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If you’re interested in me blabbing about Russian literature, visit my recent post at the Russian Reading Challenge. I can’t believe I wrote all that crap and it’s not even for a class. My actual literature class must be giving me the illusion that I actually have something to say about literature.

I’d been thinking about Marshmallow Peeps all week, and then I ran across Peeps for Passover today, and then I discovered Washington Post’s Peeps Diorama Contest. And basically, well, I’m really craving some Peeps now. I haven’t seen them here in Sweden. If someone in the U.S. wanted to buy a whole lot of Peeps and Cadbury Creme Eggs at an after-Easter clearance sale and send them to me, I could return the favor with some exotic Swedish candy. Salty licorice anyone? (Just kidding, that stuff is hard for the uninitiated to stomach. I’ll send something else.)

It’s been a pretty mild winter, and I’ve already thought it was over a few times, but we got a cold snap for Easter and the first official days of spring. It was cold enough to re-freeze some of the lakes that had already thawed.

We went for a walk this afternoon and saw all these footprints in the snow on Lake Varpan leading to a very appealing little island.


We decided it was our big chance to walk across the lake and explore the island, so we ignored our initial fears and stepped onto the ice.


We reached the island without incident. We saw an ice fishing hole and even some bicycle tracks in the snow. The island was very nice, except for the unexpected campsite that was littered with trash.


Kostia ventured to Land’s End.


Easter self-portrait.


In Sweden, Easter is the holiday when children dress up as witches and go from house to house begging for candy. Last year I didn’t notice, but this year we live in a neighborhood with lots of kids, and I also happened to be downtown on the last day of school before the Easter break, so I saw lots of kids who looked like this:

photo from

Sweden’s very secular, but Easter is a big deal as a candy-eating and family holiday. Kids have a week off from school, even though Winter Sports Break was just a couple weeks ago, and it’s the biggest domestic travel period of the year. Perhaps the latter is because the weather is better at Easter than at Christmas, but that may not be the case this year. They’re predicting snowstoms this weekend.

The Young Left is having a protest against the U.S. war in Iraq today in a square in downtown Falun. This will be about as effective as protesting in front of the post office in Ann Arbor (something I did on a regular basis about a decade ago) which is to say, not at all. Still, I’d like to show my support for these well-intentioned youths and take some pictures for y’all, but I’ve already biked downtown and back once today, so I think I’m just too lazy. Sigh.

Those of you who know me from Chicago, Ann Arbor, or Washington will be shocked to know that I’ve been bicycle-less for the past three and a half years. In St. Petersburg it’s too dangerous to ride in traffic because the drivers are insane, and the weather is bad a lot of the time. When we were here in Falun last year we just never got around to getting bikes. But the truth is, I hate walking. It’s so slow and boring! So, my quality of life just got about 20 times better. I just bought a really nice used bike at a really fair price that has everything I want and need for urban transport and nothing I don’t: chunky tires, fenders, 7 gears, a rack on the back, and a bell.

The guy who sold it to me was rather taciturn. From the ad itself to our transaction, he used as few words as possible. He seemed rather unexcited about selling it. Maybe it belonged to his daughter and she died or something. One could write a short story based on this idea.

I’m originally from New York State, and the first election I ever voted in was when beloved Governor Mario Cuomo was defeated for re-election by George Pataki, mostly because Pataki promised to reinstate the death penalty in New York, and all those “pro-life” Catholics in Upstate New York really seem to like the death penalty. That election broke my little teenage heart.

I was registered to vote in Washington, DC, and not New York, for the 2006 election, but I was pleased that not only did the Republicans lose control of the US Congress, but Pataki lost the New York governorship to Eliot Spitzer. I don’t follow my home state’s politics too closely – I leave that to my dad, for whom Albany is like a second home – so I really didn’t know much about Spitzer or what he’s been up to until the news broke this week that what he’s been up to is cavorting with very expensive prostitutes.

Between this and reading Natalia Antonova’s excellent blog, which often deals with issues of human trafficking and sex-worker rights, I’ve been thinking a lot about prostitution: whether it should be legal or illegal, its effect on society and women in particular, professional sex workers who don’t feel coerced but actually like their jobs, and the fact that they don’t call it “the world’s oldest profession” for nothing – that is, prostitution is not going to disappear, ever, so we might as well figure out how best to deal with it.

Part of me buys the notion that prostitution should simply be legalized. What consenting adults do is a matter of concern to themselves and maybe family and friends, but not society as a whole. The biggest problem with prostitution is that some women are forced into it, mistreated by their pimps and customers, and don’t get the medical care they need to make sure that everyone involved is safe. Legalizing prostitution, in theory, can minimize these problems because sex workers would have the right to form unions, contest their working conditions, and insist that clients use prophylactics, among other things.

But then I read this interesting article, which compares the Dutch model (legalization) with the Swedish model (selling sex is legal, buying sex isn’t), and says that the former has resulted in a booming sex industry which actually encourages the trafficking of unwilling, and often underaged, women, while the latter has reduced trafficking. This line hit me like a punch in the stomach: “the bottom line is that if you want to rape a 13-year-old girl imported from Eastern Europe, you’ll have a much easier time in Amsterdam than in Stockholm.” This guy has a way with words. The point of the article is the irony that Spitzer was pushing for legislation similar to the Swedish model, criminalizing himself.

So maybe the Swedish model is the best solution (isn’t it always?) but what about the question of criminalizing consenting adults? I mean, we all feel a little sick when a family man like Spitzer publicly admits to sleeping with prostitutes while his lovely wife is standing by his side, but that’s their problem to work out, not ours. What about a guy who doesn’t have a family? Whose business is it then? You might judge him on a personal level, but is it necessary to do so on a legal level?

I suppose I still think that legalization is the answer, but a government has to remain vigilant about monitoring the trafficking and mistreatment of sex workers. I’m not sure what the Dutch government is doing (or not doing), exactly – I guess I ought to do some research.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think Spitzer should step down. Whether or not you agree with certain laws, a public official should obey them unless s/he is participating in some form of principled civil disobedience, which hypocritical Spitzer clearly wasn’t. He obviously wouldn’t have any political capital left if he stayed in office. So, he has to go.

The silver lining is that New York is going to have its first African-American governor. It’s unfortunate that it had to happen in such a roundabout way, but if he does a good job he’ll get re-elected and nobody will care how he got there. Good luck, David Paterson!

With my sprained ankle, a relatively relaxed schedule, an interesting literature course and access to a good library, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. The three novels I’ve read for the literature course, Cal by Bernard Mac Laverty, Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, are books that I probably wouldn’t have thought of reading if it wasn’t for the course, but as it turns out I enjoyed them all.

The two books I’ve read outside of class have something in common; they are both novelized biographies. I wasn’t aiming for a theme, it just happened accidentally.

Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine is the story of a boy with a French grandmother growing up in the Soviet Union and eventually defecting to France. I didn’t like it at first; it seemed like overly poetic description without a plot, but just when I was about to give up on it I told myself to read a few more pages, and luckily, in those pages the story started moving.

What is the What is, quite simply, essential reading. It is the story of a Sudanese refugee, and if your reaction to reading that is anything like “Well, I’m sure that’s an important book but the world is full of so much suffering and I send money to UNICEF sometimes and what more can I do?” I especially recommend reading it, because it is, in addition to being important, good reading. I just spent an entire Sunday in bed, finishing it. And I’m adding The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation to my “Take Action” links in the sidebar.

I just read this interesting article from the New York Times Magazine: Teaching Boys and Girls Separately, about experiments with single-sex education in public schools in the U.S.

I reject the essentializing of gender, the idea that all males behave one way and all females behave another way. Studies about gender and sex differences are inherently flawed: since people are always raised in a society with differentiated sex roles, there is no control group for testing sex differences.

On the other hand, in my (admittedly limited) experience as a teacher in school classrooms, it’s pretty easy to generalize about boys’ and girls’ behavior. When I was teaching eight-year-olds in St. Petersburg, I felt bad for the girls, who were sitting there quietly having their time wasted by the boys’ misbehavior. And we can all draw on our own growing-up experiences, I’m sure.

The article provides a lot of anecdotes about the benefits of single-sex teaching, which are believable. In one, it describes two different classrooms in the same grade in the same school, the boys’ one, with its cooler temperature, cooler colors, and active learning style, and the warmer, calmer girls’ classroom.

We can accept that different people have different learning styles. There may even be a relationship between behavior and sex, if not from biology then from society. But we also know that there are people who don’t conform to the stereotypes of their sex. Why do all boys have to go to the cool classroom and all the girls to the warm one? What about the boisterous girls and the sensitive boys? Can we not have schools where different learning styles are accomodated, but the children are actually divided by their learning style rather than by sex?

It seems to me that this is a way to achieve the supposed benefits of single-sex classrooms without being sexist. Sure, it’s faster and easier just to separate by sex than to actually evaluate each child, but would it really be so hard for a teacher to make a recommendation about learning style at the end of the first year of school, and give kids the option to switch classrooms later if the evaluation was inaccurate or they experienced some kind of temperment shift?

I wanted to write a letter to the editor of the New York Times Magazine about this, but couldn’t figure out how to do it on the website, so you get this blog post instead. I’m looking forward to all the extra hits I get from using the word “sex” so much.

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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March 2008