In college, I spoke Russian all the time. I took a winter immersion course at Wellesley my sophomore year and found the language delightful. It was the first time I’d ever dug into the linguistic quirks of another language with such depth, and I discovered all these subtle and seemingly profound differences from English. I was fascinated by the way all verbs in Russian have two forms—one more focused on the process of doing something, the other more focused on the completed action, and that the latter could not be in the present tense, only the future or past. I also felt that adding a gender to every noun fundamentally impacted its character in ways lost to the English language, and my mind would fiddle over the exact meanings of colloquial Russian phrases.
Now, remembering how I learned Russian, I also think it was my first experience of meditation. Today, I consider thoughts to be something that can be cultivated over time through awareness and conscious choice. But in college my thoughts flew around like so many bats in a dark cave. It never occurred to me that there could be benefit from trying to bring order to them. The obsessiveness with which I picked up the language—and I could spend hours a day in rote memorization drills—was a way to force my brain to one single, carefully chosen idea at a time. Here, the word to go shopping. Here, the word for button. Here, the word for tail. All my dizzying, depressed thoughts would get locked away for however long it was necessary for me to complete my daily Russian practice.
I continued the casual study of Russian for another 5 years after college while I lived in San Diego, my proficiency gradually eroding, first working with a tutor in the library and then with an underground Russian class I learned of through word of mouth.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2010, I stopped. I was working late into the night, reeling from the high cost of living in San Francisco, and I didn’t have any time left to continue Russian (or make friends or keep up running, though I did eventually find space for those).
This year, with a job change that means my schedule is far more predictable and a salary that means I don’t need to earn extra money on the side, I’ve been able to pick up Russian again.
But finding the right way to re-learn the language has been hard. My vocabulary is still larger than the average beginner, but sometimes Russian words will come to me and I can’t think of what they mean in English. My spelling is shot to hell. I have an intuitive sense of the grammar, but the specific rules have deserted me. I’ve wondered if this is how children who grow up in Russian-speaking homes feel when they first sit down in a Russian class.
I tried to find a tutor, but after one session where we chatted in Russian for an hour, it was clear she didn’t know what to do with me.
Similarly, I tried downloading Duolingo, but it was an awkward fit. The app starts you at a beginner level and advances through simplistic repetition of elementary words, and never explains any of the grammar behind the drills.
After some trial and error, here’s what I’ve found that’s entertaining enough to keep me engaged, hard enough to feel challenging, yet simple enough to help me brush up on the basics:
All of which is great for brushing up on my reading skill, but doesn’t help me actually talk to anybody in Russian. This is where I’ve struggled the most to keep my skills.
As luck would have it, I recently found a fairly advanced Russian conversation group that meets weekly in SoMa. The first class I went to had three native Russian speakers, two people who lived in a Russian-speaking country for years, and then two students who were learning. We played Alias and Cards Against Humanity in Russian.
It’s been interesting watching the language reemerge slowly from my brain. I find myself in the kitchen and my brain starts ticking off items in front of me in Russian, or I’ll be lying in bed searching for sleep and snatches of Russian phrases will surface. Often they are words I haven’t thought of in years. I imagine there’s a thick fog gradually clearing away from whatever parts of my brain stored all these Russian words and phrases, the way the fogs rolls away from Twin Peaks and flows down into the valleys of San Francisco on a hot day, gently revealing more and more of the houses along the slope.
It’s been particularly interesting noticing the difference between words I used to know and words I’m learning for the first time. For example, I’m practicing all the family words related to in-laws. These are surprisingly complex because in Russian, a wife calls her father-in-law and mother-in-law something completely different from the words her husband uses to refer to his wife’s parents. This was a level of complexity I never bothered to learn when I was living in Russia because I was single. And now that I’m trying to pick these words up for the first time, I’m finding they come much more slowly than all the words I had memorized previously.
I suspect I won’t ever have the level of language proficiency I had when I lived in Russia, but that’s not the goal. I’m not looking to give lectures in Russian, and I don’t expect I’ll spend much time in Russia in the future. Today, I’m more interested in experiencing the language unfurling and coming into focus, remembering all the odd quirks of phrases that I found so charming. And if I can ever get back to a place where I can read Dostoevsky, I will be thrilled.
Helpful links if you’re trying to pick up Russian as an adult:
After I changed jobs last September, I stopped doing a lot of digital activism. The break has been great, honestly. It’s hard to fight on NSA surveillance abuses, crackdowns on whistleblowers, and free speech violations for literally years at a time. It was in many ways easier to focus on strategy and the day-to-day challenges of keeping smart people happy in their jobs, coordinated in their work, and highly productive.
The one program area I kept in my docket was blockchain. I’ve published a bunch of different blog posts in the last few months exploring the collision of free expression and blockchain regulations:
I also want to share a bit about why I’m interested in this issue, since my parents find it baffling.
My first job in consumer advocacy was at a scrappy but principled nonprofit called the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. In addition to writing consumer guides about protecting privacy and cataloguing data breaches by companies, we’d get questions from consumers who were struggling with privacy issues. People could literally call us up on the phone and say, “I’m having this horrible privacy problem, do you have any suggestions?” We’d point them to our guides, or to other nonprofits working in the space, or sometimes we’d explain how to file a complaint with the appropriate regulatory agency. A lot of the time, we’d just tell them how to find an attorney, or ask them if they’d be interested in talking to the press.
I remember one individual I spoke to called me after his Paypal account had been frozen, and he hadn’t been able to access the funds he had in there. I did some research at the time, and found scores of other consumers complaining about the same thing. That was the first in a long line of consumer complaints I heard about banks and Paypal, and most often accounts were frozen due to some sort of identity or privacy issues. The message from Paypal was, give us more of your personal data and we’ll let you have your money back. It had this vague feeling of privacy blackmail, not the least because Paypal was happy to let people set up accounts and use the service for a while before demanding more identification.
And then one of my projects, the Chelsea Manning Support Network, had our PayPal account frozen. I had channels to Paypal so I felt fairly confident we’d get it resolved, but multiple conference calls with representatives of Paypal didn’t get us anywhere. Paypal was pretty vague about its reasoning for freezing our accounts, but at least one person I spoke with mentioned Know Your Customer requirements. The Network had been using PayPal to process donations from the beginning, so why freeze the account then? And while most of our donations weren’t processed through PayPal, almost all of our international donors used PayPal. We’d be cutting off basically all our international supporters.
Plus, I worried that PayPal was just the beginning. If it’s PayPal this week, what’s to stop Visa and MasterCard from shutting us down next week?
I think a lot lately about the costs of opposing the government. Chelsea Manning is the obvious example but there are many others. Covering the costs of her initial trial was an enormous, multi-year fundraising endeavor. Adding in the cost of her appeal? It was impossible to raise that much money, especially when she wasn’t in the news as much. And now she’s facing contempt of court charges with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines unless she’s willing to testify against Wikileaks. I have no idea how the community will be able to raise that much money,
And she’s far from the only one. There are several handfuls of whistleblowers I know now who not only suffered in their careers and had their names dragged through the mud for trying to oppose government abuses of power, but who also had to shoulder years of costly court battles.
The Chelsea Manning Support Network was good at getting in the news, and so that’s what we did. We put out a press release, several reporters snagged the story, and PayPal started getting called for quotes. Within a day, Paypal had unfrozen (thawed?) our account and full functionality was restored. We never did give them any additional access to our accounts or more data on us. It was just public pressure.
But most people who have an account frozen with Paypal can’t put out a press release and get a bunch of news coverage.
After that, I paid attention to stories of people who had bank accounts closed or frozen, or who weren’t allowed to open accounts at all. I documented some of those for EFF, and others I just took notes on with a vague sense that one day I might have time to write a longer research paper on the issue. I also got more interested in blockchain.
There are a lot of things blockchain is not good for. Critics are constantly pointing out all the ways blockchain sucks at doing various things—which is true, it’s remarkably inefficient for a lot of stuff. But it’s permissionless and it’s hard to censor, which means the base technology (if not the many applications on top of it) doesn’t have the Paypal problem.
And the more I got interested in blockchain issues, the more I started recognizing a lot of other digital rights issues. Just like the Clinton Administration tried to ban encryption, there are regulators today toying with whether to ban publications of open source software in an attempt to stop blockchain innovation. Some regulators are scared of privacy coins (digital tokens that have a lot of the privacy-preserving attributes we already have with cash), while other are trying to impose Know Your Customer standards on blockchain projects.
All of which has made me think more about our financial institutions, about the policies companies like Visa and PayPal get to set and the long term implications for the rest of us.
I have increasingly thought that we need a fundamental shift in the power imbalances of our financial institutions. I’ve wondered about a regulatory response, and in some ways I think that’s the purest and simplest solution: everyone should have a legal right to a bank account; transactions shouldn’t be censored by a payment provider any more than the water company should deny water to people it doesn’t like; we need reform of the credit reporting system so people can bounce back from histories of bad credit more quickly; and we’d need real privacy around our financial transactions, because they’re incredibly sensitive and revealing. That includes high standards for when the government wants to snoop through our bank transactions.
But the relationship between the government and the financial institutions that are benefiting from the current system is so cozy, and the literal cost of effectively lobbying in DC is so absurd, that my pragmatic side is skeptical that real legal safeguards will be put into place in my lifetime.
Which is why I always end up mulling on blockchain. Not because it’ll fix everything, but because there’s a sliver of a chance that some version of this technology might be a lever to start righting fundamental injustices in our current financial system.
Anton and I got married on September 15th of this year. We invited 80 loved ones out into the Sierra Nevada and said our vows on the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.
How can I begin to put into words the expanse of emotions and experiences packed into the two days we spent in the mountains getting married? It was both deeply intimate and almost uncomfortably public. I found my emotions skittering wildly in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
Throughout it, I found my hands reaching for Anton’s arm or hand, found myself tucking against him and looking up into his eyes to see the same delight and amazement I felt reflected back in his eyes. I’d feel anchored, steady, and connected. For a while at least, the pull and expectations of other people would fade behind the deeper connection between us.
This blog post includes details of our Yosemite wedding—the fantastic vendors we used, our vows, the ceremony in its entirety, and a sampling of the photos from the weekend. It’s mostly for me to remember everything, as well as to share with friends and family. It might also be useful if you are planning a Yosemite wedding.
I asked my partner what he considered the best dinner out we’d ever had. We were walking on a trail somewhere, and I sometimes use these random questions to pass the time. He didn’t answer flippantly, as I might have expected. Instead, he offered two moments.
First: we were in Brazil, on the island of Isla Grande with its rainforests and howler monkeys and mossy ruins and perfect white beaches. We found an unnamed beachside restaurant with chairs and tables just a few feet from the sand-lapping ocean, a full bar, and a small menu that changed daily. The lights on the entire island would flicker and go out often, casting the whole village into darkness, but it happened so regularly that the restaurant just casually lit candles and continued cooking with a propane stove. I was so thrilled with it, so enamored, that I asked my partner if we could eat there again the next day, and he said we could eat there every night we were on the island.
Second: we were hiking the Colorado Trail and we arrived on day 18 at Lake Ann, a small alpine lake tucked into the crook of a mountain. I had been struggling with intestinal issues for the last few days, and so I’d missed out on the decadence of real meals while we were in town. When we reached Lake Ann, my tummy had finally settled and the view was brilliant. We had miles of valley below to enjoy and rejoice in before sleep. As we set up camp, my partner surprised me with a can of alcoholic root beer, a decadent treat I love and wasn’t able to enjoy when we were in town. We shared it on a rock overlooking a sun-kissed valley and fell asleep in the tent together.
These two meals weren’t remarkable because of what we ate. I don’t even remember what we ate. Maybe it was ramen (it likely was, at Lake Ann). These meals were unforgettable because of where we were, both in the world and in our relationship. Things were flowing—we were connecting, discovering each other. We were adventuring together, our senses attuned to the beauty of simple things—like a can of root beer on a rock watching the sunset, or a candle on a small table at the edge of the ocean.
I was reminded anew of one of the things I love most about my partner. He doesn’t care about expensive or “fancy” dinners out. No five star restaurants, no waiters, no cloth napkins (or any napkins). Just the two of us and the wonder of nature unfolding around us.
KT was incarcerated in California for one year over charges related to fraud. She is a friend of mine, but I did not find out she was in prison until she had served more than half of her sentence. When I learned she was incarcerated, I reached out to her family to offer support and began visiting her every week for her last couple months in prison. She was held in Dublin FCI, just a few miles from my house but very far from her home in Southern California.
In communicating with KT, I was struck by the huge impact of prison costs on not just KT’s life, but on her whole family. Seemingly small expenses in prison mounted and became burdensome for her wife and eventually created major rifts between family members, with ramifications that continued after KT left prison.
This interview was conducted 19 days after KT was released in early December, 2017.
I started new project this month: sleeping outside one night a week.
It works like this: I come to work extra early, and then I feel less guilty about heading out at 4:30 or 5. I fight through the San Francisco traffic until I reach a wilderness permit station, pick up the permit that’s waiting for me in a box out front for latecomers, then head out to a campsite. I stop on the way and buy a veggie wrap, throw it in my backpack, then park at a trailhead, strap on my pack, and hike out. I pass people on the trails, and they eye my backpack. I assemble the tent, devour half a wrap, let the sun set all around me, zip away the world and stare up through the bug netting at the endless stars or the mist or the clouds or the hillsides. I wake before 6, and I run or I don’t run, and I’m back in the office by 8 AM, slipping into the shower on the first floor, settled in my office chair before 9.
The idea is to get wilderness into my life, in small bits and pieces, whenever I can.