Sarah Zuckerman, Amateur Defective

Last week, I finished a book that I’d encountered after reading an article on the Internet. More on that article later, but for now, a brief review of said book, You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt.

You Are One of Them is told from the point of view of Sarah Zuckerman. As a young girl in 1982, at the height of the Cold War, Sarah made friends with a girl called Jennifer Jones who moved onto her block. They decided to write letters to the Premier of the Soviet Union, and though Sarah never heard back, Jenny’s letter received international fanfare and resulted in an invitation to go to the USSR. Some time after, Jenny and her parents perished in a plane crash, resulting in Sarah and her mother creating a foundation in Jenny’s name. One day in 1996, Sarah receives a mysterious email from a woman called Svetlana, who hints that Jenny might still be alive and living in Russia. Sarah follows the trail, tracks down Svetlana, and suffice it to say, has quite an interesting adventure with an unexpected outcome.

That’s all I’m going to say because you should definitely get your hands on this book.

However fictional the book might be, it is based on the short life and tragic death of Samantha Smith, a girl from Maine who exchanged letters with Russian premier Yuri Andropov, and traveled to the Soviet Union as “America’s Youngest Ambassador.”


Flip the Script Friday: Oleg Bogaev, The Russian National Postal Service

Friday the 13th…spooky, but most of all cold. I think I can count on one hand the amount of minutes I spent outdoors today. At least it’s supposed to get up to 30 tomorrow. Since I’ve got a long weekend ahead of me, and I hope to fill it with reading. As for today’s play, I went online a few days ago to look up something about something for something research related…and ended up stumbling across a trove of Russian plays translated into English, courtesy of the Center for International Theater Development. One of them was I Am Me by Alexandra Chichkanova, which I saw done as a lovely site-specific traveling performance around campus by an alumna of my program. I skimmed through almost all of them, and this one sounded the most interesting and unusual: The Russian National Postal Service  by Oleg Bogaev.

Image result for the russian national postal service

Studio Theatre Production, 2004. http://www.michaelgiannitti.com


The Basics

The Russian National Postal Service: A Room of Laughter for a Lonely Pensioner, by Oleg Bogaev and translated by John Freedman. This English translation was first performed at The Studio Theatre, Washington, DC, USA in 2004. The play had its world premiere in Russian at Tabakov Theater in Moscow in 1998.


  • Ivan Sidorovich Zhukov
  • Queen Elizabeth II of England
  • Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
  • Lyubov Orlova – a Russian film star
  • Other characters from Russian history and world literature


Interior of Ivan’s apartment.


Tales From Elementary School: To Vladivostok and Beyond…

Day two of Tuesdays at the elementary school, check. I also led a lesson on Thursday, but today’s turned out to be pretty epic.

In going along with our theme of Russia for social studies, I began where I left off last week, at the end of the Czars and the beginning of the Soviet Union. However, I wanted the kids to get some perspective on just how large Russia really was, so I introduced them to the Trans-Siberian Railway. I know that these kids love anything that has to do with transportation, so it was perfect. We went around the room and made guesses on a) how many miles of train tracks there were, and b) how much time it would take to get from end to end, Moscow to Vladivostok. Some of the guesses were silly, but most were pretty on target. Miranda (again, all names for privacy), one of the youngest students, guessed that the train was 6,000 miles long, which was the closest of anyone; the actual distance, according to my source, was 5,772 miles, but I checked a few more places, and the number seems to be closer to 6,152. Still, in the ballpark. The actual time it takes to travel the whole way is 8 days, and two students got extremely close in their guesses, choosing 7.5 days. Those two? Kate, and…Miranda. I don’t know about you, but if it involves guessing numbers, I want to be on Miranda’s team.

Next, I wondered aloud how long of a trip that would be, so it was time for a class trip. We all lined up in a train, and I used my phone’s stopwatch to time how long it took all of us to march around the block and back to the school, and then see how long it took, and then see how many trips around the school it would take to equal a one-way trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The answer? 1,152. That’s a lot of walking for little legs.

After a quick break, we headed into the Multi-Purpose Room for Part II of the lecture. We left behind the train and fast-forwarded to the 1950s/1960s, the birth of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and the Space Race. Crystal surprised me by knowing what the Cold War was, and explained it to the rest of the class. We then talked a little about the first people to go to space, and the first to land on the moon. Then, it was time to do…a space dance!

First, I instructed everyone to find their own space in the room, and crouch into a ball. Then, I turned on “Cold War” by Janelle Monae – a perfect backdrop song for this activity – and we went through the stages of space flight. We built our rockets, attached our engines, put on our seatbelts, flew through space, landed on the moon, experienced zero-G, re-entered our pods, strapped in, and flew back to Earth, landing just as the final drumbeats hit on the song.

Then, we reconvened in the classroom to talk about the breakup of the Soviet Union, and I broke the kids up into five groups of three, and each group got a packet of info about a country which came from the Soviet Union, and were assigned to make a poster about it, following the diagramming plan (a satellite diagram) that I did on the board about Russia. For this project, I did research on five interesting countries: Azerbaijan, Latvia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Each group got an info packet and an iPad to look up pictures of things like national symbols and flags. Marla helped the Ukraine group with their poster, which included horses and the Chernobyl disaster. The Azerbaijan group worked on their own to draw an incredibly detailed Azeri flag, and made a border of flames, and a cup of tea. I flitted between the three other groups – the Latvia group had a slow start, I think they ended up with a flag and a few other shapes; the Kazakhstan group, consisting of three kids who I wasn’t sure would work together well, came up with a cool poster full of apples and eagles; and the Kyrgyzstan group drew flags, airplanes, snow, tulips, and their national animal, the snow leopard. We only had enough time for Azerbaijan and Ukraine to present, but we’ll finish it up next week.

As for me, I learned a lot today as well. Dealing with the train game taught me to handle outdoor activities with care, and that I need to figure out more about how rocket ships work. Also, when doing guessing games, everyone gets one shot, no answer-changing. And of course, make sure the kids know why Azerbaijan is the Land of Fire, and not just what it is.

Oh, and someone in the class wants to be me when they grow up. So that’s kind of a big deal.


First Day of Elementary School!

Deer  Dear blog,

Today was my first day of school. I learned a lot! The teacher was great, and not bad to look at either. I love school!

Love, Jacob.

Okay, so it wasn’t my first day at a student, but it was my first day as a bona-fide, on-the-payroll elementary school teacher.

Go adult me, real job hell yeah.

So, here’s how it went:

I got to school about an hour before my lesson started at 1 PM. All the kids were there, 10 girls and 5 boys. And before you say anything, for privacy/protection purposes, I am changing all their names. Plus, it’s fun to make up names. Anyway.

I came in and introduced myself, and against my better judgement, I asked a group of children to go around the circle and tell me their names (even though I already knew most of them) and one fun thing they did this summer. It actually went smoothly and no one lost focus until the circle was just about complete. I then led them in the Heartbeat Hello game, after which I started my lesson, which was about storytelling.

I told them about three ways to tell a story: having it read to you, reading it yourself, and performing it. I asked the kids to comment on which type of storytelling they liked. Melanie said that she liked being read to, because she didn’t have to do anything but listen. Crystal said that she enjoyed reading, because when she reads to herself, no one interrupts her, and she can go as fast or as slow as she wants, and she can imagine as she reads. Paul said that he liked acting it out, because he could cast his friends in the roles and put on costumes. Caroline agreed, saying that she could make up her own characters and her own story better by acting it out.

So, I read them this story that I wrote, based on Evgeny Schwartz’s The Dragon:

A long, long time ago, there was a little town in the land of Russia. It was a quiet little town but it had a big problem. A dragon ruled over the town for four hundred years. The dragon had three heads, four paws, and five claws on each paw. He was big and tall with scaly skin, and he breathed fire. Every year, the dragon took someone from the town, and they were never seen again. Everyone was scared of the dragon, even the town mayor.

One night, a man called Lancelot visited the town, to learn more about this dragon. He stopped at a small hut, the house of a man and his daughter. The daughter’s name was Elsa. Lancelot asked Elsa to tell him more about the dragon. Elsa did not want to, for fear that it would bring her the bad luck of being kidnapped by the dragon. But Elsa’s father told Lancelot about the dragon, and how he scared everyone by burning down houses and filling the air with smoke from his breath. He also said how much the dragon ate – many chickens and cows each month, and all the vegetables and fruits they grew in the summer and fall. Lancelot decided that it was time for a change, so for Elsa and her father, he made up his mind to kill the dragon.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Elsa answered it, and an old man walked in. Elsa introduced him to Lancelot. The old man then asked Lancelot why he came to town. When Lancelot told him that he came to kill the dragon, the old man laughed and said that he, himself, was the dragon.

Lancelot was confused – how could this old man be a dragon?

The old man said that he liked to come and visit the people, but to fit into their homes, he had to change himself into a person. Lancelot then challenged him to a fight. If Lancelot won, the dragon would give the people their town back and let the mayor run the town again, and if the Dragon won, he would kidnap Elsa to be his servant. He accepted before going home for the night.

The next day, Lancelot and the dragon met in a field. The town mayor wished Lancelot the best of luck before going to join the rest of the townspeople far away from the fight. The townspeople watched as one by one, Lancelot chopped off each of the dragon’s three heads. The struggle was over. Elsa was safe, and the mayor could run the town again. Lancelot said goodbye to his new friends and went home. Everyone was happy.


One year later, Lancelot returned to the town to visit Elsa and her father. To his surprise, nothing had changed. The people were still poor, and Elsa and her father still lived in the tiny hut. When Lancelot saw Elsa, he asked what happened. She pointed toward the castle where the dragon lived, only now it was the castle where the town mayor lived. She explained that even though the town mayor did not kidnap people, he took the peoples’ animals, vegetables, and fruits, and sold them to make money for the town. Instead of helping the town, he kept the money and made the dragon’s castle even bigger, and moved in himself. Finally, Elsa told him the worst news of all; the mayor decided that he wanted to marry Elsa, and the wedding was tomorrow! Elsa was not happy, and Lancelot needed a plan.

The next day, before the wedding, Lancelot arrived in the town square. Once the townspeople saw Lancelot, they cheered, remembering how he killed the dragon. They urged him to kill the town mayor, who had made their lives harder and was now marrying their friend Elsa. Soon, the mayor arrived, followed by Elsa, to start the wedding. Lancelot went up to the mayor, and asked him what he had done for the town since the dragon’s death. The mayor looked guilty, and said that he had done some bad things. Lancelot was angry. The mayor then asked Lancelot how he could start to help the town. Lancelot then turned to Elsa, and asked her if she wanted to marry the mayor. Elsa looked at both of them, and said that no, she did not want to marry the mayor. The mayor agreed not to marry her, and the wedding was over. Elsa was happy that she had her freedom again, and the mayor was happy that Elsa was happy.

However, the townspeople were still angry at the mayor for all he had put them through. They wanted him dead, just like the dragon. Lancelot turned to them and said that killing the mayor would not help anything; someone else could then become the new mayor and be even worse for the town. Instead, Lancelot told the town that everyone has a little bit of the dragon inside them, and to have happy lives, they needed to stop that dragon and do what was right, just like the mayor did by not marrying Elsa. The town said thank you to Lancelot, and worked on making their lives better, little by little.

The End.

After the story was read, I passed out copies of the same story, and we went around the circle, each reading two lines. I was surprised at the fact that almost everyone could read all the words, although a few times, the next kid in the circle stopped paying attention, so we had to stop the flow of the story to catch him or her up. I checked the time, and we were barely halfway through the story and it was already 1:50 PM, so I finished up until “however…” and then acted it out, with me as the narrator.

I narrated as Caroline stood up to play Lancelot, and Max and Susie sat in their tiny hut (made by the arms of Melanie and Grace), and Paul and Jordan created a giant castle behind them for Susie to point at. Then, we switched out for the next scene, the morning. Natalie got up to play Lancelot, and the rest of the kids were excellent townspeople, cheering for her. Ariana, who’s very particular about what parts she plays, was happy when I called her up to be the mayor, and I had her bring up Kate to be her Elsa. Natalie repeated Lancelot’s angry words, and Ariana played a sheepish town mayor. The best part? When Natalie asked Kate, as Elsa, if she wanted to get married, and before she could even get the question out, Kate let out a firm and immediate “NO,” causing us all to laugh. Natalie then repeated Lancelot’s wise words to the angry townspeople, and they thanked her.

In our reflection, I got mostly silly answers, but it had been almost an hour. In the brief “what did you learn?” question, Crystal said that she learned that you can’t place blame on just one person for all your problems, and Susie – one of the youngest – said that she thought the point was that you can’t just say that something’s fixed and walk away, you have to make sure that it stays fixed.

After a brief bathroom break, it was time for the lecture portion, so I told them about Evgeny Schwartz, his life, and walked them through 1000 years of Russian history in just about 15 minutes. Surprisingly, most of them stayed with me, with the exceptions of three goofballs, but I just ignored them and maintained eye contact with the kids who were paying attention and asking questions. When I told them Evgeny Schwartz’s birth/death dates, both Grace and Max asked me how Schwartz died, and Melanie – who quickly determined that he died at age 62 – said that it was probably old age. Thank goodness 62 seems like an old age to a 10-year-old.

At 2:30, I introduced the concept of a satellite diagram, and drew one about Russia, after which they went back to their seats for written/drawn journal time, and my first lesson was done. When Marla (real name of their teacher), asked them for feedback on the lesson, what they said basically melted my heart. Susie had fun learning a new story, and she loves dragons, so that was a bonus. Melanie and Crystal were amazed that we learned social studies, history, and theatre all at the same time, and Paul called me the best teacher ever, which basically put him on my good list, forever. Marla said that it went exactly the way she imagined it would go, so…mission accomplished. I was so worried that I’d be too boring, or slip into college-teaching mode, but it seemed to come together, somehow.

I think I’ll go back on Thursday.


Party for Everybody Dance

Once upon a time, in 2011, a group of grandmothers from Buranovo, Russia, decided to form a singing group.

They called themselves Buranovskiye Babushki.

Their goal: Eurovision glory.

On their first try, they didn’t go very far.

On their second try, however, they sang a song called “Party for Everybody” and there was literally a party for everybody when they beat out past Eurovision winner Dima Bilan, among others, for a shot at Eurovision that year in Baku, Azerbaijan. The song was mostly in Udmurt with one phrase in English. At Eurovision, they scored a healthy second place to the incomparable Loreen. Good going for a group of grannies.

Here’s how singer Elena Ekimova reacted, as well as Dima Bilan and his team. Note the stark contrast.



Thoughts on Pairs Ice Skating

As I wind down a moderately successful Saturday, I sit on my couch enjoying the latest sporting event from the Winter Olympics in Sochi: Pairs Ice Skating, live. I’m not quite sure on the difference between pairs and ice dancing; I’m inclined to think that pairs is more about acrobatics and stunts, whereas ice dancing features more traditional dance moves and focuses more on artistry than aerodynamics.

I was in a show tonight and last night, a comedy piece put on by the department’s graduate student organization. Last night, we had seven people, and I was not nervous at all; tonight, however, the audience was packed, and 16 of them were friends of mine – mine – so that put on the pressure a little bit. It was script-in-hand and only about 35-45 minutes long, but tonight I was noticeable shaky – not with the lines or my voice, but my left hand/arm kinda had a nervous twitch that I was hoping nobody in the audience noticed. Maybe it was the spicy latte I enjoyed before going on, or maybe just excitement. It got better as the night went on, but by the end I kinda wished that I could do it all over again, feeling less shaky. It ended up being fine on the whole and it was nice to see everyone.

But back to the skating. This past hour, I watched pairs from Russia, Canada, Italy, and the USA do the “free skate” – I think that’s what they call it – and in three out of the four, someone fell on the ice. The Americans chose to skate to “Skyfall,” which is pretty but probably not the best song to skate to, solely based on the title. The Italians fared a little better, but the female skater took a hard face fall. The Canadian pair was better, but there was still a point where the woman was dangerously close to breaking her wrists. The Russians enjoyed a near flawless program, because…well, they were really good.

I’m not ragging on pairs or ice skating, at all, because it takes an incredible amount of strength, stamina, and coordination that I do not possess. In terms of pressure and exposure, there’s so much more. There’s the teamwork element that you don’t have when you’re out there on the ice – or the stage – alone. There was a little fear there of screwing something up on stage and falling flat, but being part of an eight person team not on international television and with no medals riding on our performance was comforting as we were able to work together and support each other. There is strength in numbers, and though I love performing solo at times, being with a group of people feels even better. And no matter how bad I think I am on stage, at least it wasn’t for a nation’s Olympic team, or televised to billions around the globe.

I need to remind myself of that more often.

Still, whatever possessed the Russian pair to pick “The Addams Family” seems to be working, as their performance tonight has been the only one without a single fall.


I Predict An Earthling Will Win: Miss Universe 2013

It’s that time of year again, and this time, on Saturday night, the eyes of the world will be on Moscow, Russia, for the biggest beauty pageant of the year, where one woman will reign victorious as the most beautiful woman in the universe and the rest will just be a bunch of losers with a lot more frequent flier miles. And this year, cold losers. What was Donald Trump thinking when he planned an event in December in Russia? Granted, it’s a lot more interesting than Las Vegas, but couldn’t they have chosen, like, Tahiti? Or Australia? Or even Italy, which is just as cultural and probably a lot warmer this time of year?

The hosts this year are Thomas Roberts (?) and former Spice Girl Mel B. Andy Cohen, who’s pretty annoying anyway, boycotted the pageant due to Russia’s stance on homosexuality. This year, 86 ladies will participate, and for the first time in over fifty years, Myanmar, and for the first time ever, Azerbaijan, a small country bordering Russia. Though there are a lot of beautiful girls this year (an unusual amount, I think), it’s still all about politics. Kosovo had to bow out due to it not being recognized by Russia as an independent country, and Albania withdrew in solidarity. Uruguay couldn’t even get a visa, for some odd reason. I have a feeling we’ll see a lot of Europeans in the finals this year.

They give out awards for congeniality and photogenic-ness, so I thought I’d give out my own awards.

The “Aren’t You In My History Class?” Award: Girls Who Study in the USA

  • Angola (Vaumara Rebelo) is studying business at Miami-Dade College in Miami, FL.
  • Bahamas (Lexi Wilson) has a degree in biology from Langston University in Langston, OK.
  • British Virgin Islands (Sharie De Castro) graduated from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX.
  • Chile (Maria-Jesus Matthei) graduated from college in Miami, FL.
  • Ghana (Hanniel Jamin) is studying at Radford University in Radford, VA.
  • Guyana (Katherina Roshana) is a college student in Long Island, NY.
  • Haiti (Mondiana Pierre) is a college student in Miami, FL.
  • Myanmar (Moe Set Wine) has a degree from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, CA.
  • Nicaragua (Nastassja Bolivar) studied at Miami International University in Miami, FL.
  • Trinidad and Tobago (Catherine Miller) graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA.
  • Turks and Caicos (Snwazna Adams) graduated from St. Thomas University in Miami, FL.

Maybe Angola and Haiti can carpool once neither of them wins. (Sorry, girls, but I don’t think it’ll be you this year.)

And, for good measure:

The “You’re Not From Around Here, or Are You?” Award: Girls Born in a Different Country From the One They Represent:

  • Guyana (Katherina Roshana) was born in Brooklyn, New York, USA.
  • Israel (Yityish Titi Aynaw) was born in Chahawit, Gondar, Ethiopia.
  • Italy (Luna Voce) was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
  • Nicaragua (Nastassja Bolivar) was born in Miami, Florida, USA.
  • Russia (Elmira Abdrazakova) was born in Zhelezin District, Kazakhstan.
  • Turkey (Berrin Kekliker) was born in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

So, not that many this year.

Traditionally they have a top 15, and this year, 1 more from the Internet viewers to make it a top 16. I’ve picked my favorites, which probably means that they will be clapping come Saturday night.

In alphabetical order:

  1. Brazil (Jakelyne Oliveira) – she’s pretty, if not a little plastic-looking.
  2. Curacao (Eline de Pool) – kind of looks like Jeannie Mai, and very pretty for a country that’s barely placed in the past.
  3. Czech Republic (Gabriela Kratochvilova) – hilarious in her YouTube video and looks like she’d actually be fun to hang out with.
  4. Guatemala (Paulette Samayoa) – she seems funny from her interview, and she’s kinda cute.
  5. Honduras (Diana Mendoza) – Her name is Diana Mendoza. There’s already BEEN a Miss Universe named Diana (Dayana) Mendoza. IMAGINE THE CONFUSION.
  6. Hungary (Rebeka Karpati) – I don’t know why, but I think she’s kind of adorable. No real other reason.
  7. Israel (Yityish “Titi” Aynaw) – Obvious reasons, and she’s also drop dead gorgeous. Also, she’s gotten a lot of buzz already for being the first black Miss Israel, meeting and dining with Obama in Jerusalem, and visiting the USA. Also, she looks great even in candid shots.
  8. Japan (Yukimi Matsuo) – she’s a comic book artist, and a really talented one at that. I like people who are multi-faceted and she seems like one of them.
  9. Myanmar (Moe Set Wine) – it would be hilarious if Myanmar made a huge comeback. She seems plain and there’s absolutely no chance she’s going to actually win, but she might get the Internet spot.
  10. Namibia (Paulina Malulu) – her name is funny, and she has a lot of experience as a beauty queen, so she’s one of the more qualified, if we’re going by that.
  11. Poland (Paulina Krupinska) – already tapped as a potential winner, I really like all of the pictures I’ve seen of Miss Poland. Much like Israel, she can’t take a bad picture.
  12. Puerto Rico (Monic Perez) – she seems rather intelligent, and speaks Russian in addition to English and Spanish. I know Puerto Rico usually wins and I root for the underdog, but I wouldn’t be mad if this girl wins, as it’s been almost a decade since a Miss Puerto Rico won.
  13. Switzerland (Dominique Rinderknecht) – Miley Cyrus totally copied her haircut, and in her YouTube video, she keeps a balloon in the air for a really long time using just her breath. Either she’s really good at following directions, or full of hot air. Either way, a fun girl.
  14. Thailand (Chalita Yaemwannang) – I’d love to see how many ways the press will mispronounce and misprint her name.
  15. Ukraine (Olga Storozhenko) – another girl from a nearby country with good relations with Russia. She looks very dainty and ladylike, in contrast to the current Miss Universe, who’s pretty and relatable but wasn’t my choice last year.
  16. Venezuela (Maria Gabriela Isler) – another girl, like Puerto Rico, from a country that’s had more than its share of winners, but just look at this chick, she’s gorgeous, and if she wins based on her beauty alone…well then, that’s not the worst thing to win based on, since she’s competing in, you know, a beauty pageant.

I have a few more pageant-related posts in the works (it’s not an obsession, I swear, just a fascination), but I’m really hoping for some history to be made, or at least an awkward final question answer.