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Saturday, November 13, 2004

My Russia Trip: Take a Number

I was in Russia the other day, well a lot of days ago. It was July, 2003 to be exact. Just visiting my wife's folks. Since my wife is from Russia, it didn't seem at the time that I would be visiting Russian to see the inlaws any time soon.

I was wrong.

You don't take the mini-van to this place, you take the train, and from Moscow you stay in the tiny cabin of the sleeping car for TWO DAYS straight. If Napoleon's army had taken the train to Moscow, I am sure his fate would have been the same, except his troops would have frozen to death in the dining car. Anyways, my wife's home town is called Krasnoturinsk, a dilapidated little town that looks like Aspen, Colorado would look like if it mainly catered to Ukrainian migrant tomato pickers. Krasnoturninsk is easy to find. Just picture yourself in nowhere. Now put yourself in the middle of it. See, easy! Krasnoturinskians spend a lot of their time idling along, waiting, or its off to the outskirts of town so they can plant potatoes, squash, berries, or whatever, and then sit back and watch them sprout. Of course, a plentiful supply of vodka helps you idle better, which I can attest to personally.

Now, getting about in this idyllic (or should I say idle-ick) country should be a priority, after all I wanted to spread my boredom about equitably. But no. You see, a passport and visa are not enough to give you the right to trot about the country. My passport needed another stamp, sort of a 'park hopper' pass (like you get in Disneyworld). So my wife and I trotted to a non descript building (all buildings here are non descript), housing the local travel agency. Breezing through travel brochures for excursions to the Black Sea, Greece, and other places, I noted that there were none for the U.S. There's a simple reason for this, namely the American bureaucratic opinioni that America is such a swell place, anybody traveling from a less than first world country will be tempted to stay, well, forever. So no passports for the local folk unless they would leave behind as a virtual hostage a multi-million dollar bank account and pregnant wife.

So as I figure, the Russians returned the favor by letting you in, but still requiring the locals to invite you to visit. My passport was soon on its merry way to the nearby city of Ekaterinburg, and expedited as we requested, it would only take I was assured four weeks or so to get stamped, just in time for me to take the train out of this place. But I digress.

It was the agony associated with my wife's passport that raised my keen psychological eye. As a lady with a schizophrenic identity, namely Russian and American citizenship, she naturally needed her passport fixed as well. So that meant a trip to the notary and a few other bureaucratic functionaries. Picture a spare waiting room, about 15 meters square, with about twenty or so people milling about. Every thirty minutes, the door would open, a voice would call, and a flurry of fingers would point, right and left. Who was next? Who knows? Anyways, what struck me was that the Russians had not, in the renaissance of their freedom, invented that great American time saver: taking a number. We couldn't take a number, couldn't get our name put down in a queue. We just had to wait. Naturally, after five hours, we were the last one's to be called, but at that moment we were told the office would be closed, and to come back another day.

In experimental psychology, if a mouse, rat, or monkey is put in a position where it can't escape from a shock, it learns to be helpless, and won't respond to helpful cues to escape when even the gates of the cage are drawn down. In seventy years, an entire nation learned that it couldn't escape, and therefore couldn't attend to the simple cues, or for that matter provide for the simple cues, that would allow them to escape. So we were all trapped in that little room, for want of a taking simple number. If I was to write a lesson from this experience, perhaps critical thinking is not the real problem, but learning to attend to the problem to begin with. Here, no one attended to the problem, so they suffered silently in the face of it, as if waiting in life was as inevitable as death and taxes. In America, our problem is the opposite, as we are so keen on solving problems, we must continually invent new ones to solve. Perhaps there is higher lesson to this, but I'll take a number and think about it another time.

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