On Poplars and Bulgarian Rock

23 Oct

Last weekend we attended a concert. I have been to great concerts—some with amazing music, others that featured the flavor of the month hit bands. This one was different. It was emotional, nostalgic and, in a way, naïve.

A small sandwich board sign was in front of the parking lot. On it, under a hand-drawn arrow, was stuck a 8.5×11 sheet of paper: “Bulgarian Rock Legends.” A venue that typically hosts sessions like Vision Stewards, Active Imagination and Caring for Your Soul, was the stage, on which four of the biggest rock stars I grew up with were going to entertain the two hundred or so Bulgarians, who live in Seattle.


The four musicians were from four different bands. When Bulgaria was still communist, these bands represented the tiny ray of hope that while isolated and controlled, talent could still find a way to move us. In the exhilarating years of transition, they were showing up at demonstrations, giving voice to the wide range of emotions—hope, empowerment, freedom. And then for the years since I moved away, when I went back to visit, their music would be what I recognized and connected with, despite the broad range of new pop, rock and the intellectually despised, but quite successful, “chalga” music.

And here they were – four guys in Seattle. Two of them in their late 60s, the other two a decade younger. Each of them from a different band, taking turns performing each others’ songs, the same songs that 20-30 years ago made them not just stars but symbols. Their US tour like a mission of visiting the troops, injecting patriotism and hope that we still belong not only to Bulgaria but together, in the cheesy meditation hall in the middle of nowhere.

They were great. We relived our youth, they relived theirs. Some of us cried, they mostly smiled. They seemed to enjoy themselves, joking about their age and their “limited” body of work.

I don’t often allow myself to admit that I miss Bulgaria. It is a self-preservation strategy, an emotional cop-out that makes me feel less vulnerable to regrets. When I do miss it, I try to remember that nostalgia is fake. And I tried to do that at the concert. I caught myself thinking that these past-their-prime stars from a country most people have never heard of, with their old hits (the Poplars from the title) that with age have acquired the innocent sound of “classic” rock, seemed quite naïve, as if their art never evolved past the barricades of our young democracy. On the other hand, their songs might be as dusty as my connections to Bulgaria, but they still meant more than Adele and U2 and anyone in between, put together.

I Like Books with Pictures

1 Aug Books

There, I said it. One of the few things that I brought with me from Bulgaria and that I still keep, despite periodic, merciless purges, are two of my favorite childhood books—The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen and La Fontaine’s Fables. You can find both books in any bookstore, even in the bestseller emporium that is Barnes&Noble. But I keep them because of the pictures by Libico Maraja and Cremonini. They are rich, detailed, perhaps a bit too old fashioned by today’s standards, but they still make me want to read the stories again and again, so I can get to the points that each illustration makes unforgettable.


I am a grown up now, but I still can’t help myself when I see a book with beautiful illustrations. Sometimes the illustrations do the book justice. Sometimes they actually are better than the book itself. Either way, I end up buying them (for the kids, of course):

Anything by Paul or Josh Kidby

Luckily they mostly illustrated Terry Pratchett, so that is a no-brainer. Josh’s are manic, crazy, busy, chaotic as the Discworld itself. Paul’s have this self-mocking quality, as if Havelock Vetinari himself drew them.


Chris Riddle


All of Chris Riddle’s characters have the curious expression of a little kid. While some books are brilliant (Muddle Earth and Something Else need to be read by every parent to every kid; The Emperor of Absurdia is just plain fun), others do not make much sense (the Ottoline series). He also made Gulliver’s Travels look really good. Unfortunately, the story is still the same.

Illustrated books for adults

Sacre Bleu002These are few and far between. Christopher Moore’s Sacre Bleu, Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk are on my bookshelves because of the illustrations. They are all better because of the illustrations, too.

Then there are those books that beg for illustrations but which for whatever reasons – something as trivial as cost, or as self-conscious as fear that they would not be taken seriously – lack them. Think about it – wouldn’t My Name is Red, Wolf Hall or The Passage be better with pictures that show the obsession, intrigue and horror?

A picture is worth a hundred words, after all…

The Unfulfilled Promise of MOOCs

23 May
MooMassive Online Open Classes (MOOCs) will make higher education more accessible. They will bring courses and teachers to the most remote corners of the world (assuming the corners have Internet connections). If you agree that ignorance is a key cause of many of our biggest problems, you can immediately see the appeal of MOOCs on the macro level. Accessible higher education will bring us closer together, help us with a common global viewpoint that can narrow the gap between ideologies and (hopefully) economies. And that is what made The New York Times proclaim in November that this is the year of the MOOC (not very clear if they meant 2012, or 2013). Ivy League schools jumped in with classes, startups launched and investors started drooling at the smell of investment opportunity. People like me, with somewhat grown kids, and well-on-their-track careers, rejoiced that there was finally something intellectually stimulating that goes outside of the book club experience.
MOOC notes

I learned to outline my thoughts like that in the analog American University in Bulgaria. Still waiting for a better/digital way to do so.

And there lies the problem with MOOCs — it is a great way to enrich your knowledge, to broaden your intellectual foundation and explore subjects adjacent to your field or that you have a personal passion about. What MOOCs fail to do is inspire the initial desire to learn, or offer a straightforward path to a comprehensive base of knowledge.

First, there is the issue of content. At the time of this post Coursera lists 374 classes available from a long list of colleges and universities. While the number is impressive, and there is a pretty good varierty of content — from Introductory Physics, to Growing Old Around the Globe. What is missing is a path —what do I do when I finish my Intro to Psychology class? Would there be a follow up course that will help me delve deeper into a subject I loved? EdX, which is a MOOC platform funded by Harvard and MIT, offers only 51 classes. Wouldn’t it make sense to have some standards that identify where the class fits within a full curriculum, so that you can chart your own path? And how do you determine which class is worth your time and which isn’t? How do you know what you do not know?

Second, the course may be massive and open, but it sure does not feel like there is a community around it. By the social media standards of today, courses are using a “first generation” technology. It does not help that each course brands the tools they are using with their own creative names and each has slightly different capabilities. One class I signed up for sent me to three different websites for the homework, for the lectures and for the discussions. I tried this class exactly once, for 10 minutes. Instead of innovating on top of what is available in terms of community and social networking technologies, MOOCs seem to be relying on the most basic of these technologies.

And here is the third challenge. This kind of learning requires very little commitment and investment. That is what makes the courses attractive but it also what makes dropping out painless and guilt-free (and guilt is a big motivator for me). It does not help that you cannot see ratings of previous classes or the professors that teach them so that you know what to expect — we did not have that system of reviews in our analog colleges either, but the real social interactions we had in the dorms and between classes told us which professor to avoid and which class was a drag. So I blindly sign up for mildly interesting classes, knowing fully well I would stick with one.

Helping people find the right classes and encouraging them to stick with their choices will be key if MOOCs want to become a valid educational option. What motivates us is knowing that we are investing our time, even if we do not invest our money, in something meaningful. And this is where the MOOCs fail — they are intellectually titillating, but not that meaningful. Yet.

The Immigrant Novel

15 May

At a recent conference, a tech guru said something interesting (probably not original, but it was well put). What drives us are two conflicting desires — the need to be unique and the need to belong. While in different cultures one of these desires may be slightly more dominant than the other, overall, it is a pretty accurate way to sum up a universal truth about people. It is also a source of a permanent conflict for immigrants. What we have in abundance is uniqueness. What we strive for is to belong. But in order to do that, we have to leave behind, unlearn, forget and even denounce some things that make us who we are.

Molding to a new culture can make you question yourself as if you are a teenager, rebuilding the idea of who she is every time she passes a mirror, a real one or her reflection in someone else’s eyes. It is exhausting. It is an impossible conflict between who you are, who people think you are and who you want to be. Perhaps, that is why it is such a fruitful topic for good novels — because it is complex and human, and requires a mastery of language to express the nuances of emotions that paint even the most mundane situations a deep rich blue:


imagesEven when you escape a war-torn place, a part of you always remains there. Like your reflection in the shards of a broken mirror, you are not whole but a sum of overlapping, skewed and twisted images, each from a slightly different angle, in slightly different light. Even when you manage to put the pieces together, the cracks remain, like permanent scars. Ismet Prcic’s scars are much deeper than mine. 


brooklynThis is a book about hope and about love and the sacrifices people that leave and people that stay make in the name of hope and love. It makes you think about the cost of change and wonder (on gray days) if the choice and freedom to build a new and better life might be a Pandora’s box, better left unopened.


ruThis lyrical book is not as much of a novel as it is a reflection on identity. Tragedies are described in simple words, a stream that sometimes almost feels monotonous and that is what makes them more striking. A key recurring theme is the power of extended family in retaining your identity. Ultimately, this is what grounds you, whether you are in the country you are born, or on the other side of the world.

The Victim of Progress No One is Talking About

23 Apr

No, I am not talking about our brains, our ability to do math or concentrate on tasks that take longer than 30 seconds to accomplish or thoughts that require more than 140 characters to explain. I am talking about smells, pleasant or not, that are gradually disappearing as technology weasels itself into our lives to make them better, smoother, easier, less smelly but more sterile than ever. And as it does, it is also erasing some of the childhood memories.

I am writing random things down these days, and last week I just realized that I have compiled a list of smells that are disappearing. These were different smells – home cooking, bookstores and iron, but their archenemy, or reason they do not exist anymore is more or less the same—progress.

AC vs. Roasted Peppers 1:0

chushkopekMy home cooking observation requires a bit of background. Growing up in a Bulgarian city meant that the smell of summer was not the smell of sand and beaches, of wild flowers and summer rain. The smell of summer was roasted red peppers, fried meatballs, fresh garlic, onion, dill and parsley being chopped, minced and otherwise manipulated to elicit the maximum amount of flavor and smell. You would walk in a neighborhood and smell what everyone is cooking for dinner. That was because everyone would cook on their balconies, instead of their kitchens. Why would we do that, especially if the temperature could easily pass 100F? Simple — we just did not have air conditioning. Cooking outside was hot, but at least it did not heat up our bedrooms. It also livened up a lot the rather monolithic apartment blocks as neighbors chatted while waiting for whatever they were cooking to thicken, crisp up or boil over.

I went back to Bulgaria last year for a high school reunion in late June. Leaving a still soggy Seattle, I was looking forward to the heat and the smell of summer as I remembered it. Alas, that smell is gone. Instead, every apartment has an AC unit on it. Windows are closed. Nothing wafts from balconies when you walk by a building, no chatty neighbors gossiping about their day, work, friends, other neighbors. You just hear and feel the dripping of the ACs.

The old “just books” bookstore

Another lost smell is that of the bookstore. Granted, bookstores in general are endangered species, but even the ones that remain do not smell the same—of new or dusty books, of paper that is getting brittle with time. They smell either of coffee (because is there a bookstore without a snacking station anymore?), of magazines which have perfume-y scent from all the inserts in them, or the book smell is diluted from all the toys, music, Nooks and non literary gifts that occupy more and more of the bookstore’s inventory list. I did not realize that the smell is missing until, on a trip to Prague, I walked by a small bookstore. It was not an antique or used books bookstore – it was a regular no frills, no Starbucks dusty and comforting smell of things to read.

Iron – the smell you hate, until it’s gone

Have you ever touched a metal handrail and then, accidentally, discovering the discomforting smell of iron with hints of old blood on your hands? Or have you ridden an old train, and the smell of metal permeating your hair, your clothes and leaving a metal taste in your mouth? I hated it and still do, but I am also a bit sad, that I do not sniff this anymore. Am I missing the iron or the long vacations that the train took me to or the creepy iron cage elevator door that made me wonder if I would make it to the top floor?

Proust and Childhood Memories

It is not surprising that these smells mean so much to me. Scientists call this the Proust phenomenon – or the ability of odors to trigger really powerful childhood memories. But what about the smells that I have forgotten and that have disappeared? Are they locking other sweet memories? How can I recover them if the world has changed so much since I was a kid?

And what would be the smells that would open my kids’ memories 20-30 years from know? Kindles, iPhones and Facebook do not smell. Perhaps it will be the smell of airportis and pop tarts.

If only we could make Google Nose happen!

P.S. Dare to guess what the photo is? 



15 Apr

I have been dreaming of visiting Prague for a long, long time.

IMG_1086Prague is the city of a hundred spires. Plenty of opportunities for arial photos. The dramatic sky does not even need an Instagram filter.

IMG_1115The Charles Bridge is one of the most crowded tourist attractions I have seen. Except early in the morning when the tourists are still sleeping off the previous night’s revelry.

IMG_1050Dusk makes everything look mysterious.

IMG_1039A study in negative space.

IMG_1058You see David Černýs creations all over Prague. They make you wonder what he was thinking. And then you realize–you do not really want to know.

P1000023Have you seen this art for tourists, in which the city is all done in black and white, glistening with rain, and only a lonely figure or a couple dancing/kissing/walking hand in hand is bright red? Life imitating art.

@Medium – The Next Big Thing in Content or a Snobbish Exercise in Self-Gratification?

7 Apr

Medium is not yet a fully launched or fully defined content platform but is popping up in all of my online reading places. When you check it out, it is distinctly clean, simple and minimal—no extra links, cute photos, too much sharing or navigation options. What is supposed to make you stay on the page is what is written on it. And the contributing writers are very, very impressive – Steven B Johnson, Sarah Doody, Felix Salmon, to name a few. In the world of busy Facebook, WordPress, Tumblr and BuzzFeed, Medium is like a breath of fresh air.

It is also very, very annoying in its current form.

We shall not cease from exploration

Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 8.03.58 PMMedium is organized in collections. The person that creates the collection can decide if others can contribute to it. Yet there is no way to search for collections, or authors. If you happen to stumble upon an article you like you can click on its author and see his/her other posts and collections. For example, I found out that Steven Johnson is a contributor from a tweet of his. If I had not stumbled upon that (it is not like Twitter is designed to help you never miss anything), there was absolutely no way for me to know that Johnson was a contributor. Who else is writing for Medium? I don’t know and it is not possible to find out.

I am sure that Medium’s goal is to encourage visitors to immerse themselves in the content rather than jump around too much and to an extent it is succeed. But Medium should not be doing that at the expense of readers’ ability to find what interests them. Even in a library, this old fashioned mausoleum of slow reading and serendipity, I can search for the books I want.

If you hit a pony over the nose at the outset of your acquaintance, he may not love you but he will take a deep interest in your movements ever afterwards

Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 8.10.17 PMThat seems to be what Medium is trying to do with the persistent “How Do I Post” button. It follows you on every page, taunting you to ditch whatever inferior platform you are using for your blogs and become part of this elite writing community. You click it and then you are slapped in the face with the snotty “Creating new posts and collections will be open to everyone soon.” There is nothing wrong with not giving everyone permission to post this early. And the question about how you can post is important. But if you are not ready to give people access, do you really want to ask them on every single page if they want it?

As every parent will tell you, if you are out of candy, you do not ask your kid if they feel like chocolate.

If that is not frustrating enough, try to find information about the site.

  1. To get to About Medium, you need to click that same How Do I post button.
  2. That takes you to the Medium Help Center, which has some generic language about Medium still being in preview mode. There is also a link to the FAQ page
  3. The FAQ page has a list of questions, but most of them are NOT answered on the page.
  4. Instead you need to click a link to a blog post that answers each specific question. And guess what, there is no breadcrumb navigation to take you back to the FAQ page.

In short, if I have a question about Medium, I need to take at least four steps to get to an answer, and the only entry point is through the “You want some chocolate? Too bad!” button.

To Launch or Not to Launch: That Is the Question

To be fair, the site is still in closed beta and as many online entrepreneurs will tell you, it is a challenge to find the right balance between features you want to show early and get people excited about (great writers! minimal distraction!) and the ones that you are fine-tuning to work flawlessly before you unveil them (scale, search).

Medium’s motto is “Sharing ideas and experiences moves humanity forward,” but the preview site leaves me with the feeling that the creators meant to add “if, when and however we feel like it.”

I still love the idea and believe it has a huge potential to become a destination for thoughtful content. But until the official site is launched, I will only visit Medium when I think that my self confidence needs to be taken down a notch.

Note: The use of literary quotes undoubtedly qualifies me for a beta contributor. Should this happen, I reserve the right to change my opinion of Medium and re-center on its brilliance.

April 21 Update: Last week I was invited to contribute to Medium. To try it out, I used  my  Nostalgia Is Fake post. Unfortunately, the problem of discoverability remains. Other small and probably on the way to be fixed issues also remain. Go to Medium.com and try to find me or the Analog & Antisocial collection. When you are ready to give up, here is the link: https://medium.com/nostalgia-what-could-have-been

Three Weekend Randoms

6 Apr

The Forgotten Midlife Crisis

I came across an article in Harvard Business Review on Friday on how marketers are missing the opportunity to target women over 50. It has been something I have been pondering as well. Not that I am close to 50 but having started early with the kids, I am in the category of women HBR is writing about. My kids are old enough and the hours that used to be occupied with soccer practices, chess, and playdates are now blissfully free. So how do I fill this time that I had forgotten exists? Other than writing blog posts, I have done art classes, French lessons, and short of buying a Porsche, other fun activities. None of them were marketed to middle aged women and, to be honest, that is how it should be. I am more interested in finding things to do on my own, and I am slightly terrified of activities that focus exclusively for the post-mommyblogging generation (my term is the born-again housewives).

cialisAt the same time, you would think that there would be more concerted effort to market and sell activities to this large group of consumers. Think about it – there are three types of commercials that show women between the age of 40-50. The first is about soft toilet paper (as if I have nothing more important to obsess about, even if my sole purpose of being is the comfort of my family). Then we have the commercials for depression or medications targeted at older women. Since everyone in commercials looks great, the women used to portray the arthritis-ridden older lady is actually 45. And the last is the erectile dysfunction series. The women in these are blissfully smiling, patiently waiting for the medicine to take effect before they float into a misty romantic dream (which if it lasts longer than X hours, requires a doctor’s intervention).

Just for the record – I also buy cars, go on vacation without the kids and work…

The Importance of Labeling

The New Yorker had a brief article about how the term “entitlements” came to be used in association with social security and health benefits. Entitlement implies something that you take for granted, that you did not work for to deserve it. Yet you have been paying for these benefits all your life. There are other examples where misfortunate naming taints the effort, initiative or idea. Supporters of abortion rights have come to regret the pro-choice term that defines them. You hear more and more advocates for gun reform distancing themselves from “gun control.”

It was just another personal reminder that you can rarely over-think a word choice.

Roger Ebert, an Example for Critics (of Anything)

Ebert died this week. “Thoughtful,” “respectful,” “fair” were the words repeated in many of the obituaries and opinions I read. He was not out to bury or denounce a movie maker even if he hated the movie. While his opinion was personal, his criticism was not.

People understand, forgive and respect passion when it is sincere and authentic, even if they do not agree with your opinion. More critics should consider following Ebert’s graceful style.

Note Taking, or Rediscovering the Wheel

3 Apr

I like reading and I read quite a lot. But I am not good at remembering and this deficiency is only made worse by the constant distraction (self-inflicted or not) of online content, social media, apps, push notifications, email and so on. So recently, I started making a concerted effort to take notes of things. The incentive for that was the failed book club – I realized that to be able to comment on what I read, I need to write my thoughts down. Otherwise, I remembered the plot, but all the other more insightful (or simply a bit less obvious) observations went “poof” in a matter of minutes. When I started to write things down, I also thought about them more. Instead of just moving on, I paused to reflect and describe what I felt. And then I started taking similar notes at work, around the house, while taking the kids swimming…

685px-Commonplace_book_mid_17th_centuryI read Where Good Ideas Come From and had an epiphany (or what its author would call serendipity) – I was reinventing the commonplace book. I had never heard of the commonplace book. When I was getting my fill of 19th and 20th century literature and science, I was still in Bulgaria, so the term must have been translated to a “diary” or just plain notebook. But what a fascinating idea. Have a notebook to write things down. Not a digital to-do app, a mind-map tool or an email, but an actual notebook.

What’s my point? I am not sure. What I know is that if I did not have my newly created “commonplace” book, I would probably have already forgotten things like:

  • David Sedaris’ brilliant New Yorker essay on going through the hassle of immigration bureaucracy, let alone this vivid and hilarious:  “The picture in my stolen one [passport] was not half bad. But in the new one I looked like a penis with an old man’s face drawn on on it.”
  • My own reflections on how crowdsourcing resembles the creation of folk art. Grimm’s tales are just the recorded version of a story, to which everyone contributed, changed the plot, the ending, or the name of the prince.
  • How LinkedIn editorial attempts and posts like “5 tips to succeed” and “10 things to avoid” remind me of Dear Abby advice columns for people who are looking for a job or marketers (who else goes to LinkedIn?)

This may sound like rediscovering the wheel. But I bet for the people that actually had forgotten about it, rediscovering the wheel was huge. Bigger than sliced bread. What is sliced bread? Write it down less you forget.

Nostalgia Is Fake

26 Mar

CharlieIn a few years, I would have spent as much time in the US as I have in my native Bulgaria. I consider myself pretty well adjusted to my new home. Coming to the US as a graduate student and finding a job right after graduation, I never really suffered through the hardships of the “traditional” immigrant, building her life from scratch. True, when I arrived here, I had a comforter and a set of knives (in retrospect, strange choices and a ridiculous lack of airplane security), but I was not leaving much more behind. It is here that I started my career, had and am raising my children, bought a home. And while I have avoided the constant comparisons of petty details that is quite pervasive and I find quite annoying in my fellow country men and women (In Bulgaria, kids never wear bike helmets and they are just fine!), part of me always thinks that if I was back there, I would feel more on my own turf. I would fit right back in the spot that I left, with the people and conversations resuming from that point forward like a Sleeping Beauty, whose court was frozen while she was napping.

This, of course, is an illusion.

I came across an article in a woman’s magazine that one of my Facebook friends from Bulgaria had shared. When I read it, it hit me — I may not belong here completely, but I will be an odder duck there. If you know Bulgarian, the article is here. If you do not, you would have to trust me to give you the key points. A Bulgarian psychiatrist is interviewed on the value of an apparent recent fascination in Bulgaria with positive thinking. He stopped short of calling positive thinking the “opium for the masses,”* but he surely meant it when he called it “housewives’ metaphysics.” Can you just stop to imagine Self publishing an article right that? Would Facebook even exist if we rejected housewives’ metaphysics?

BaconThe fact that positive thinking is an obsession in Bulgaria in and of itself is ironic and alarming. It is like seeing a tribe of life-long, committed vegetarians in a serious discussion about the benefit of bacon. That was one of the immediate signs that my Bulgarian cultural compass is completely off. But then the language itself has either changed dramatically, or the Internet publication was not good enough (happens worldwide on the worldwide web), or I have lost my year for some of the finer points of my own native language. I find it hard to talk in Bulgarian about what I do, because my entire career has been in the US, so I lack the terminology to explain Public Relations, technology solutions, Cloud services and so on. But surely there are some real Bulgarian words for “positive”, “genesis”, “permissive”. The last straw was the realization that while in my context here I consider myself pretty negative and critical, I did not agree with him. Positive thinking may be an easier way out than reading Seneca and Marc Aurelius as the author recommended, but there is nothing wrong with that.

So for the three Bulgarians, two personal friends and one lost American soul who are still reading this – what does it mean? Time passes and changes you, but it also changes the things you have left behind. Nostalgia is fake. It is for something that was, but would never be, even if you had stayed the same.

*As every self-respecting person with former communist education will tell you, “religion is the opium of the masses.” That is what Karl Marx thought. He had a point.

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