Monday, June 22, 2009



In late August, cars across America are filled with clothing,
word processors, CD players, small refrigerators, microwaves,
TV’s mountain bikes strapped to the rear—young people off
to acquire higher education. Another year of college.;

Leningrad (Petrograd, St. Petersburg) is beautiful. The Venice
of the North. It’s romantic. A low profile with a large sky. In
July it’s sun doesn’t drop below the horizon until two or three
in the morning. I heard on the radio yesterday that Tchaikovsky
wrote his final symphony, The Pathetique, in St. Petersburg, and
then drank the water and died of the same infection that still plagues
the supply. Some say he drank it on purpose, committing suicide.
One of our tourists said he would fill his mouth with antiseptic
while taking a shower—worried, still, that he might be infected
through the nose. Contamination concerned all of us in various
ways, used to the condomized, contentious safety-mindedness of

Clean is relative. And tidy too. And safety? Can safety become
relative, a matter of convention? I acknowledge many kinds of
order, rule and regulation necessary for social organization. Can
I be relativist about the various “orders” we impose on the
organization of the human body? Are we continually making
advances in determining its intrinsic arrangement? Its tolerances,
capacities, the inter-relationships of parts (mapped, named, and
described)? I might be a “relativist” about politics, education, and
religion; can I assume the position of medical relativism?

Our dentist didn’t have much to say to his colleague in Krasnaya
Polyana because they are “back in the 60’s in their technology.’
Perhaps they can’t share what a colleague of mine would call the
same “historical sense.” Is medicine that different “in the 60’s” or
in the 1860’s”: worse or simply different than 1990’s medicine? Is
the answer to that question really so obvious? Medical relativism:
a matter of context and culture?

For dental-work, gold is popular and considered cosmetic with
women, anywhere in the mouth; front, side, back.

Sanitation practices may be absolute, but the little buggers
we assume we prevent and frustrate by various techniques
and –ologies may move by laws more relative than our own
notions. It’s a matter of time before we figure out optimum
preventive habits to maximize human health. We must be
wining this war. Unprocessed food—unpackaged, un-
refrigerated, unprotected—is handled with nonchalance in
the groceries on Nevsky Prospekt. Common drinking glasses
are rinsed between use with city water, what supposedly killed
Tchaikovsky. Russians are cholesterol-illiterate, apparently
indifferent to caffeine, nicotine, alcohol as stressful substances,
viewing them the old-fashioned way: with pleasure. I saw no
joggers or brisk walkers, no signs of body–building.

Coming home, right after landing in Kennedy airport,
large public-welfare posters reminded me of my cholesterol
level and my weight—a number of them decorating the
Pan American terminal and catching my eye.,

I live and die in the established conventions, and by them:
social, political, religious, medical, sartorial. Leningradians
may drink their own water. I can’t. (Don’t have their relative
immunities, those related to their environment.) Our youngest
two tourists caught the Leningrad bug, possibly from ice-cubes.
We’re warned: don’t even rinse toothbrushes with the water.
Russians apparently don’t need to bother about cholesterol,
jogging, weight-lifting. Their dentists may not have advanced
enough to wear plastic gloves and face masks.

Familiar red Coke machines sit in the Moscow Hotel in
Leningrad, but the plastic cards needed to purchase the
cans aren’t available yet. Eventually these machines and
similar ones will be as ubiquitous as Lenin. People will no
longer share a common drinking cup and may live longer.

Russian absolutes about education, food-preparation, hosting,
dentistry, driving, sanitation are “relative’ to me. Mine are to
them. But we are all absolutists inside the network of relationship
where we live. Ignoring the network is hazardous to health inside
any system. When in Russia, do as Russians do, or die. Do and die,
actually. Little bits of dying inform travel abroad, no matter how
I hold to my own absolutes or my relativities. I preserve
equilibrium as best I can, rationalizing whatever offends
my values even as their arbitrariness is exposed.
It’s killing.

(Back in the U.S.S.R Summer of 90)

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