“Travels in Siberia” and Tulsa

I drove across town last night to All Soul’s Unitarian Church to hear Ian Frazier, author and writer for the New Yorker. He was in Tulsa to talk about the release in paperback of his book “Travels in Siberia,” which is at the top of my to-read list after hearing him.

I could not determine the median age of the crowd for two reasons: I don’t do math, and it was far too mixed. Probably a couple of young hipsters dotted the room, mostly manning the book purchasing table and the sound booth. Then there was me. And then there was what I think Tom Brokaw referred to as the greatest generation.

During introductions, the woman in front of me waved her arm and motioned to her husband that she could not hear. He suggested they move and grabbed her arm. She shuffled and mumbled, someone retrieved her cane from under her seat, heads turned. They ambled down the center aisle as introductions and thank you’s continued.

It occurs to me now that this may or may not have something to do with the shots of vodka being offered to the audience…

As Mr. Frazier shared about his trips to Siberia, and what exactly intrigued him about this area that spans, he said, eight time zones, the random questions from the greatest generation continued. I found this both annoying and incredibly endearing. They had a question and they wanted an answer. Mr. Frazier graciously allowed for these interruptions with a practiced speaker’s smoothness.

Frazier described the alternate reality that is Siberia, starting in the airport, where a woman was scrubbing her dishes in the airport ladies’ room. He showed photos of grey skies and told us that the grey was not atmosphere but mosquitoes. This insect infestation made me itchy just to hear it as he explained the layers and layers of bugs that would prick the skin or burrow into the eardrum as he camped, pretty much anywhere he and his guides felt like it—on the side of the road.

And this is the skill of a great writer: the ability to make the barren wasteland of tundra, nine feet thick with ice, seem like the perfect thing to experience. There was more, so much more, that I couldn’t fathom: like a 55 minute plane trip took him from Russia to Alaska, shorter than a trip, he said, from Dallas to Houston. Or the 50 million year old mammoth fossils being discovered in the northern region, near the Bering Sea. Or the fact that in the Bering Strait, two islands exist and belong to different worlds; one is Russian and one is American.

He told about the Decemberists, Lenin, Stalin and the extraordinary bridges built by those in exile, the only materials they needed to bring in were nails. Perhaps the most interesting thing Frazier told us was that Siberia exists in two places: one is in the real world geography, of course. But the other place is in our imaginations. We have ideas of what it is, how it must be.

And isn’t that true for most places? It may even be true of ourselves, existing in this world, imagining ourselves better, or worse, than the physical self.