Sunday, March 28, 2010

I attend a Coffee Party

You’ve heard about the Tea Party here in the United States. Maybe you’ve even heard about the Coffee Party. Yesterday, I dropped by a small gathering of would-be activists to learn for myself about this second group.

The Coffee Party as I understand it is a reaction to rancor and vitriol spilled by the Tea Party. As opposed to focusing on hate for the status quo, the idea is to think constructively about the nation’s problems and make some suggestions. The difference as I understand it is as much about the approach as it is about the issues. The organizers of the Coffee Party are quite careful not to identify themselves as "progressives" or "liberals." The idea is to build bridges rather than to throw stones.

I had heard about the Coffee Party from an e-mail sent by the loosely organized group. The note said I could punch my zip code into the web site and learn if there were any meetings nearby. Because I don’t live in a metropolitan area, usually such meetings are too far away. In this case, however, I learned that the meeting was planned at the local university. Very convenient. I decided to drop by.

The meeting attracted 10 people – six undergrad college students and four people who were in their late 40s or older. Overall, there were three males – two older guys & one student. The age gap was a little awkward. I was aware of the differences in our experiences. One woman referred to marching against war for the last 30 years or so. These students have different experiences, different history. Ronald Reagan is a historical figure for these students, not a president they protested. The Contras? Who? Ollie North? The Vietnam War perhaps gets lumped in with the Korean War, just another meaningless war in Asia.

If anything, I would have preferred to hear more from these younger students, but they may have felt shy in front of older people who were obviously so passionate about political issues. What are the issues that are motivating the young people? Some of them discussed same-sex marriage, for example, remarking how they did not see the rationale for preventing it. In future meetings, it might be good to structure the discussion so that all members of the group are allocated time to enunciate their political concerns.

The agenda of the group was fuzzy – but the facilitator had some instructions from headquarters to help guide the meeting. Our primary agenda for the meeting was to discuss our personal priorities and then decide on a priority for our little group. While we deemed many issues important – stopping the war, protecting the environment, improving the education system – the issue that lay at the core was the reform of the campaign financing system.

How to fix it? That’s a hard question, because there are serious legal issues involved. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court invalidated a major part of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. None of us were lawyers. But we agreed on a gut level feeling that the political process has been corrupted by the power of money trumping the power of individuals.

Perhaps we could even agree with Tea Party activists on this point. I don’t know.

What’s next? We’re going to meet soon with our legendarily right-wing congressional representative to communicate our concerns. Beyond that, I don’t know. It may seem like the fruits of this organizing effort are small, but personally I believe that every action has an effect. The motives behind our meeting were good and positive, so I expect that the results will be similarly positive and good.

Oh, and one of the students even bought me coffee. Very nice!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter 8

Buna knew this feeling. It always came after a few days. And she had it when she awoke after spending her third night in the hospital. The crushing demoralization of the day before had passed. Her hands were still shaky, but her legs were steady enough to walk. Buna had even been able to eat yesterday evening, and the previous night she slept for at least four hours, albeit still bathed in sweat. Now, she experienced the feeling of oppressive boredom and an itchy irritability. This feeling permeated every cell. She knew the cure for this feeling.

Buna also knew, of course, that Dr. Semonova would not agree to discharge her. She might even threaten to turn her over to the police, who after all had arrested her following that stupid fight with that stupid woman in the bar. But there was no reason for Dr. Semonova to know that she was leaving.

Buna quietly changed into her dress that had been stored in a cardboard box under her bed. She slipped on her shoes and made it all the way to the rear entrance, only to see the night nurse sitting on a chair by door, watching her every move.

“Where are you going, sister?” the woman asked.

“Going for a smoke.”

“You can smoke down the hall.”

Buna fingered the long, blue scarf she had tied around her neck. The scarf had been a present from Emin last year. They argued terribly on the night he gave it to her, the night when he got his new job. She thought the scarf, of real silk, was much too extravagant. And she didn’t think she deserved it. Now, she untied the knot at her neck.

The woman fingered the scarf slowly, holding it up in the dim light before stuffing it into her pocket. She walked away while Buna quietly opened the door and walked softly down the stairway. Buna opened the door, and felt the cool morning breeze blowing. The streets were empty, except for the street cleaners sweeping. She needed just a moment to orient herself, but then realized that she knew someone who ran a small café, not too far away. She began walking in that direction.

As Buna had expected, Dr. Semonova was angry to find that she had left, although not surprised in any way. She was not angry at Buna, but annoyed at herself for thinking that perhaps the alcoholic could change and save herself. Dr. Semonova questioned the night nurse about her departure, but the night nurse rightfully claimed that she couldn’t supervise all the patients all the time. Buna must have slipped out when the nurse went to the toilet. Dr. Semonova didn’t pursue the matter. She had more important things to worry about than alcoholics determined to drink themselves to death. The final preparations were being made in the hospital for the visit by the First Lady. A headache-inducing smell of fresh paint still hung in the air. Even some of the old chairs in her ward had been replaced. Workers were bringing a new portrait of Heymar Alidev, the final touch to complete the renovation of the ward, in the afternoon.

When Emin arrived with the portrait, Dr. Semonova was surprised that only one man handled these tasks. Emin told her that he worked alone. He was used to it, and he appeared to know his job quite well. When she pointed out the proposed location for the poster, he looked to her with the smallest of smiles.

“I understand,” he said. “It’s a good place.”

Dr. Semonova watched him as he climbed the ladder, hammering in some hooks to hang the portrait. She liked his quiet simplicity. How could such a nice man be working for such evil? After he had hung the large portrait and Heymar Alidev smiled benevolently upon the ward, she offered Emin a cup of tea.

“Just come to my office when you are done,” she told him.

He had no other tasks for the afternoon, so he agreed. When he knocked, she was filling out the daily report for the day: one patient missing, two discharged, one transferred.

“I don’t want to disturb you,” he said as he entered.

“No, please. Sit down,” she motioned to the chair by the desk.

She picked up the phone and spoke to one of the nurses, asking for some tea. Within moments, the nurse was at the door, bearing a tray with a teapot, small glasses, and a small bowl of candy. Dr. Semonova poured him a glass.

“So are you pleased with the portrait?” she asked.

“Thank you. Yes. It’s one of the better portraits. You know, Heymar has different moods. He’s in a peaceful mood in this picture. This mood is good for this place.”

“I think you’re right. Our patients do need much rest and peace,” she said. “You probably know all his moods.”

Emin smiled.

“The hospital director tells me that this portrait will help people get better. Do you think this is right?”

Emin took one of the candies from the dish, and unwrapped it carefully. He folded up the sticky candy wrapper and placed it in his saucer. The candy was a hard lemon drop. He sucked he for a minute before he answered.

“The hospital director told you that?”


“Well, if he is the director, then he is probably right. I am not a doctor. My job is just to hang the posters.”

“I’m sorry. It was a silly question. I’m grateful for the picture.”

“Thank you. I am glad to help. I think your patients will like it.”

Dr. Semonova noticed the ring on his finger.

“You’re married. How nice!”



“Yes, three. Two boys and a girl.”

Emin fingered his wedding band. He had forgotten that he wore it. How long should he wear it? He probably should have taken it off already. Was she gone for good this time? Probably.

“She must be very lucky,” said Dr. Semonova.

“Wonderful. I love children.”

They sipped their tea in silence.

Emin was startled by this thought, and suddenly uncomfortable with this woman.

“No, I am very lucky to have her.”

He put his tea and saucer on the tray.

“Thank you very much for the tea. I should get back to my family. My wife doesn’t like it when I come home late for dinner.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you again for your work. I was very happy to meet you.”

“My pleasure.”

She shook his hand with a firm grip and opened the door for him. The nursing staff was changing shifts as he left, and he walked out with the two nurses who worked on the ward during the day. They chatted about their plans for the evening, the parade and the fireworks that were planned. Today was the first of three days of celebration to mark Heymar Alidev’s birthday. Already people were gathering on the street, lining the parade route. Fighter jets swooshed through the air, tracing fantastic patterns with colored smoke. But Emin was not in a mood for a parade or fireworks. He knew of a café not too far from this place, so he began to walk in that direction.

The End

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chapter Seven

Buna was sick again. She vomited into the little bucket by her bed, retching out a thin stream of yellow bile. Her stomach was empty and her insides felt like they had been wrung dry. She managed to put the pail down without spilling it. Her head fell back into the gray, stiff pillow. Every noise, sight, and smell in the ward grated on her nerves. The shoes of the nurses on their morning rounds clicked painfully. The sound of the patient breathing in the next bed raked her ears. The smell of the disinfectant in the ward and the smell of her own vomit oppressed her.

Buna was sick, but her head was clearer since her conversation with Dr. Semonova. Now, the facts of her situation were becoming depressingly clear. She knew where she was, although she hadn’t been to this hospital. About a year ago, she was in a similar ward, in the south of the city. Emin had eventually found her there, after he had called all the hospitals around the city. Maybe he would find her again. Maybe not. The thought tore at her like a twisting knife. She knew it would be better if he did not find her, if he just forgot her. Emin was far too decent for her. Better that he just get on with his life. They had tried, but something wasn’t right, because she had failed again. She would always fail.

While Buna was a proud woman, reticent about expressing any tenderness, in her weakened condition she felt tears well up inside. The feeling, so unfamiliar, frightened her. Her chest began to heave as she began to sob softly, turning her face into the gray, stiff pillow.

Only a couple of nurses worked this ward in these early morning hours, when the sun began to creep over the factory next door and illuminate the hall for all too brief a spell. And the sorrow of one more patient was hardly noteworthy in any case. Everybody had problems. But on this morning, Dr. Semonova herself was in the ward. She had slept poorly the night before, and sometimes a visit to the hospital wards was oddly soothing, reminding herself of other people’s problems. Her conversation with Burgar the day before still rankled her, and she vacillated between righteous indignation, anxiety, and fatigue.

Of course, she was indignant to be commanded by such an incompetent idiot to act as yet another soldier in the propaganda army of the president. And she was anxious, because she was all too aware of her own tenuous position. Her long tenure in the hospital meant nothing. A talented and highly respected surgeon lost his job in the spring, all because of some silly argument at a party. He made some intemperate remarks about the president’s father to a government official, and the next day he was fired. The doctor was fortunate, because he had relatives abroad, and he was able to leave the country quickly. Otherwise, more trouble would probably have followed. But Dr. Semonova had no one. Her work was her life. But on this morning, she felt particularly fatigued. She was tired of an endless struggle. For a time, she had hope that her new nation would re-build itself, that the people of the country might make some social or material progress. But the signs now seemed to point in the opposite direction, of a nation becoming more servile, more craven, more stupid.

Preoccupied with her thoughts, Dr. Semonova mechanically paced the aisles of the ward, arriving finally at the bed where Buna lay crying. Dr. Semonova remembered her with a twinge of disgust, and for a moment even felt a perverse pleasure in seeing her cry. Yes, you should cry. This is what your fun gets you – a lonely bed here, where you can cry your lonely heart out. But Dr. Semonova couldn’t enjoy her self-righteousness for long. Buna’s sobs were too bitter. She sat down on the narrow bed and touched Buna’s shoulder.

“There, there, dear. It’s alright. You’ll be feeling better soon.”

Saying such kind words felt odd in her throat, but she found herself saying them anyway. Buna stopped sobbing so loudly, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge the presence of the doctor on her bed. And Dr. Semonova just sat there, watching the morning sunlight seep into the ward, her hand on Buna’s shoulder.

As she gazed at the room, a sudden movement caught her eye. A rat. Again. That hole above the nurses’ table had been filled only two months ago, but the rodents had again gnawed and clawed an opening. From there, they could easily jump onto the ancient curtain, scamper down and retrieve any food patients left by their beds. And the rat gazed at her with disconcerting security and confidence. He could never be eradicated. This was his home. Dr. Semonova realized this fact, but she also had a flash of insight. The rat hole was the perfect place for the poster of Heymar Alidev. He would cover up the rat hole at least. With any luck, the rats would chew a hole into the portrait itself.

Buna stirred. She turned and saw the mean doctor sitting next to her. Buna felt the reflexive desire to be angry at the doctor, but she was too tired, too sick.

“Water?” she asked.

Dr. Semonova turned to look at the poor woman. Her eyes were very bloodshot. Her skin was pale and clammy. She was going through the worst of withdrawal from alcohol, but she would probably survive this time. Without a word, Dr. Semonova rose from the bed. She poured a glass of water for Buna at the cracked porcelain sink at the far end of the ward and brought it back to her.

“Here,” said Dr. Semonova.

Buna took the glass with both hands, raising it to her lips and drinking it cautiously. She felt a little liquid go down her throat and then handed the glass back to Dr. Semonova. She fell back on the bed, exhausted and nauseated by her efforts.

“I’m sorry,” Buna said.

She was, indeed, sorry but not for anything in particular. She was sorry for everything. For getting sick. For getting drunk. Sorry for bothering Dr. Semonova. Sorry for hurting her husband. Buna felt the deep regret and shame peculiar to a person recovering from a very long and serious spell of drinking.

“Yes, I know.”

Dr. Semonova took Buna’s cool and damp hand and gave it a little squeeze.

“You’ll be feeling better soon.”

“My husband?”

The doctor looked at her in surprise. She really had assumed that all of this woman’s family life was a fantasy. But perhaps Buna actually did have someone who cared for her. In a strange way, the doctor felt a momentary twinge of jealousy.

“Your husband? Where is he?”

But Buna had already regretted her question, remembering her earlier stoic resolve. Better for her to die alone, to let Emin be. She could not bear to have him see her like this again.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said, lapsing into quiet sobs again.

Dr. Semonova sat with her, listening to Buna cry softly. After a few minutes, one of the nurses came over to the two women. It was highly unusual for the doctor to hold anyone’s hand.

“Is anything the matter?” the nurse asked.

“No, nothing,” replied the doctor, carefully putting Buna’s hand on the thin brown blanket.

“Nothing unusual. But keep an eye on her. She’ll want some food by the end of the day. Not much. Just a little soup.”

The doctor rose and glanced at her watch. She had to return to the office to finish a report to the health committee. And she would write a memo to Burgar, to inform him about the location for the new portrait in the ward.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Real estate genius?

The latest evidence of the wealth accruing to the ruling family in Azerbaijan has been published on the Internet. This article by the Times details the real estate riches acquired by Heydar Aliyev, the 12-year-old son of the current president of Azerbaijan. Nine luxury properties in Dubai had been bought during a two-week period last year when the youth spent $44 million. In all, the president's children have real estate holdings of about $75 million.

This is wonderful. It's very important that young people be taught how to invest and save. The president is setting a fine example for other parents in Azerbaijan, encouraging his son's thrift and enterprise.

President Ilham Aliyev indeed sets a very notable example, and apparently, it has an effect. The country, after all, is recognized for its stubbornly high level of corruption.

It's also recognized for its high level of income disparity. While the president's son is investing millions of dollars in Dubai, the yearly gross national income per capita is roughly $666.

(As it happened, I needed to talk with someone in Azerbaijan this morning. The journalist I was contacting, however, couldn't talk because her newsroom was facing a momentary crisis. The news outlet's website was facing very strange and serious problems. Very mysterious. Perhaps the president does not want to share the news about his financially savvy son?)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Skewed priorities

Ah, the priorities of the government of Azerbaijan were on display again this week, as it was revealed that it had spent thousands of manat to import olive trees. A total of 3,000 bushes and 300 trees were imported to be planted in Baku's National Park, an expenditure that could easily exceed $3 million if each one costs $100, a very conservative estimate. Of course, this excludes customs duties, etc.

It reminds me the expenses I saw daily when I walked in this park. Very beautiful, yes. Always with some project underway. New paving stones laid down - before the old ones are hardly worn. New plantings every week. The government seemed quite willing to invest in the cosmetics of the park, but very unwilling to invest in the people in Azerbaijan.