways, they should make sure to do it lady-like: modestly and discretely. Actually, make that silently.

Dr. Kempner’s research shows that sexism plays a large part in the stigma toward migraines, as male migraine sufferers have been socially ascribed much more favorable character stereotypes than their female counterparts:

“For a long time, for men, [migraine] was associated with people who work too hard and are stressed. But for women, when they have migraines, the discussion was different. Women who had migraines were thought to be using their minds — but using their minds wrongly. Women were thought to have a lower capacity to use their minds and were [considered] more prone to things like hysteria and so forth.

By the mid-20th century, any physiological explanation of the migraine has disappeared. And, in its stead, what we got was a very strong argument that migraine was associated with personality characteristics. Men and women with migraines were thought to have a type-A personality. For men, it was all about being a very hard worker who never took breaks and who stressed a lot about being the breadwinner. And for women in the 1950’s it was about worrying too much about being a homemaker.”

To spell out the double standard: a man’s [paid] work stress was serious business, therefore the migraines brought on by that stress were accepted as serious business; in contrast, a woman’s [unpaid] housewife duties were considered uncomplicated and manageable, so any stress she incurred in life was seen as easily fixable and probably preventable in the first place. That is, if she didn’t worry her pretty little head so much over silly and inconsequential housewife crap.

“And you can see that reflected in some of the old pharmaceutical advertisements about migraines, where you always have these white women who are really well-dressed and their make-up is perfect and they look like they are from an upper-middle class family; and when they are in pain, they are usually depicted as not being able to take care of their children or not being able to do their white-collar work. And when they take a pill, the pain magically goes away and they can return to whatever nurturing position it is they are supposed to go back to, or they can return to their heterosexual partner. It’s a really common trope in headache advertisements.”

headache pill advertisement woman concerned with household duties

Anacin Ad: 1968 Ted Bates Agency © Whitehall Laboratories

To put it in modern terms: migraines are socially perceived as a “first world problem” affecting “one-percenter” types. For the amount of annoyed eyerolls you get for complaining about migraine pain, you might as well pen an angry editorial in the New York Post lamenting the lack of same-day Keurig pod delivery. Being viewed as a “hysterical female” compounds the problem of not being taken seriously exponentially. The general attitude, as the following medicine ad suggests, has been: just take a pill already and quit playing the victim!

Thomas Beecham’s [laxative] Pills ad from 1893

Additionally, Dr. Kempner says, migraines have made their way into popular humor: “It’s like a punchline to a joke: it’s all about avoidance of sex, avoidance of duties. And so, it’s really easy not to take migraine seriously. It’s really easy, even though we have all kinds of evidence that migraine is neurobiological, genetic and, for all intents and purposes, real.”

Speaking of medical science… Migraine studies only picked up when pharmaceutical companies realized that major moolah can be squeezed out of the sufferers. But, as far as I’m concerned, that did not so much precipitate medical gender equality as it brought on aggressive drug ads hounding us through multiple media platforms (I’ve been getting the sense that if I don’t give in to Botox soon, it might jump me in a dark alley…)

When it comes to the advancement of the medical understanding of migraines, Dr. Kempner calls the pharmaceutical industry a “mixed blessing”. She notes that the National Institute of Health (NIH) systematically under-funds migraine research relative to its burden with a mere $20 million allocation, while the pharmaceutical industry invests significantly more than that into migraine studies. But then, pharmaceutical funding is much less transparent and trackable than federal funding and is primarily beholden to corporate interests. And that means that patients are not the top priority.

“[This is] because the pharmaceutical industry is in the business of creating novel drugs, not necessarily in the business of expanding access to more populations,” explains Dr. Kempner, “And one of the things that we know about headache medicine is that many patients are grossly under-served.” At the end of the day, according to Dr. Kempner, only 4.5 percent (!!!) of patients with chronic migraines are receiving appropriate treatment. And, in critical studies 50 percent of patients treated see up to 50 percent reduction in their chronic migraines.  In other words, the absolute best case scenario for migraine patients for the time being is to cut their episodes down by half — and to continue living with the other half. That’s the abysmal “gold standard” of migraine treatment success, as Dr. Kempner mournfully put it.

“So what’s the hold up???” I asked, grinding my teeth in frustration. Part of the problem, Dr. Kempner suggests, is that migraine education for physicians is poor and that migraine is a very low-status diagnosis because the federal funding is minimal. Simply put, there is not a lot of money in headache medicine.

But it’s not all about the dividends. “It has a lot to do with stigma associated with headache patients,” says Dr. Kempner, “Physicians don’t want to treat headache patients. I have heard so many doctors tell me that people with migraine were whiny and neurotic. [They say:] ‘They never die, they just pile up in your office and you can’t give them anything to treat them.'”

Ouch!! How hypocritically un-Hippocratic.

I hadn’t thought about it before but I can see how migraine sufferers could make for a frustrating type of patient, precisely because of the above-mentioned tepid and anticlimactic success outcomes. I imagine doctors feel accomplishment from curing patients or at least helping them improve their condition. But migraine sufferers — we just keep coming back saying that things are the same or worse. We ourselves would prefer to return with better news, but still, our existence challenges the God complex in some medical professionals, which explains the lack of enthusiasm.

So, how bad is migraine stigma, really? The answer from Dr. Kempner indicated that things were even worse than I assumed:

“From what we know about migraine and stigma, migraine is highly stigmatized… People with chronic migraines report feeling stigmatized at levels much greater than people with epilepsy. And that’s remarkable because epilepsy, at least in the sociological literature, had always been held up as one of the considerably more stigmatized diseases: epilepsy has been understood as a disease of possession and sin!”

Now, it can be fairly pointed out that just because people report feeling stigma, it does not mean that they are objectively being stigmatized. However, in this case, there is ample evidence that migraine stigma (much like the pain itself) is not a figment of imagination. For instance, Dr. Kempner brought up research by Robert E. Shapiro, MD, PhD, which demonstrated that many people do indeed think less of migraine sufferers and, consequently, treat them differently. Culturally perpetuated negative stereotypes about migraines permeate people’s psyches and turn into a preconceived bias.

Observation #2: Talk of Migraines Puts People Off

In my experience, talking about migraines in public settings is, if not outright taboo, then at least highly socially discouraged. Nothing clears a room faster than the mention of severe chronic pain or dire illness, not even talking about death. At least death is ineffable and carries all kinds of mystery, drama and finality with it. Active suffering from recurring pain, on the other hand, is a topic that summons much less romantic imagery (ghastly moans, bodily fluids, bad smells, medical bills, etc.) and makes most Americans uncomfortable as hell. It is ironic that a low-status ailment like migraines that has a reputation for being fake and all-around “not a big deal” would be so off-putting to people, when you start describing it in detail. The uneasy reactions have their own  sociological logic, though.

For one, other people’s pain and illness reminds us of our own fragility and mortality and not everyone is a fan of these reality checks. In his book Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Public Library), sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote at length about how modern western society coddles our false sense of  security. He called it “sequestration of experience”: the institutional separation of daily life from social experiences that may shatter the veneer of “ok-ness” and summon anxiety.

When we witness sickness, mental illness, criminality, sexuality and death, we are reminded of all the awful and scary things that could happen to us at any time. And being confronted with the uncertainties of life gives modern westerners major existential dread. So, in today’s “civilized” world, all of these offensive and threatening things are forced behind closed doors: into hospitals, asylums, penitentiaries, bedrooms and funeral homes, so that the rest of us don’t have to cope with the traumatic realities of human nature. Predictably, the more we isolate and distance ourselves from these events and conditions, the less we are prepared to handle them when they are [inevitably] thrust into our lives. As such, we resent whomever is responsible for exposing us to them. And that includes hating on people who complain about chronic suffering.

And then, the sense of ineffectualness and helplessness is another culprit. When faced with things they can’t control — like someone else’s pain — there are people who feel so awkward for not being able to offer a solution, they want to flee; others feel so powerless that they get annoyed and angry with the migraine sufferer, basically, for not having a more “fixable” defect (much like the above-mentioned doctors…)

It is also true that there are plenty of earnestly sympathetic people who simply don’t know how to properly respond to others’ pain, as they have no tangible experience with it. Personally, I announce my condition whenever it feels relevant but, according to Dr. Kempner, the majority of migraine sufferers are quite cautious about discussing their ailment with others as they frequently encounter unsolicited advice that is of no help but serves as a tiresome reminder of how misunderstood migraines are:

“When people hear that somebody is in chronic discomfort, they make suggestions that are sort of well-intentioned but also reveal a kind of ignorance. I don’t think it’s meant to be flippant, but it feels flippant when somebody who just learned about this very serious disabling problem that you’ve been dealing with for a very long time thinks that they can help you with a suggestion that they just thought of off the top of their head. And it adds to this sense that people believe that chronic illness, especially chronic pain, are easy to fix. It’s frustrating, it makes you feel like these people have absolutely no idea what your life is like, what it’s like to be in pain.”

Against the backdrop of dismissive and tonedeaf reactions, I must say, it makes me appreciate the people who have been helpful and empathetic about my migraines even more. We chronic pain sufferers sometimes forget that it takes courage, endurance, wisdom and resilience to be the person standing next to someone in nightmarish agony. It’s not easy to bear witness to suffering and it’s even harder to know the right thing to say and do to provide the best support. Let’s take a moment to recognize the people in our lives that are there for us and our friggin’ migraines!

Observation #3: Surviving and Functioning with Chronic Migraines Makes You a Badass

Like I said, I’ve never been shy about talking about my migraines. I have a lifetime of preparation for all the indifference, ignorance and hostility this topic can provoke, but to me, people’s reactions to pain are valuable as a litmus test of sorts. If I mention my migraines and the person’s eyes glaze over, we’re pretty much done here, as far as my interest in this individual is concerned. If they can’t spare an iota of empathy for a stranger’s pain, I’ll pass on them and their problems. I learned this way back in my childhood and it has served me better than most rules of thumb when sorting the good from the bad, the worthy from the empty.

And this brings me back to superpowers.

I never did get my wish to transfer migraine pain to others five minutes at a time for educational purposes. However, the life-long sharing of my headspace with migraines (aka “the worst head-mate in the world”) did force me to develop some highly useful coping skills and survival strategies that do come in handy in all sorts of life situations.

Which makes them sort of like superpowers. After all, many classical comic book superheroes did not ask for their supernatural abilities but were victims of industrial accidents, animal attacks, criminal assaults and villainous scientists, with their superpowers emerging as unintended consequences. At first, the hero tends to reject the “abnormal” gifts but eventually learns to control them, grows to take advantage of them and incorporates them into self-identity. I feel that way about migraines: I did not sign up for this misery, but since this is the hand of cards I’ve been dealt, I must embrace the special skills and insights that come attached. Indeed, there is a number of heightened / sharpened senses that I have observed in myself and other migraine sufferers throughout my life. Just to name a few:

Gratitude. Suffering makes one face, accept and, in best cases, embrace one’s limitations. Disability shows us how harsh, randomly cruel and brutally unfair society can be and how astonishingly insignificant we are, as far as Mother Nature is concerned. This same understanding also makes one super thankful when the rare kindness, respect and validation do come along. People who are intimately familiar with pain know and appreciate the value of caretakers.

Furthermore, there is at least one thing I’m pretty sure all migraine sufferers never take for granted and are perpetually grateful for: the heavenly feeling of not having a migraine. We learn to appreciate non-events tuned out by most people as life’s “negative space” and there is a kind of magic to it.

Compassion for others. In my personal experience, people who have suffered an abundance of pain tend to score pretty high on the compassion-o-meter towards others. This is by no means to suggest that every migraine sufferer is a humanitarian empath (if only!…) But it does make sense that women and men who have to arrange their lives around living with regular pain are more attuned in to others’ discomforts and challenges than the [surprising number of] “I-never-get-sick” people who can be quite oblivious in this respect.

At the very least, chronic sufferers aren’t as likely to be dismissive of other people’s complaints: they know that the only thing that can possibly hurt more than pain is the denial of pain. Seriously, each time someone tells me how there’s no way migraines are that bad and it’s probably all in my head, another small piece of my heart dedicated to faith in humanity atrophies off (good thing migraines taught me compassion, otherwise that space would be filling up with anger and vengefulness…)

A different relationship with what “feeling good” means. One bitter truth migraine sufferers learn is that there is actually no limit to how “bad” a headache can get: just when you think it cannot get any worse, it does. But that is precisely why, in contrast, being pain-free feels downright euphoric. For chronic migraine sufferers being “not in pain” is a temporary state and we know that it’s just a matter of time before the infernal fireball that burns with the power of a thousand quasars moves back into our heads. Hence, we are quite mindful and appreciative of the physical sensation of the absence of pain.

As I see it, it doesn’t matter what cool recreational drugs you’ve taken, you will never know the true meaning of BLISS until you’ve been in excruciating pain and then, it was gone. Frame of reference is everything: it takes plumbing the depths of sadness to know what genuine happiness feels like and it takes getting a taste of agony to truly appreciate how amazing “good” feels.

Oscar-worthy performances of “OK-ness”. Not at all surprisingly, migraine sufferers are also expert actors, at least when it comes to putting on a social facade of “wellness”. This comes not from disingenuousness but from the necessity to protect oneself. Society may be unapologetically indifferent to your pain, but don’t dare display it in public: suddenly, the cruel world clutches its pearls and faints from overexposure to realness.

So, to spare everyone the bother and ourselves the fallout, we untangle our convulsed bodies, iron out the twitches in our faces, put on extra nice duds and refreshing make-up and spend the day convincingly acting out “healthiness” and “effortlessness” for all y’all. Failure to do so carries unspoken punishments that threaten our careers, relationships and reputations. And so, the show must go on — and we kill it.

A higher threshold / endurance for pain. To clarify upfront: people with migraines experience pain just as intensely as everyone else. But I believe they are more accustomed to having to function in torment for long stretches of time, which requires superior stamina / acceptance of pain.

Most people, when they feel like they’re about to drop dead from something hurting, stop what they are doing and tend to their immediate needs. Which is a healthy reflex that should be encouraged. However, if chronic migraine sufferers quit each time it felt like they were about to give up the ghost, waaaay fewer things would get done. People living with chronic migraines are habitually bracing themselves for prolonged and escalating agony and have adapted to regularly powering through  the sensation of having their eyeballs slowly squeezed through one of those old-timey laundry wringers.

Uh, what was the upside, again? Oh, right: not sweating the small stuff, pain-wise. Few non-chronic aches feel like “real” pain to me anymore in comparison to migraines (and I say that as an injury-prone person). Is dissociating from pain a good thing, really? I don’t know, probably not. Does it make me feel like a badass pain ninja? Maybe just a little…

When I shared my thoughts about migraines being a superpower of sorts with Dr. Kempner, she expressed surprise at my confident outlook. It turns out that I’m in the minority of migraine sufferers who feel empowered in some way by their disability, who feel that it gives them a certain edge in this game called “life”. On the contrary, according to Dr. Kempner’s research, migraine sufferers tend to feel overwhelmed by their “abnormality” and regularly second-guess their own strength and competence:

“I actually think that a lot of people with chronic migraines underestimate how well they are doing and how well they are managing their pain. So, I’m happy to hear you say what you’re saying because that’s exactly the kind of thinking that I really strongly encourage: that we could be thinking about people with migraine in terms of what it is they are accomplishing.

Instead, I think what’s happening is that people with migraine — because there is so much internalized stigma — feel guilty about all the things they are not able to do. That becomes really burdensome. And so, I actually think you have exactly the right attitude, which is embracing your inner-hero. And I’m hopeful that more people can see themselves in that light. But… I think a lot of people find it difficult; a lot of people, deep down, are not quite understanding why they are calling out sick and having trouble taking care of the family and so forth.”

Knowing what we know, it is not shocking that people are confused and embarrassed about their migraines. But it is heartbreaking how many of us don’t realize that living with something so challenging is actually an impressive feat worthy of praise and respect.

When, as a child, I was wishing to transfer my migraines to others, I was completely certain (as I am today) that a five minute excursion into my world of unbearable “brain inferno”, when light and sound are torture instruments and vertigo and nausea keep you from knowing what’s up and what’s down — that those moments would be more than enough to set any person straight about what hardcore badass warriors migraine sufferers actually are. On the regular, we trudge through hours / days / weeks of unspeakable pain, and still operate, succeed and excel on par with non-pain-ridden individuals who couldn’t begin to fathom our struggles. If you can relate, give yourself a hearty pat on the back right now — you don’t hear it enough but you’re pretty awesome for surviving and thriving alongside “the worst head-mate in the world”.

How do I cope with migraines? ^^ I meme…

*   *   *

Huge thanks to Dr. Kempner for shedding some much-needed scientific light on my anecdotal observations and for finally making it click in my mind that migraines are an actual bona fide disability, medically and politically. Between lacking information and facing social judgment, so many of us afflicted have learned to think of our migraines as an aggravating obstacle to surmount, a evil curse to endure, a humiliating secret to keep hidden — as anything but a legitimate medical condition with a possible cure.

Though I just spent a lot of time painting a bleak picture of migraine mistreatment in society, the horizon is not without hope. According to Dr. Kempner, the ongoing opioid epidemic is making pharmaceutical companies shift focus to non-addictive pain medication studies, which means things could be looking up for migraine research.

And while the cure is still in the works, we can focus on ameliorating the negativity surrounding this misunderstood disorder. As much as I appreciate my migraine-begotten “special abilities”, how great would it be if migraine sufferers didn’t have to super-heroically power through acute agony while keeping a straight face for everyone else’s benefit? How amazing would it be if having a migraine was considered a rightful, institutionally and socially approved reason to take time off from work and focus on getting better? What a relief would it be to speak freely about migraines and be received with sympathy and understanding instead of dismissive contempt!

This will begin to happen only when migraines are recognized and accepted on a cultural level as a challenging pain condition that hurts way more than it shows and, yet, does not take away from the individual’s social worth or professional value. And, of course, migraines are just the tip of the iceberg. Stigma toward any and all physical and mental disabilities continues to exist despite being a medieval concept that, like other superstitions, doesn’t make any sense in the 21st century. It needs to go.

But until we get there…

*reaches for cape*

The Unbearable Lightness of Despair: New Immersive Video Game Lets You Experience Russian Winter Isolation

ШХД: ЗИМА "It's Winter"

ШХД: ЗИМА “It’s Winter”: Screengrab from the Game Teaser @ www.iliamazo.ru

So, I came across this new game out of Russia called “ШХД: ЗИМА”. In the English-speaking world, it’s translated simply as “It’s Winter”. It’s an immersive game with no mission, though doing nothing could be a mission onto oneself, I suppose. Modern video games, especially of the “sandbox” format, seem to come in all flavors, including, evidently, ones where the objective of the game is to just be / exist in the virtual space in real time with zero motivation to go on (uh-huh, just like in real life…)

It’s the dead of winter in Russia somewhere. It’s dark outside, which for Russian winter could be day or night: when you’re that far up north, this time of the year is just steeped in darkness. You live in one of those massive Russian residential blocks made up of identical apartment buildings, situated in the middle of a forest. You get to hang out in your own apartment or take a stroll around “the neighborhood”.

ШХД: ЗИМА “It’s Winter”: Screengrab from YouTuber Max Kratche’s gameplay @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xbg6zLsamo

There is no goal or mission to your wanderings around this sedated virtual world: there is no puzzle to solve, no challenge to beat, no achievement to unlock. You just walk around. Or stand around. Sometimes you carry objects from one place to another. Sometimes you come across possible signs of life — like a lit sparkler next to an empty glass left on the park bench — but there is no one ever there.

The creator(s) did a great job colliding reality with magic in the minimalistic rendering of this winter wonderland (the pixelated snow is a nice touch.) They simultaneously captured the peaceful beauty and charm of the Russian winter night and the howling isolation and despair of being “stuck” in the god-forsaken perma-frozen, dead-ended vacuum that Russian rural / suburban living can be. The atmosphere is at once cozy and disturbing, enchanting and creepy, futuristic and nostalgic. No doubt, the dreamy electronic soundtrack facilitates the dissociative-ness  of the experience.

ШХД: ЗИМА “It’s Winter”: Screengrab from the Game Trailer @ www.iliamazo.ru

Despite the achingly familiar landscape, this world is a fantasy. For one, everything is kinda on the clean side LOL Anyone familiar with Russian residential realities would expect dirtier exteriors and shabbier interiors (and less poetic graffiti on the walls…) But, primarily, it feels like an alternative reality because, you know, there aren’t any people. None! No animals either, as far as I could tell. There is no one to interact with. This world feels vaguely post-apocalyptic, even though, besides the whole “no people” thing, everything looks more or less normal.

Outside, the scene is empty and static. Some apartment windows have light, but banging on doors yields no answers. The store signs are on but the entrances are locked shut. In the yard, you run into a tractor or two driving around. Its windows are lit, but you never see a person inside: the tractor does its own thing independently of you and provides no definitive proof of life.

ШХД: ЗИМА “It’s Winter”: Screengrab from YouTuber Max Kratche’s gameplay @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xbg6zLsamo

Back at the apartment, aside from cooking various foodstuffs found in the fridge, you can move around some objects and mess with the TV and radio sets. The TV comes on, showing nothing but static. The radio, at first, plays some static, but if you wait a few seconds, a distorted humanoid female voice comes on and begins to recite poetry. The voice appears several times throughout the game, as you come into contact with various spaces and objects: in those moments, the game freezes your controls and you have to wait out the poem scene to continue. The not-quite-human/quasi-robotic sound of the voice and the strange, fragmented yet entrancing poetry intensify the feeling of being the last survivor of something, you’re not sure what. All you know is that you are in a world forgotten. (I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”, a short story about a future in which all humans are gone due to nuclear wipe-out, outlived by countless robotic home appliances that continue to do their jobs serving humans, even when there are no humans left to serve…)

ШХД: ЗИМА “It’s Winter”: Screengrab from YouTuber Sady’s gameplay @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3KMA-yKdDc

The spirit of exploration winds down pretty quickly in this game. Initially, you run around trying to figure out if there are special signs to reveal new information and special objects to grant you access to something / somewhere new. Soon, however, you discover that nothing leads to anything in particular. That the more you walk around outside, the more you end up on your own block, as the surrounding buildings are essentially copypasted clones of your layout. If you wander off too far into the forest, you will run into a haze that will paralyze you with more poetry, and the next thing you know, you’re back on your block again. It’s reminiscent of the classic horror flick “Nightmare on Elm Street” that way — you think you left the location, but you just arrived back to where you started. I can’t help but see it as a bit of a commentary on the dead-ended prospects of so many Russians, young and old, occupying the rural vastness of their homeland. The winter is very long and dark and the opportunities for cultural life, professional development and economic growth are limited, to say the least.

ШХД: ЗИМА “It’s Winter”: Screengrab from the Game Trailer @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=65&v=m-YhXBvg0j4

It should be noted that “ШХД: ЗИМА” is actually a multimedia avant guarde “digital opera” art project by Moscow poet and musician Ilia Mazo, involving a number of collaborators and consisting of a number of presentations, including a film, a book of poetry and a music album — with the game only being one piece of the project (designed by Aleksandr Ignatov aka SAD3D). For this reason, “It’s Winter” is more of an arthouse experience than a “game” in the sense that it lacks specified objective and evokes contemplation rather than competition.

As it goes with immersive art, the participant’s mood / state of mind may very well dictate the game experience. In my case, despite my usual distaste for freezing climates, I found myself yearning for the privacy of this place, with its own minimalist coziness. Lately, I’ve been on the road and “between homes” a lot — and the well-heated, relatively spacious apartment at the edge of the post-human world comes across as quite an appealing sanctuary to my loner heart. But only for a brief visit, I don’t think I could dwell there for too long voluntarily. The seductive melancholy could turn into crushing despair in no time, considering that the sun never rises in this world.

ШХД: ЗИМА “It’s Winter”: Screengrab from YouTuber Max Kratche’s gameplay @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xbg6zLsamo

The graphics are stripped down but that’s part of the metaphor, I think. The game still has some markers of the classical sandbox puzzle-solving games, such as Myst or The 7th Guest or Russia’s GAG (can you tell that the last time I played these things were the 90’s? LOL) — in the sense that you can find seemingly useful objects and move them around in the hopes that they lead you to something. Except that there is no purpose, no goal-orientation to any of what you do — or don’t do — in this game. The futility of seemingly meaningful things, signs, acts and events is a classical motif in modern Russian storytelling (I’m thinking Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra, for example.)

Go on, turn on the TV, microwave an apple, flush the soap down the toilet, walk around the block in circles — that’s all there is to the game. Considering that there is also no way to die, it is not completely evident that you exist in the first place. After all, you have no mirror reflection, nor do you leave behind any prints in the snow.

What is this isolated ethereal state of un-being? Hell? Heaven? Purgatory? Dream? …Russia?… Could this seemingly vacuous world be teaming with ghosts who are just like the player — searching for signs of life in the snowy darkness, but leaving no footprints to find our way back to each other?

Translated Photo Essay “Seasons of Vera”

Vera Zenko chased after the Nazi wagon carrying away her mother who was pregnant with her younger sister. The soldiers took pity and threw the mother off the carriage. Today, Vera is 91 years old. She calls her current life her “final seasons” and tells her biography to photographer Tatiana Tkacheva through the contents of her dress closet.

I first saw Vera in Volozhin, Belarus, when she was walking to the pharmacy. Vera was wearing enormous sunglasses, a checkered dress and raspberry-colored socks and shoes. It was love at first sight. I walked up to her to make her acquaintance and, five minutes later, we were sitting in her home and she was showing me her outfits and narrating their history. Later, I visited and stayed with Vera in Volozhin several more times.

She has lived her whole life here, during which time, the multicultural Polish city of Volozhin came under Soviet rule and later became Belorusian. Vera’s four brothers and sisters were scattered all over Ukraine and Belarus. Vasil and Olga are, by now, deceased, survived by siblings Nina and the youngest, Galina. Their parents came from a peasant background: the mother tilled the fields, while the father, who was literate, worked for the local, as they say today, “self-governing authorities”. Vera stayed in her native city. Here, she got married, taking the last name Perepecha, gave birth to three children, worked and eventually raised her grandchildren.

This past January 1st, Vera turned 91 years old. She is not afraid of old age. Once, Vera told me that she is living out her final seasons, when every spring can become the last. She loves to dress up. The closet contains her entire life: each dress comes with its own story, its own memory.

“This is the end of my life. Everything important already happened and passed. Childhood, famine, war, love, children. Papa was executed by the Germans. Mama was left alone, pregnant with Galina, with the four of us children. In memory of Papa, I keep a hand-woven belt. He never beat us but I was mischievous and, once, he threatened to punish me if I don’t stop making trouble. I got scared. Stopped acting out of spite. I keep the belt to this day.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera went to buy a gold-accented fabric for her daughter’s prom dress. She was going to have the dress sewn in the House of Fashion in Minsk. But the atelier in Volozhin refused to sell the textile without a dress order. So, she had them make this lilac dress, just so that they would sell her the prom dress fabric. 

“I saw myself in the mirror for the first time when I was around ten years of age. We were selling sorrel to local Jews. Their house had a mirror. I became upset when I saw my reflection — I was pale, skinny and wearing an ugly dress. I ran home and cried. Mama stood me by a pail of water and said that I am the most beautiful. For one baggie of sorrel, we were paid five kopeks. My sister and I bought necklaces. I chose the lettuce-colored one. Went to the well for water, bent down to see if it’s deep or not and — whoosh — my necklace flew down. How I cried! It is probably still down there.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera’s outfit with a hat. She purchased the hat when she worked at the passport office in Volozhin. The hat is Vera’s favorite accessory.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera bought this dress for her daughter, as to not let money go to waste after the collapse of the USSR. The daughter got married. The dress stayed with Vera. On the right: Vera in her daughter’s wedding dress.

“So much happened over those years. I had to obtain everything on my own: education, work. Back then, major literacy was not required. I had four years of Polish school, then we were overtaken by the Soviets and studied under them for one year, then the Germans arrived. I stayed away from their school. They were recruiting into the Yunak — that’s like the Young Pioneers for the Soviets. Me and a few other kids got scared and ran away. After the war, I completed tenth grade through night school. By then, I was already working in the passport office. I had nice handwriting and was instantly hired. I started having money. I could now sew and buy outfits. The dresses invented themselves. The styles we drew from pedestrians in the city streets. Mama made patterns. My sisters and I did the stitching. I really loved hats. When I would go to Minsk on a business trip, I would buy myself a new hat.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera wearing the belt she keeps in memory of her father.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera wearing a skirt she turned into a dress with straps. The shirt was sewn by her daughter to wear for school military training. On the right: A suit Vera bought in a second-hand store to wear at her granddaughter’s wedding.

“I was trendy. I liked getting dolled up. And I had plenty of suitors. But I loved Sergey, my husband. For five years we had a friendship. He spotted me for the first time when my girlfriend and I were strolling the street, in the wintertime. That was a thing to do in our town: the young would get together and promenade back and forth along the streets. The boys would check out the girls. And then walk them home.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera, wearing a dress handed down from a girlfriend. Purple is Vera’s favorite color.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera is wearing a transparent white blouse and a patterned skirt. Such white blouses were popular in Vera’s youth.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera, in a dress created by her daughter for her seamstress exam. The necklace comes from France, brought by Vera’s sister.

“I procured myself a plush coat. An uncle fastened wooden heels to the rubber booties. Mama would tie a beautiful scarf on me and pin it with a brooch, so that all the flowers were visible. Sergey fell in love with that scarf. Later, he would say that he did not see me or my girlfriend, just the scarf. I was wondering why that little soldier was following us around everywhere. We lived together for thirty one years. Raised three children. Lived in peace. There was no time to quarrel.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera, in a dress from her daughter-in-law. Vera was already retired when her son got married. The bride’s parents were against the union. Vera let the newlywed couple live with her and helped raise their firstborn. On the right: Vera’s daughter-in-law wore this dress when she first started dating her son.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera in the plush coat she got through special connections in a store in Volozhin region. She is wearing a floral pattern scarf called “shalinovka”. Vera was wearing this scarf when she first met her husband Sergey.

“Gold teeth used to be in fashion. I really wanted to put in golden crowns. Sergey tried to talk me out of it. But I did it anyway. I frequently recall how he sat me on his lap, hugged me and kept saying that he loves me. Sergey died from cancer after Chernobyl. He disintegrated in mere months. With him died all his money. I was left alone. The children were still in school and needed help. I handed all my pension over to them and tightened my belt. My mother-in-law, when she was dying, gave me her notebooks with prayers. Once I helped a woman cure her finger just by praying over her. The finger healed. Then, people started coming to me, asking for help. I did not deny them.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera is wearing slacks she bought when she was hospitalizedl with cancer. Vera does not like slacks. In everyday life, she prefers skirts and dresses. But in the cancer ward where Vera was hospitalized, everyone wore trousers.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera is wearing her daughter’s prom dress. To obtain this fabric so that it could be turned into a dress at the House of Fashion in Minsk, Vera had to commission another dress for herself in the Volozhin atelier (see lilac dress in first photo.) On the right: skirt and blouse, purchased by Vera at a department store 10-15 years ago.

“I did not accept money, but I did not reject food. That is how I survived. I am ugly, long-nosed. When I compliment myself, then I start to see — it’s true, I am beautiful. Each face works well with its own nose. All the young are beautiful. There is a whole album of these photographs. But life flew by as if in one day. Yours will fly by too. I’ve been thinking that it’s time to start giving away my dresses. What good are they to me? If I die, they will be thrown out. This way, I will give them away to people myself. I don’t have a favorite dress. Whichever one I am wearing is my favorite. Let me show you what treasures I have. I am so rich except I don’t have a father or a mom…”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

A gray coat  worn by Vera’s daughter when she was a college freshman.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Dress and shoes Vera set aside for her funeral.

*   *   *   *   *

*NOTE FROM THE TRANSLATOR:

I found this to be a very compelling human interest story and wanted to bring it to English-reading audiences. I had to take a few liberties and adjust the translation for easier readability / flow in English (mostly in the photo captions) — but I tried to stay true to the original voices of the author of the article and especially Vera, with her particular minimalist style of expression.

The original story in Russian was published on March 16, 2018, by Tatiana Tkacheva, on the website www.takiedela.ru that serves as the information portal for the charitable project “Nuzhna Pomosch” (“Help Needed”). I am not affiliated with them, though I do come across their posts sometimes and it appears that they do good work. They certainly deliver an admirable social service with releasing stories such as this one, from all over the vast expanse of Russia and former USSR, giving publicity to people and places overlooked or forgotten by the world at large. 

For Background Extras in TV and Movies, High Heels Are Still a Sexist Double Standard

male female feet high heels shoes dance floor disco

There are unavoidable occupational hazards out there in the modern American workplace but having to wear high heels should not be one of them.

If this is not self-evident already, let’s recall that:

— Wearing high heels leads to significant long term damage to one’s orthopedic health, causing a lot of pain in the process.

— Other than stroking our dysmorphic sense of aesthetics, high heels are useless in the workplace. Wearing heels does not enhance productivity of any particular task. On the contrary, high heels impede most physical performance as they literally limit one’s ability to walk.

— Wearing high heels is expected only from women, making it a sexist requirement and I have a problem with that.

Being a freelance writer, I don’t even have to put pants on every day, never mind formal footwear. So, I have kind of forgotten that high heels were a “thing” out there, still forced on women as part of their professional uniform. That is until I started moonlighting in the show business which turned out to be a “shoe business” I cannot abide by.

New York City is basically a real-size movie set for many Hollywood productions. And so, to break up the isolated, sedentary work cycle of the home office, I occasionally sign up as a non-union “background extra” for TV shows and movies.

Even though the pay is nothing to write home about, there is no denying that it’s a fascinating scene. You get a behind-the-curtain look at how movie magic is made. The sets are amazing, the logistics of production are awe-inspiring and the background extras are a funky bunch of New York dwellers that are fun to get to know and to observe.

Sure, the hours are dismal: you can easily start at 6 a.m. and go for fourteen hours. And then need to come back at 7 a.m. the next day and do it all over again. Your time is divided between shooting the actual scenes and the be-ready-at-any-moment waiting outside the set to be called back in. Many hours of this can be quite grueling, without opportunity to sit down for long stretches of time and involving uncomfortably cold or hot temperatures.

But I can work with all that!! Because, frankly, the life of an NYC freelance writer / language translator is no less intense than the show biz — but with none of the ego dividends! My schedule can be erratic, gigs come in spurts and, when they do, I go on deadline-driven writing / researching binges for days and nights non-stop. During those peaks, I can get pretty underslept and malnourished, while the rest of the time is filled with mounting anxiety about what’s next. These are the occupational hazards of what I do.

In comparison, ten-plus hours on the movie set is not so bad! Being a background extra is all about physicality, energy, attitude and doing what one is told. I get to use my attention span for following instructions and getting into the spirit of the scene, not generating knowledge or catching subtle errors. This kind of work allows my overactive brain to rest and I gratefully welcome the relief.

But, you guys, I just can’t with the fucking high heels!

I realize it’s cinema and it’s all about things appearing exactly right. But is it fair to expect people (ahem women) to wreck their orthopedic health for an illusion? We shouldn’t risk it for anything, ideally, but definitely not for the sake of being a visually pleasing blur in the background of a 1-second shot. At near-minimum wage. With no benefits.

The last movie shoot I did involved a very high-energy dance scene that took several hours to wrap up. It required a prior fitting during which I was assigned a pair of 4.5 inch high heel boots that could have only been concocted by Satan himself on a day he was in a particularly foul mood.

But actually, those torture devices posing as shoes were made by a certain well-known New York fashion designer who shall not be named for purely comedic purposes. Instead, he will be referred to by an alias created from scrambling his first and last name: Space Zon.

And so, I wonder if Space Zon ever tried on his own creations. Mr. Zon is a fashionable man, known around town for wearing heeled footwear himself  — just nothing like the towering beartraps he crafts for women.

Mind you, 4.5 inch heels might not even be the end of the world, if they are remotely designed for human functionality. But these puppies were super unbalanced in the heel and if that weren’t barbaric enough, the toes were pointed up.

I invite everyone reading this right now to take a moment to do a mock recreation of this scenario with your own foot:

—  First, stand on your tiptoes where the foot is at about an 80-degree angle upwards from the toes.

— Now, try to stretch those all-your-weight-bearing toes UPWARDS.

A physical near-impossibility, no? But women wear crazy footwear like this all the time! Yet, I guarantee you, we wouldn’t do this to ourselves without social pressures or financial incentives. Even sexual masochists might want to keep away from shoes like these. Knee surgery is not sexy and neither are the bills.

Anyway, at the fitting, after trying on the abominable Space Zon boots, I asked the wardrobe people to please give me something more humane. But because the outfits had already been lined up and photographed, they were not keen to switch out the boots and assured me that I would be fine. “You look absolutely killer in them,” they said, as if that helped. Hearing the word “killer”, I actually imagined myself tumbling dramatically down the movie set stairs to my death, Space Zon smarmily smiling and waving buh-bye at me from the top of the staircase…

I’ve never had any beef with this particular designer but now that I’ve had the personal displeasure of wearing one of your creations, you’re on my radar, Space Zon. Consider yourself my **arch** nemesis…

I went home after that fitting session with major anxiety welling up. I knew for a fact that agony was coming my way on the day of the shoot — and that there would be hell to pay afterwards. I spent the next week buying up knee and ankle support sleeves and rubbing crazy amounts of castor oil into my joints.

Each day leading up to the shoot, the nervousness got worse. And the anger started creeping in too. How the hell is it even legal to expect people to sacrifice their bodies for this bullshit??

And this is where the gender inequality is apparent: male extras do not have to decide between working and injuring themselves or not working at all — but it’s a choice women in the same position have to make on the daily.

You be the judge. There are both men and women on the set of a movie shoot, alternating between acting and standing around for hours waiting to be called in. But one group is doing it in loafers and athletic flats, while most members of the other group are teetering on stilt-like foot contraptions. For at least ten hours straight. Can it really be said that the two groups are working the same job? Seems like one of them is laboring harder and, more importantly, in a hazardous environment.

They say American women make only 79 cents on a man’s dollar (well, that’s a statistic about white women, while African American, Native American and Latina women make even less than that…) But it’s not just the salary: it’s health compromises that figure into the wage gap equation too. In this particular job as a non-unionized background extra in the film / TV industry, while both men and women get paid the same [pittance], the women are doing lasting damage to their bodies that will, in no uncertain terms, cost them more money down the road!

Back to the movie set. My worry was completely confirmed on the day of the shoot: the boots did not get any more wearable since I tried them on during fitting. Everyone was directed to act wildly enthusiastic. The whole time I was hobble-hopping around that dance floor with an ecstatic smile plastered across my face, my mind was going:

…OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT

OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD

JUST PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

DON’T LET ME FALL

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT…

It wasn’t even about the pain, which was considerable but, like most women, I’m used to grinning and dissociating myself from whatever is going on “down yonder in the foot regions”. It was about the very real possibility of wiping out on that dance floor because either one or both of my ankles would eventually snap to the side and bring me down. Or I could very easily slip or be pushed by another dancer — and these leather foot binds were NOT made for regaining one’s balance, were they, Mr. Space Zon? Gravity is fake news and equilibrium is overrated anyway.

Could I have spoken up some more? Yes. And risk being branded a problematic presence on the set. The pressure to do what one is told on a mega-budget movie set cannot be overstated. It crackles through the air like electricity. If superstar leading actors like Uma Thurman can be bullied into doing a stunt she knew would get her injured, what chance is there for the rest of us?

Extras are really there to be animated furniture. Talking on or off the set is not in the job description. Complaining gums up the rapid-fire works of the filming dynamics. It is pretty understood that you just suck it up and do what you gotta do. It’s true: the crew has a lot to pay attention to and babysitting extras isn’t part of the plan (and most of the time they are quite gracious about it.)

And I am very down with cooperating and staying the hell out of everyone’s way. But the bottom line is that it was dangerous for me to spend hours dancing in the cruel Space Zon hellboots and though, by some miracle, I didn’t take a spill that night, I added more damage to my joints.

Since that time, I only sign up for the dowdier background roles, where I am allowed to bring my own shoes that are not high heels. As you can imagine, this cuts down my options significantly.

But, like I said, I just can’t with the high heels, not anymore. I spent over a decade of my physical prime running around in skyscraper pumps that would put RuPaul’s drag queen brigade to shame. I was that chick on the dance floor doing pirouettes in breakneck platforms. Because catering to the male gaze was the default behavior at the time and I was classically too immature to not be flattered by the attention and too shortsighted to care about future health fallout.

And then there is the fact that, until recent years, flats were not an available retail option for young women: ladies’ footwear almost always had some sort of unnatural elevation, it was just a question of degree of discomfort.

But now, we have sophisticated foams, gels and goos to cushion our overworked extremities!! And kick-ass athletic footwear. And I’m sure attractive “feminine” shoes could also be designed with better materials and health priorities in mind (are you listening, Space Zon & Co.?) No one should subject themselves to torture by bad footwear when memory foam technology exists. I love it so much, I even have a marketing slogan for them:

“It’s Memory Foam — or Go Hoam!”

Memory Foam, if you’re reading this, it’s my humble gift to you for enhancing my mobility.

For what it’s worth, even pampered celebrities are giving up high heels because the self-abuse is too much. Of all people, Victoria Beckham, the poster child for strappy stilettos, has tossed the pumps for flats and seems pretty unashamed about it. Is this the Apocalypse?? Or is it that, once women mature out of needing to please everyone, they can take a critical look at all the unhealthy, self-destructive vanity practices they engage in to impress men and “society at large” and decide that they are over it?

Well, that’s one part of it. The other, sadder, factor is that after many years of mistreatment our limbs just give out and refuse to function under stressful, unnatural conditions, leaving us no choice but to start wearing “comfort shoes”…

And so, it’s pretty much good-bye to being a film extra for me. Being that I am not even an actor, this is mercifully not a big deal, though I’m pretty bummed to have to give up work over sexist double-standards.

One upside: not having to suffer through any more bone-bending squeezewear by the likes of Space Zon and his sadistic fashionati colleagues.

If there is a Hell, I hope they spend an eternity there walking around on 4.5 inch iron spikes nailed directly into the bottoms of their feet and wearing sausage casing from actual sausages that is several sizes too small to breathe or move in… I mean, that’s actually still not as painful as what their models have to endure on the runway, but let’s be generous with our hell-wishing.

Russian Elections 2018 Viral Video Analysis: Putin Is Never Named But All Other Candidates Are Clearly “the Wrong One”

My previous post was about a recent controversial Russian election video that went viral and caused quite a stir within the Russian-speaking Internet. The satirical clip implores every citizen to vote, by threatening an alternative future, in which symbols of Western liberalism and Soviet conservatism are collided into the “worst case scenario” that will surely happen if Russians abstain from voting and let the wrong candidate take the presidency. Here is the video again:

After a more thorough re-watching of the video and reading up on the election candidates, the symbols of the “doomed future” are beginning to make more sense to me.

The verdict: it is a pro-Putin video after all. How can I tell?

For one, all I have to do is read comments under my own YouTube posting of this video: whether people love it or hate it, they assume it’s pro-Putin — which is consistent with the trend I’ve seen around the internet. And Putin supporters and sympathizers definitely claim this propaganda video as their own. Well, them plus every kind of international troll, to be more accurate. Just a moment ago I received another notification from YouTube: “Uncle Adolf commented: ‘I’ve watched this 6 times today and counting. It’s just too good!'” Now, I would likely succumb to soul-crushing cognitive dissonance, if it turned out that YouTube member “Uncle Adolf” uses anything other than a photo of Hitler or a swastika as his avatar, but — *whew* — of course it’s a photo of Hitler with a swastika on his arm…

Another giveaway is that the video’s main cast includes well-known faces. To use the classical joke formula — in [Soviet] Russia, the role plays the actor. Translation: if you want to have a job as an entertainer, be pro-establishment. Mainstream actors would not have likely agreed to participate in this video if it had been put out by the incumbent dictator’s opposition — it’s too risky to their careers and reputations.

But mainly, I believe that this video is meant to endorse Putin because all other candidates are, one way or another, referenced in the worst case scenario presented in the video. Basically, in addition to Vladimir Putin, who is amusingly categorized as an “independent” candidate, you have seven electoral candidates that represent several other positions — namely: communist, liberal and, well, the inane political stylings of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy — the batshit bonkers leader of the ultranationalistic LDPR party who belongs in an ideological league of his own.

And so, here is the break-down of the video clip imagery:

The “imbecilic” school uniform of the son, so eerily reminiscent of Soviet-era “young pioneer” uniform — that’s the sign and consequence of electing one of the Communist candidates: Pavel Grudinin or Maxim Suraykin. There is also the bathroom scene where the protagonist tries to hide from all the people in his house and hears the PA announcement that toilet visits are limited. This, too, is an intentional flashback to the infamous socialist “communal apartments”, with multiple families crammed into the same living quarters, forced to share the kitchen and the bathroom with dozens of apartment-mates with no hope of privacy (and no end of drunken conflicts.) It was, indeed, a nightmare and it makes sense that it would be used as a scare tactic to prevent senior citizens from letting their USSR nostalgia guide their vote.

The arrogant “foster gay” obscenely eating a banana in the lead character’s kitchen — that’s your “horrifying” future if you cast your ballot for the liberals — presumably represented by Ksenia Sobchak (but really — it’s aimed at the phantom of the one candidate that would likely be fighting for the LGBTQ rights of the nation, but who was barred from the elections: Alexei Navalny). The dark-skinned soldier inserted elsewhere in the video is another subtle implication that the USA and western Europe are advancing on Russia with their ridiculous ideas of “diversity”. Better vote for the “right” candidate before you, too, are forced into tolerating humans that don’t look or live like you, pal.

One of the things that shocks the video’s protagonist during his “worst case scenario of not voting” dream is his son’s request for a huge amount of money to pay for private security at school. I take this as a stab at the entrepreneurs among the candidates: sure, Russia is a thriving capitalist paradise, but you don’t want it to get out of control — tsk-tsk, hint-hint, nudge-nudge, Boris Titov, candidate representing the Growth Party…

Finally, the cartoonishly absurd General who alternates between dabbing and enforcing the military draft until the age of 60 — that’s what you get if you vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Which is oddly on point. The threat seems extra exaggerated, until you read up on this gentleman’s plans to “improve” the Motherland in the twenty first century — such as reconstituting the Soviet Union, circa 1985. It is the only part of this obnoxious video I have to agree with: this belligerent fossil Zhirinovsky is off his everloving rocker! (I mean, they all are, but this guy… ufffff…)

In fact, allow me to leave you with an election video maestro Zhirinovsky put out himself back in 2012 (he runs in every election) — to give you an idea of the messages he sends. I have translated and subtitled the video into English — but the visuals are pretty powerful on their own…

(warning — cruelty to animals)

Happy voting, everybody.

P.S. For more information, check out the full list and descriptions of Russian Elections 2018 candidates and their platforms.

Russian Election 2018 Propaganda Video Goes Viral, Threatens Citizens with a “Doomed” Future Where Gays and Blacks Exist in the Open

 

Russian Elections 2018 Video Viral Propaganda

Around February 16th, 2018, a three-minute video of unspecified origins began coursing through the Russian Internet, advocating the importance of voting on Russia’s upcoming March 18th presidential election. (Russian source)

The video relies on satire to playfully frighten its audience into voting on election day by showing them the “worst case scenario” of not voting. In this instance, the “terrifying” alternative reality dreamed up by the (particularly unpleasant) protagonist is one in which a dabbing Russian general shows up at his doorstep accompanied by a black solider, ready to draft his middle-aged ass into the army; his son, wearing a dumb uniform, is asking for an astronomical sum of money to hire a private security outfit to keep him safe at school; the kitchen is occupied by the “foster gay” who, according to the laws under the new president, is now this family’s responsibility since he was abandoned by his lover; the final straw of doom comes when an omniscient automated voice announces that bathroom visits are not unlimited.

In the end, the leading man wakes up in cold sweat, fiercely ready to sacrifice his Sunday morning to voting in the presidential election — “Before it’s too late!!”

The internet consensus seems to be leaning toward assuming this is a pro-Putin, anti-liberal-opposition propaganda piece and the satirical “dystopian nightmare” presented is how Putin’s guard imagines the unraveling of the moral fiber of their society if anyone other than their fearless, shirtless leader takes the throne bearing his immortal, 15-year-old butt-print.  Certainly,  the video is packed with all things conservative Putinists hate most: sexual and racial minorities, sweet American dance moves, having to pay for stuff, serving one’s country… The bogus threat of having the Russian military draft age raised to 60 kind of smacks of Obamacare-era “death panel” rumors, similarly intended to scare the bejesus out of the American senior citizens (which worked…)

Then again, who is likely to keep around a mandatory military draft in the first place? My bet is on the totalitarian dictator “candidate”. And that “imbecilic” school uniform that bothers the main character? — it’s very reminiscent of the Soviet-time Young Pioneer uniform — that’s Comrade Putin’s territory too… So, there’s a part of me that thinks that this video is a little too on the nose, you know? It’s the optimist in me, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good old non-partisan trolling.

But — hey, hey, hey — check out the video — which has been translated and subtitled into English for your convenience by yours truly — and decide for yourself!

Enjoy. Share. Discuss.

Sociologically Speaking about Eating and Drinking in the Information Age

Keeping with the rubric of finding sociology in different professions, I have recently had a conversation with a restaurant expert, who shared some insight with me about the hospitality world that I thought reflected larger societal patterns worth noting.

Santiago Peláez is a longtime food and beverage specialist both in the States and in Mexico, having served as an F&B director at numerous huge hotel/resort chains. I travel and eat out all the time, and I’ve been making a mental note to myself that things are changing “out there”. For one, there is a lot more automation. Also, eating in public no longer has to be a social experience. You can just bury your nose in your phone and have a completely private-feeling meal, surrounded by a ton of people doing the same, in the middle of, say, a super-busy airport. So, when I met Santiago and had a chance to pick his brain, my main question was: have technology and social media brought dramatic changes to the food service industry? I mean, of course they have — but in what ways, specifically?

Our conversation confirmed much of what I have been noticing and thinking: the future of meal consumption is all about on-demand access to a wide choice of quality options while maintaining private identity and physical autonomy.

Let’s unpack a couple of trends. Over the last couple of years, the “to go” meals jumped from the classic 5-6% to an unprecedented 17-20% of all food business made. That’s because, according to Santiago, fewer and fewer of us want to go out to eat. Instead of leaving the house for a bite, people who don’t want to cook would rather log on to online delivery services, where, as Santiago puts it, “you pay for your food and a guy goes out, picks it up and brings it to you.”

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, with the advent of Internet capabilities, our “entertainment” in general has become really home-centric: we all have on-demand high-definition media streaming now, so we want on-demand high-quality food to go with it. Before, you went out for a movie and a dinner, now you stay in for a movie and a dinner.

It seems like information technology, specifically social media, play a part in whether a restaurant survives or fails these days. Santiago says that customers have grown less forthcoming with complaints in person but don’t hesitate to post harsh negative reviews on the internet.

Not too long ago, he recalls, if you didn’t like your pasta, you could say something to the waiter or the floor manager — and the restaurant would have a chance to remedy the situation and still create a great dining experience for the initially dissatisfied customer. But as of recent, the customer will tell the waiter that the meal was “fine” but then get on their phone and give the restaurant a negative rating online. And the business doesn’t get to find out exactly what went wrong or to make it up to the customer. In the meanwhile, the bad rating does damage to the establishment indefinitely.

This fashion of acting like everything is satisfactory in person but going and bashing the restaurant online anonymously rings familiar to how people tend to handle conflict in all realms of social life lately. More and more, we are easily intimidated by social confrontation, even the mild stuff that’s easily resolvable if you just talk about it for a minute. But we don’t think twice before posting brutal criticisms and damning accusations online about individuals or businesses or whole nations. It makes sense that the hospitality industry is hit hard by this: I bet people have extra strong emotions when it comes to food as well as service.

To sum up the current state of things: we, the consumers, want high-quality food, we want it fast and done right, but we also don’t necessarily want to move and we definitely don’t want to talk to anyone for more than 30 seconds. I both resent and resemble this trend.

It’s not all our fault: we’ve been “trained” as a society for a while now to socially withdraw, little by little. Ever tried to speak to a real-live human at your financial institution, or to “dial the operator” at your cell phone provider? It will be an hour of  manually entering your information and screaming “YES!!”, “NO!!” and “OPERATOR!!!” into the glitchy void of voice recognition prompts before someone with a heartbeat picks up (which is not guaranteed). For years, we’ve been forced to interact with machines and screens instead of people. And now, we’re so used to bots and automatons serving us that we increasingly can’t handle the pressure of a live human voice or eye contact.

Nonetheless, Santiago tells me that, though he believes in progressing with the times, he also hopes to retain and preserve the traditional real-time, in-person, on-site restaurant experience, where you interact with human waiters who make personalized recommendations. He insists that everyone should make time for socializing over breakfast, lunch or dinner “because it’s one of life’s great pleasures”.

Who can argue with that? Some of my fondest memories in life do come from exchanging ideas, telling stories and sharing laughs with good people over prolonged eating and drinking occasions. I agree that it is one of life’s necessities to sit down for a long overdue catch-up session or a good old heart-to-heart over some wine and éclairs in a nice setting. And every time your glass or plate is empty, someone shows up with another drink, pastry or suggestion for drink / pastry? Yes please!

Why Louis C.K.’s Apology Is Not the Worst Thing Ever and Is Beside the Point Anyway

Louis C.K. Apology

A public debate has emerged about whether or not Louis C.K.’s owning of his sexual improprieties constitutes a “real” apology. Now, I’m a semantic nit-picker to a fault and I am aware of the issues with his statement — but in all fairness I must ask — what, precisely, would constitute a “proper” apology here?

I suspect the answer is: nothing really. Because no apology is good or sincere enough at this juncture of history — especially in a world where everyone has a speech writer on call. Let’s face it: we would not even be reading one from Louis C.K., had it not been forced out of him by brute public exposure. Only post-apology actions will show if this person is true or false — and we are not there yet.

The way today’s social and public information channels operate, personal events and pubic trends tend to become conflated into one obnoxious media stream of finger-pointing. We are outraged all the time (which makes sense, because a lot of things are, in fact, outrageous) — and we keep waiting to be handed a tangible relief from all this infuriation. And that means that sometimes we expect too much from a public apology, forgetting that it does not undo damage or redeem motive — and it is in no way guaranteed to make us feel better.

This is what’s happening with Louis C.K.’s admission of culpability in inappropriate sexual behavior: the public statement he released failed to put many people’s minds at peace and, in many cases, made them even angrier.

It is understandable: he done royally f-ed up, there is no denying that. Though I would never put him in same company as sleazebag Weinstein, it is true that Louis C.K.’s case is part of the same trend of powerful men subjecting their colleagues and underlings to unwanted sexual advances that are harmful and long-lasting in ways these gentlemen lack the maturity and intelligence to contemplate.

Some people fault C.K. for not explicitly saying “sorry” but in my understanding, he still communicated strong remorse (perhaps not as humbly as some would have preferred.) But since when is saying “I’m sorry” the golden standard for sincerity? On the contrary, those words have served many a lazy apologizer as the perfect cop-out from putting any active thought into the sentiment.

Then, C.K.’s critics take issue with his lamenting how heavy it is to live with the knowledge that he hurt so many people: he should not be making it about himself, they claim, he should focus on the victims.

But wait a minute — aren’t shame and angst exactly what we want to see from a truly repentant individual?? When someone has hurt us, don’t we want to witness them suffer pangs of guilt and crumble under the realization of how awful they had been? Is that not, basically, the only gratification we can hope for from an apology, considering that the past is irreversible?

I am by no means suggesting we should stop scrutinizing the language of our public figures and villains-du-jour but, in this particular instance, it occurs to me that there is probably not much Louis C.K. could have written that would be received as a redeeming apology.

In part, this is because many of us have considered this person specifically to be an ally to women and have held him up to a high standard of self-awareness. So we feel extra betrayed and duped.

It is doubtful that anyone has ever looked at Harvey Weinstein and said: “What?? That guy is a sexual predator?? You’d never know it, why, with that lovable face and innocent posture!” Nor does it sound like anybody with a body has ever felt particularly “safe” around Weinstein. But Louis C.K. was Our Guy, dammit, our Patron Saint of “He Gets It”. It is unsettling to find out that someone you thought was “secure to be around” is a dud. For many people, instances of sexual misconduct were with those whom they trusted most — and this whole Louis C.K. revelation is a painful confirmation of the harsh lessons learned from those traumatic experiences: a.) “good people” are capable of “bad things” and b.) no matter how friendly, kind, enlightened and gentle some people seem, it does not make them safe-safe when no one else is watching.

But another reason why we are hating on Louis C.K.’s apology is not about him per se: it has to do with the projections of our accumulated need for a scapegoat for all the degrading sexism and abuses of power so many of us experience in our personal lives. His happens to be the only decent guilt-owning statement to come out of Hollywood since the scandals broke — but if we are holding him responsible for the entire Hollywood sex abuse ring of rich scrotumheads, plus every predatory schmuck we had to individually fend off — then, in that context, the apology is, indeed, quite  insufficient

Louis C.K. has some ‘splaining to do to the people in his life that he has hurt. But let us quit picking apart his statement, as if there was more to be done on that front and acknowledge the sadder truth, fellow involuntary members of the #metoo club: no apology from a disgraced celebrity is enough to right the wrongs we’ve suffered, nor to quell the rage we feel for the ways we have been mistreated and dismissed, individually and collectively, for lifetimes and generations on end.

Simply put, there is no such thing as a satisfactory apology for historically systematic human abuses such as slavery or sexual assault because:

— it’s too bloody late for just an apology

— the apology in no way ensures that the abuse will stop

I reckon, they can all keep their soggy sorry’s (though it serves no one to reject sincere attempts at expressing remorse.) It would be encouraging to see a radical reprogramming in attitude, an earnest investment into empathy and a proactive civic involvement, which entails never abusing power via violating sexual boundaries again and having a zero tolerance  toward others doing the same.

Come on, brahs, you are so good at inciting each other into atrocity — let’s see if you can pressure one another into decency.

American Citizens Traveling to Cuba: Updated Information for 2017

Old Havana Plaza Church Travel US Citizen

So many US citizens have been dreaming of visiting Cuba — and now, it is easier than ever! The travel restrictions have been loosened and Americans can finally legally and openly get to know this amazing country with its wonderful people. Read on and see for yourself how un-intimidating and simple getting to Cuba was for us.

When, back in November 2016, we came across a “Newark – Havana” flight for under $250 round trip, my husband and I pounced on the “pirate fare” for the much-overdue week-and-a-half get-away in early January of 2017.

Given decades of the travel ban, it felt strange to be booking a direct flight from New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport straight to Havana’s José Martí International Airport  with a major US-based airline like United. When things are iffy or unclear, the “paranoid Ex-Soviet” in me awakens and doubles down on research, to make sure I’m not missing any pertinent details or caveats.

United Airlines provides an informative breakdown of travel requirements on their website, but let’s elaborate on how it works in real life.

REASON FOR VISIT

Before you can purchase your ticket, you will be asked to certify your reason for visiting Cuba by choosing from the following “general licenses”:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official government business
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research or meetings
  5. Educational activities or people-to-people exchanges
  6. Religious activities
  7. Sports and public events
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Research
  11. Informational materials
  12. Authorized export activities
  13. Non-immigrant Cuban National

Unfortunately, “Cultural fascination” and “Lifelong dream” are not among acceptable reasons to visit Cuba. Also, it seems that most of the items on that list would require documentation.

However — there are a couple of options that are vague enough to allow for a variety of interpretations, without requiring any official paperwork! We checked off “Support for the Cuban people” and proceeded to book our tickets. It was the right, hassle-free way to go. The exact legal wording for the clause can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations here.

Going through the customs, it seems like a good idea to make the officers’ jobs easier by getting one’s story straight. Jokes, ad-libs and small talk might set off more alarms than chuckles with the border agents. It’s best to have all documents in hand, look ’em straight in the eye and answer the questions to the point and without wavering.

When they ask: “What is your reason for visiting Cuba?”  — avoid coming back with: “I hear the rum is pretty good!” It deviates from the script. Because “booze tourism” — or any kind of tourism — is not on the bloody list of 13 permit-able causes for entry for US citizens!! It is wiser to answer: “Support for the Cuban people” (or whichever one you picked when you booked your ticket) and move along when prompted. Save the “adventure” for after you successfully cross the border, wise guy 🙂

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: As an added measure of security, I brought back-up materials, in the off-chance we would be asked to explain what, precisely, we mean by “support for the Cuban people”.

It so happens that my husband works in library science and visits libraries wherever he goes, always on the look-out for potential collaboration. I printed out a list of libraries across Cuba to point to, if questioned by customs. Our story was: the husband is visiting libraries for establishing contact / I am a sociologist and serving in the capacity of Spanish translator to my husband. This narrative demonstrates how it’s not tourism, and establishes the potential benefit to the Cuban people in the form of intellectual exchange and professional networking. It helps that ours was true.

Mark Twain quote truth remember anything

HEALTH INSURANCE

It is mandatory for U.S. citizens entering Cuba to have health insurance recognized by Cuba which, apparently, excludes most, if not all, US-based health plans. Thankfully, United Airlines built a temporary health insurance from ESICUBA into the cost of their ticket, covering the passenger for the first 30 days. I imagine other airlines flying into Cuba do the same — but I would check with them to make sure.

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: I just couldn’t take United Airlines’ website’s “word” for this and contacted their representative to clarify. The operator confessed that the route and rules were brand new and they did not have all the answers ready. Eventually, she confirmed that a $25 portion of the United ticket, indeed, accounts for 30-day health coverage.

Later, at the airport, upon my request, the check-out representative printed a separate receipt and circled the $25 charge for health insurance on it for me. It’s listed in fine print as OOCU25, which could stand for absolutely anything. But I felt safer having the print-out to point to, if need be. Gratefully, it was never disputed.

Can you spot the Health Insurance tariff?

If anyone is wondering why the “paranoid Ex-Soviet” me is so obsessed with print-outs — it’s because she knows that in socialist regimes, when the shizzle hits the proverbial fan, a piece of paper can be mightier than the proverbial sword. Nothing greases the wheels of a bureaucracy better than a nice, crisp sheet of papyrus with some text, official-looking stamps and, preferably, a signature or two. Conversely — to loosely paraphrase a Soviet Russian saying — “Without paper, you are vapor.”

AND THAT’S WHY                                                             YOU ALWAYS BRING A PIECE OF PAPER

CUBAN ENTRY PERMIT

At the Newark Liberty International Airport, the United Airlines check-in line for the Havana flight was sectioned off in a separate corner of the terminal. In addition to charging $50 for the “entry permit”, the Cuban Travel Service collected a service fee of $25 each, which comes to a total of $75 a person for visa expenses.

MONEY: WHAT TO KNOW IN ADVANCE

It used to be that US Americans were not supposed to spend a single penny on anything in Cuba, evidenced by complete lack of “stuff” or receipts brought back stateside. This is no longer the case: Americans can spend liberally and bring back all kinds of goodies (most seem to opt for cigars and rum which are now legal to bring back to the USA, allegedly, in unlimited quantities, as of recent.)

In a complete 180-degree turn-around from the preceding rule, US Americans are now expected to hold on to all their receipts from Cuba for one year. I had full intention to do that until I set foot in Cuba and saw that almost nobody was willing to issue a receipt for anything, like, ever…

In fact, shopping itself in Havana, seemed neither easy nor fun. Shopaholics will be shocked disoriented underwhelmed by socialist marketplace offerings — Cuba is no retail paradise.

But who goes to Cuba for shopping — other than buying pieces from local artists? Go for the beautiful people, the vibrant culture, the gorgeous nature, the unbroken spirit, the awe-inspiring history, the  musical language, the voices in the streets, the whispers in the night and, yes, even the ears in the walls — and you’ll have the time of your life!

Credit Cards

The use of credit is not terribly widespread in Cuba, especially away from the couple of touristy spots in the country, so we did not even bother trying to use ours, as we did not purchase any high-ticket goods or services.

Also, we have heard multiple rumors that U.S. bank cards are not likely to be accepted by Cuban ATMs and did not want to chance it. We brought the amount of cash we conservatively estimated to carry us through the vacation without getting nervous about it.

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: Make sure to alert your bank / credit card company about going to Cuba — or they will cut you off after just one charge having anything to do with “those commies”. Back in Newark airport, my husband paid for entry permits and Cuban government service fees with separate credit cards and, in a matter of minutes, both bank companies shut off all access and texted him a suspicious activity alert. By then, we were rushing to get on the plane and had to leave it unresolved until our return stateside.

…Methinks charging a Cuban visa on a Visa credit card must have raised some red flags in America…

Cash

So, the Internet will tell you: don’t bring US dollars to Cuba — bring Euros or British Pounds! With USD, you will get slayed on the extra fee they tack on to punish the United States for the trade embargo. The official currency exchange services pay out just 87 cents on the dollar and it hurts.

OK, I hear that! And if you’re coming from Europe or you’ve got a big stash of Euros / Pounds lying around, by all means, do bring them to Cuba!

But I’ve done the calculations and it does not make sense to convert USD to Euros or Pounds and then exchange them into the Cuban currency — you’ll pay conversion fees TWICE! That will leave you with even less than 87 on the dollar.

The verdict: bring US dollars. Suck up the crappy government exchange rate — OR — engage with local people for a better deal. Obviously, don’t fall for the fast-talking street con artists — but there are plenty of decent, enterprising Cubans who will have an honest and mutually beneficial transaction with you.

Your best bet will be your “casa particular” hosts, who will likely oblige with a rate between 90 and 94 cents on the dollar. Or they’ll find someone else who will. The key is to be super tactful and indirect when broaching the topic with a new person: instead of “Do YOU exchange money?”, a less threatening phrasing is: “I am looking to exchange money — can you recommend where I can do that?”

Currency: CUC vs. CUP

Yep, Cuba has the frustrating double-currency system: the Cuban Peso (CUP) used by Cuban citizens and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for foreigners. The two sets of bills are similar looking but have dramatically different value and buying power. At the time of writing this, 1 CUC is worth 26.5 CUP.

[The Paranoid Ex-Soviet has some very strong feelings on how insulting and hypocritical the Cuban double currency system is to its own citizens, but she will have to save it for another post…]

As a foreigner, you will be using Convertibles (CUC). Exchanging dollars for Cuban Convertibles is easy math because it corresponds one-for-one with the US Dollar. Say your exchange rate is 90 centavos on the dollar. If you give $100, you get back 90 CUC; if you trade in $200, your return is 90 x 2 = 180 CUC, etc.

Cuban Convertible Peso Travel US Citizen

Cuban Convertible Peso: the currency for foreigners

It is my impression that, in Cuban cities and tourist resorts, local pesos are not something you will ever need, unless you are absolutely set on paying the lowest price for the lowest-cost items, such as spending the bottom penny on a single loose cigarette, sold by an elderly lady in the street.

If paying 50 cents for a 20-cent item absolutely kills you, pocket-change CUP used by locals won’t be hard to obtain: go to a non-tourist tobacco / water / sweets stand, store or   window and buy something trivial with a Convertible bill. The vendor is likely to give you change in local pesos.

Cuban Peso Travel Che

The Cuban Peso: the currency of the Cuban citizens.

Obviously, there is a ton more to know about Cuba but at least now, you can go ahead with the ticket booking process without anxiety 🙂 More Cuba posts coming soon — in the meanwhile, check out our podcast detailing the entire trip.

Happy Trails! Enjoy the wondrous country that is Cuba and please be a kind, respectful and generous representative of the ole U.S. of A. 🙂

“Sociologically Speaking” with Fashion Designer Shwetambari Mody

Fashion Forecasting Board, Fall, Shwetambari Mody

Fashion Forecasting Board, Fall 09/10 © Shwetambari Mody

I have been looking to start writing little sociological features on things and people outside of the immediate realm of the social sciences — to see how our worlds correspond. Fashion has been on my mind lately. And, as luck would have it, I just recently came upon a young international textile designer, who also turned out to be a lovely person, who fits the bill perfectly.

I first saw Shwetambari Mody in an online interview with ITV. She was talking about her work and, just for a moment, flashed images of these gorgeous neck-scarves she created. Those scarves made an impression on me with their colorful pastels and breezy stylishness.

Having just recently moved back to NYC, I was reconnecting with old friends and professional contacts, some in the fashion industry — and lo and behold, was introduced to Shwetambari Mody! She agreed to answer a few questions and even let me see some of her work.

As it turned out, those scarves I liked so much were special. Shwetambari and her sisters conceptualized three scarves as a gift to their mother for her 60th birthday. They came up with three phrases that would capture the different sides of their mother’s personality and Shwetambari then sketched and Photoshopped out the rest and brought them to life in light boxes.

Light Box Scarves Shwetambari Mody

Light Box Scarves © Shwetambari Mody

Now that I got a closer look at these scarves, I can explain their appeal to me better. First of all, they were made with love and you can feel it, somehow. I see a classic look with deeply personal details. As a human, I am drawn to the emotion behind them. As a semiotician, I think of it as intimate content, wrapped in luxury form, which is an attractive and, dare I say, seductive combination.

As a person who has watched multiple seasons of Project Runway, another comment that comes to mind is “it looks expensive”, which is another way of saying “high-fashion”, I think. Accessories tend to serve more than one purpose: they are a form of artistic expression and are supposed to compliment your look, but also, they are a calling card of sorts, announcing your socio-economic standing to the world. Some people consider it frivolous to think or talk about such things, but we take for granted how much social identity management most of us do on a regular basis.

There are very few among us who do not, to some degree, consciously or not, care about the status and class they are projecting, in addition to just looking nice. Getting teeth straightened or whitened is not typically a medical necessity. We invest into “looking healthy” because good health, hygiene, neatness and time to work on one’s appearance are a sign of economic prosperity and, implicitly, social trustworthiness. Getting nails polished? It’s a message you are sending that you don’t do manual labor.

Now that I have met Shwetambari, I am additionally impressed with her level headedness and ability to combine the artistic with the pragmatic, which is a struggle for many creative types. I asked her why and how she went for both, the design degree and an MBA in branding. She said it was because she is an artistic personality from an entrepreneurial family and was always encouraged to pursue her own ideas and interests, as long as she worked very hard at it and kept in mind the business side of things. 

Shwetambari sees too many designers in the industry, who think only in terms of artistic pursuits, but have no understanding of the structural, economic and logistical workings of the industry. As a result, they run into snags when their plans crash and burn against the financial realities of the fashion business.

This problem is actually endemic to many professions that forcefully combine the creative and the pragmatic. This is certainly true of academia: some professors exist in their own intellectual and ideological bubbles, unaware of how their salaries get paid, how academic enrollment works or what the student lives are like. Academic administrators can be equally out of touch with the faculty’s intellectual orientation and the students’ best  educational interests.

Creative freelancers can be lightening-fast at their craft but incredibly slow — and I would go as far as to say psychologically paralyzed — to promote themselves and to set reasonable, sustainable, consistent prices for their services. It is quite understandable: not all are raised and socialized to think in business terms, not everybody has the acumen for it and not everyone cares. But for most creative types, some business courses, books, internships, apprenticeships — any way to get an idea of how things run and what things cost, will spare one of having to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis, if / when one chooses to become self-employed.

I would like to thank Shwetambari Mody for showing me her beautiful work, sharing a bit of her story, explaining to me new things about the fashion industry and indulging my sociological rants. Maybe she will let me follow up, when she releases her collection of Indian Luxury accessories in the future.