I knew Boris Yeltsin. Well, I met him. Actually, I stood next to him. Okay, I was standing in one place and he walked past. He was making a tour of Washington to support his autobiography, “Against the Grain.”  In retrospect, it was a case of “I fought the grain, and the grain won, through my own blurry inattention, due in part to grain-derived intoxicants,” but at the time he was a fresh wind, and he fit a Russian stereotype we hadn’t seen in decades. Instead of dour glowering technocrats or the tall Ivan-Drago Leninbots of fiction, he was a big rumpled Siberian who appeared to enjoy smiling for the simple human reasons. (I has a vodka!) When he walked past us on the Mall on the way to visit at the Lincoln Memorial – yes, really – he grinned and rotated through the rock-paper-scissors gestures. The last Soviet leader to whom I’d been that close was Gorbachev; he’d rolled past in a limo in St. Paul a few years before, waving from behind glass. As I wrote at the time, people ran screaming after the car as if he had the Beatles in the trunk. Far fewer people showed up to see Yeltsin. But of course he hadn’t saved the world. (cough.) Just his country.

Maybe. He may have done more harm than good in the end, through inaction and bad decisions. But I always had a soft spot for him. Seeing him stand on the tank, and watching the Soviet flag come down – one of the most remarkable moments of the end of the 20th century.

As long as we're on the subject: What better way to spend a rainy, dismal Sunday than walking around a B-grade graveyard? (Note: life-affirming jocular links conclude this episode, so it's not as morbid as it may seem.)

It’s the only cemetery in the neighborhood. There’s a better one to the north, and some day I’ll pay it a visit, take some shots; it’s quite magnificent, with nice views of the lake; the cumulative value of the jewelry entombed below the dirt must hit the middle millions. This one, however, is familiar, inasmuch as I've passed it almost daily for 15 years.  I’ve always meant to step in the gate, because it’s obviously older than anything else in the neighborhood. The headstones and markers are from the 19th century. Nothing around here is from the 19th century.

Whoever laid it out planned ahead -   large tracts of surrounding land were purchased long ago, anticipating future business. But the dead went elsewhere, and the fields are fallow. The empty space is creepier than the occupied ground, frankly. Room for all, it suggests.

When the first graves were dug in the late 19th century, this was the outskirts of the outer outskirtery, and I wonder why they chose this plot. There’s a church nearby, but it’s a post-war embassy serving the post-war suburb. The region was later zoned for light industrial and medium-density residential, to use the Sim City terms, and now the graveyard sits on a busy, charmless street. One of the oldest houses in the neighborhoods was home to people who tended an orchard in the bygone years, but that house came fifty years after the dates on the tombstones.

Why here?

I don’t know. I'm sure they had their reasons. Anyway: meet the bonecrew.


The effect, I know, is supposed to recall Michelangelo’s later statues – or perhaps represent the triumph of man’s intelligence over the brute materials of the unthinking earth. But it looks like they stopped payment on the job halfway through. Or the tombstone was struck with some sort of concrete fungus.

There are too many of these:

Bertha and Bertie. You hope they tried again; you hope the third child survived, thrived, and died laughing at Uncle Miltie on the television set.

The Slye family stone, in full Halloween livery:

It gives you an idea of the tenacity of life, and the things on which it will cling, if it must.

The stone below is more weathered than it looks. When you stand to the side that the dates pop out. A blessed winter, a happy spring, a worried summer - a grieving fall.

Speaking of which: it’s impossible not to stand to the side, if you’re respecting graveyard etiquette, I suppose – but what is the etiquette? I don’t know. I know you’re not supposed to stand on the graves, but damn, they’re everywhere. It’s a graveyard. Granted, this one didn’t exactly have a bumper crop, but even the spaces between the headstones held bone-boxes. It was hard to tell, sometimes; the earth wants to swallow everything:

The older ones looked like paving stones, a path heading everyone over the crest of the hill:

1867! There are houses in the neighborhood that were built in 1968. Again I wonder: why did they bury these people so far away from town? Did they do something wrong?

I turned a corner, and AAAIEEE:


This was peculiar, since the grave did not correspond to any headstone; it just didn’t fit. It wasn’t that fresh, and there was a dead squirrel embedded in the rock-hard dirt. I moved along.


I can't imagine how this thing was broken - maybe kids toppled it over, or perhaps a tree took it down. But someone put it back together, which is what these places are all about. Even if no one comes to visit Mr. Manly anymore, someone paid the money for the plot, and that means someone picks up the headstone when it falls, and rakes off the leaves in the spring.

Well, that was depressing! Let's cheer ourselves up with a Quirk! A Comic Book! If that didn't do the trick, I've an Institute update. Years ago someone mailed me some postcards concerning a Chinese Communist Opera.

And here they are. See you tomorrow.