On competitive entrance schools in NYC

Dear Mr. Taylor,

I live in Washington Heights and I just voted for you

I am writing to you to plead you to support the competitive entrance public schools and programs in NYC. It is currently under attack from NYC Department of Education.

Our city is a unique place in the United States where a person can live in a poor neighborhood and still send his child to a high quality elementary, middle and high schools and programs.

These programs don’t take anything away from the children who didn’t get in. DOE pays exactly the same money per student to the worst and the best schools in NYC.

It’s not easy to get in. It’s hard to navigate the byzantine DOE system; there are very few programs and the competition is fierce. But if a child is gifted and her parents are motivated enough, they have a chance. Now, our mayor and the new education chancellor, Richard Carranza, want to take our chance away.

Twenty five years ago, I landed in the United States as a refugee with $100 in my pocket and poor English. The United States gave me a chance and I used it. I applied to colleges, got scholarship, education, and a job. Eventually, I became a US citizen. I don’t break laws, I pay taxes, do jury duty and take care of my neighborhood. My wife and I love Washington Heights and we’ve been living here for fifteen years. We have two little kids and we want the best for them. Because of my childhood, I am particularly sensitive to school issue. I grew up in a rough neighborhood myself, back in Russia. One child out of four in our zoned elementary/middle school ended up in prison or as an alcoholic. I hated that school every day. Fistfights, broken teeth, cracked ribs, heads stuck in flushing toilets, teachers screaming at us to maintain discipline instead of teaching, mostly self-education. My life started when at the age of 13 I walked into a competitive entrance specialized biology high school #199, passed three exams and was accepted. In that school, the kids wanted to study and read books and the teachers didn’t have to scream. Rather, they could teach.

I don’t want my children to deal with bullying, gangs and disciplinarians. New York City gives us this chance. There are citywide gifted and talented schools and district G&T programs. It’s so hard to get into a G&T school – the competition is 200:1. Still, there is a chance of getting into a citywide school. So, every day for the last 8 months, I’ve been training my daughter, getting her ready for January exam. Shockingly, she actually likes it and she is doing quite well. She has a chance. It is easier to get in a local district G&T program we don’t have any. Can you imagine that? District 3 has 600 G&T spots for 23,000 students. Our District 6 has ZERO G&T spots for 23,000 of our students. So, what should little nerds do?

But it is going to get worse. De Blasio and Carranza keep talking about closing all competitive entrance programs, in the name of social equity and justice. Very rich people won’t notice – their kids go to private schools anyway. Affluent people live in rich neighborhoods next to excellent zoned schools. They’ll be ok. So, in the name of equity and justice, Washington Heights residents will lose even a tiny chance we now have for an outstanding elementary education for our kids.

And it gets even worse. De Blasio and Carranza want to remove SHSAT entrance exams for NYC best high schools. All my friends and me, based on all experience and knowledge in education we have, are sure – it is going to dramatically decrease the quality of education in these schools. Every parent I know in Washington Heights, Russian, Latino, Asian, white, whatever – their kids went to, are going or are planning to go to SHSAT schools. If these schools are not available any more, the people for whom education is important, will start leaving Washington Heights.

Or look at it this way. Every year, 25,000 kids take G&T exams. Every year, 30,000 kids take SHSAT exams. Every year 55,000 families – 110,000 taxpayers, voters, residents invest so much time, effort and money to give their kids an access to better education. In five years, it makes half a million people who desperately want this public service paid with our taxpayers money. How can our government take it away from us? I feel like going back to the Soviet Union…

Or look at it this way. For all the talk about segregation, New York City is the least racially and economically segregated place in the United States. Everywhere else educated rich people move to a superzip suburb and send their kids to a good school. In NYC, good not-zoned education is available. Take it away from people with kids and they will move out of NYC. If I can’t provide good education for my kids, I will grind my teeth, pack and leave, however much I love New York.

Please fight for us.

Warm regards,

Boris Itin.

37 years

Lincoln Plaza Cinema lived
As long as Alexander Pushkin.
A bullet killed the poet.
A NYC rent increase
destroyed the theater.
Another bank will spring
To print more money.
Another store will sell more
gold plated toilets.
The memories will soon fade.
For how long will I remember
A quiet foyer, a salmon sandwich,
Three dozen people in a room
Watching Loving Vincent that made
Less money than it cost?
I grieve. I try to find a solace.
My legs will grow strong
From biking all the way
To West 4th or Houston st.
When I want to see a movie
Not made by Lucas. Or Spielberg.

How to manipulate people or the power of love.

Roni (3.5 yrs old) walks by Karlsson (7 months old) and kicks him in the ribs. Karlsson whimpers.
Boris: Roni, why did you do it? You hurt him.
Roni: I hate Karlsson. I like hurt him.
Boris: But he really loves you. Even now, look at him – he stopped whimpering and he is smiling at you. Nobody loves you like he does. If you kicked me I would kick you back. Mama would too. Only Karlsson loves you so much.
Roni stares at Karlsson contemplating. He smiles back at her with a huge toothless smile. Roni sits down and starts petting him.

A Finn on the skis.


It was fifteen minutes before Killington lifts closed and less than a dozen skiers total were still scratching the frozen boilerplate. As I was going to load the lift, a fellow skier rushed in to get on the same chair. He was in his late fifties, with a ruddy face and a swollen nose of a borderline alcoholic. He radiated cheerfulness and energy throughout the flat light of the incoming dusk. We started chatting.
He was from Finland, had an a lovely ex-girlfriend from St Petersburg because all Finn girls were the same but Russians were different. He was quite embarrassed because he started skiing only at 2pm. See, he was partying all night with his friends and his amazing new girlfriend from Honduras and he just woke up. He pulled a beer can out of a pocket and offered it to me. I politely refused and he emptied it in a few gulps. Feeling better, still a bit of hangover, he laughed. We got off the lift and skied down yellow and white ice of black Superstar slope; I could barely keep up with him. We jumped on the last lift. The Finn pulled a beer bottle out of another pocket and finished it in a few seconds with a contended sigh. We chatted about Finnish-USSR war of 1939 and annoying visa issues visiting St Petersburg from Finland, cause people were the same on both sides of the border, but drinking was better at St Petersburg. Again, I could barely keep up with him gliding unconcerned down the slope. My friends are inside, we’ll drink a few beers before coming home, wanna join? He suggested at the bottom. I politely declined referring to two little children and wife. The Finn grinned and bounced into the lodge.

Handmaid’s Tale – from hopeless reality to Hollywood struggle.

Handmaid’s Tale – from hopeless reality to Hollywood struggle.
It is the hopelessness in the Handmaid’s Tale that makes it so realistic and so depressing. In real life, once a totalitarian machine starts rolling, the resistance is futile. In fact, the resistance usually disappears even before the full power of oppressive government is brought in. A few guerrillas may grow lice in the forests or the mountains for a few years, but the overwhelming mass of civilian population succumbs to the totalitarian regime.
Any kind of struggle, even against the impossible odds as in Warsaw ghetto uprising, still carries an element of glory and hope. At least, people keep true to their convictions and their pride; they go down fighting.
However, an efficient totalitarian system doesn’t allow it. It co-opts and corrupts its citizens in crimes against humanity. People are drawn in till they become evil. A person is not able to stay a bystander or even to be a only a victim. Everybody either participate in crimes directly or, at least, support the crimes publicly; men and women slowly lose their humanity. Whoever is not yet dead, become engaged.
Totalitarian regimes don’t stay forever, of course. But they don’t get destroyed by the opposition fighting from below; there is nobody left to fight. Rather they are brought down by major economy failures, external military intervention or ruling class looking for a change.
The authors of the first few episodes understood it very well. That’s why the show feels like a punch in the guts. From one episode to another, the utter hopelessness steadily envelopes a viewer. But it’s difficult to watch nauseating hopelessness forever; people wants hope brought by struggle. Hence the show started changing till in episode ten, an army of red coated Handmaids parades down a street in a slow motion. Then, the viewer knows that the horrors of reality are over and he can relax, drink a beer, eat chips and enjoy a good fake Hollywood struggle.

An uncomfortable evolution from pro-abortion to pro-choice.

Before my wife became pregnant and we propagated, I had purely pro-abortion views. Like condoms and IUD, abortion was a contraception method and there was absolutely nothing wrong about it. Anti-abortionists were religious nuts (mostly males and occasionally older females) who wanted to impose their Middle Age religious nut views and male patriarchy on otherwise secular modern society. It was a fight of good versus evil.

After two Yvonne’s pregnancies, development of embryos, childbirths, etc… I underwent a slow transformation from naturally pro-abortion to an uncomfortably pro-choice stance.

Unlike in the past, I definitely feel uncomfortable about abortion. Instead of treating it as a contraception method, I feel that abortion a smaller evil to be avoided if possible. If a pregnant woman decides to have an abortion, it’s her absolute right. But then euthanasia or killing in self-defense is also a person’s right. These are painful rights that I would rather not exercise unless the other options are even worse.

While I personally have a determined pro-abortion stance, I no longer consider all anti-abortionists to necessarily be evil religious nuts. I strongly disagree with their views, but then I strongly disagree with many other people’s views, from Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters to the anti-euthanasia lobby. However, I respect a lot of these people and I won’t dismiss them as loons or criminals. I am also aware that women make almost half of anti-abortionists.

Enjoy your Wild Cherry Pepsi drink

An essay on Wild Cherry Pepsi.

I live blissfully unaware of the world around me. Hence, it was only a few days ago when I learned about Wild Cherry Pepsi. Without looking, I grabbed a Pepsi can from a store shelf and started drinking it. Surprisingly, a well familiar taste of sweetened sodium hydrophosphate intermingled with benzaldehyde’s acrid chemical flavor. Confused, I inspected the bottle. It looked like a regular Pepsi can but it carried a image of luminescent bright red berries and it had words “wild cherry flavor with other natural flavors”. My feeble brain struggled to reconcile multiple contradictions provided by visual, verbal and tasting clues.

Obviously no cherries, domesticated or wild, taste like benzaldehyde. Why not call it Pepsi with benzaldehyde flavor? It would more way sense. Also, cherries can be brown, white or dark red, but absolutely no cherries ever have radioactive color depicted on the can. Oh, wait, there is an exception – Maraschino cherries. If you soak cherries in potassium thiosulfate and bleach for a few weeks and add FD&C red 40, then they will indeed acquire such color. But then, Pepsi should’ve called the drink Maraschino Cherry. And to keep true to the taste, Pepsi should use the delicate mixture of thiosulfate, chlorine bleach and FD&C rather than benzaldehyde.

Also, why wild cherries in particular? Firstly, there are no wild cherries in North America. So-called wild cherries are actually domesticated variety trees brought from Europe that eventually escaped captivity and ran into the Great American Wilderness. Secondly, wild cherries somehow, however, irrational it may feel, associate with benzaldehyde taste and radioactive red color even less their domesticated brothers do. Are there other connotations to wild cherry term? Could it be that they meant “wild” cherries as opposed to “tame” ones? Did the branding department suggest a slogan Get Wild With Our Wild Cherry Pepsi? Or could it have a sexual connotation aimed at certain male users? Pop our Wild Cherry Pepsi can like you deflower a beautiful wild virgin? Pop 72 cans of Wild Cherry Pepsi and you will feel like you reached Muslim Paradise?

Whatever turns you on, enjoy your Wild Cherry Pepsi drink!

Climbing in Sierra Nevada: the Prettiest Road Goes up the Cliff

This is not my image, but this is what we climbed

It is 11 pm Pacific time. I am dreaming of granite walls merging with the sky, of snow patches hiding from the sun in the north facing gullies, of boulder fields and screes, of the city of rocks, of occasional pine trees and small lakes glistening far below, of an adrenaline rush, of fear and excitement, of happiness. I am dreaming of mountains.

I started mountaineering late, in my mid-twenties. It crept up on me over the years, slowly turning into an addiction. Why do I climb, spending days and weeks stuck in the mountains and on the cliffs, suffering through cold and heat, bleeding, eating power bars, sleeping on the rocks and fighting altitude sickness?

A journalist once asked George Mallory (one of the greatest mountaineers humankind has seen), “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” 

Mallory answered, “Because it is there.” 

He disappeared while trying to climb Everest in 1924. His body was found 75 years later. Some time ago, I tried to explain to my mom why I climb. “Mom,” I said, “All the roads don’t lead to Rome. They all lead to a cemetery, but the prettiest one climbs up a cliff.”

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The Security of Bread


I am looking at a picture my girlfriend just took. I didn’t even know that I could look so serene and happy at the same time. Something in my facial expression is reminiscent of a mother looking at her sleeping baby. Cannibalistically.

It’s 10pm on a Wednesday night. It’s dark outside the window, a cold November drizzle smears the lights coming from the Castle Village buildings. I am sitting at a wooden table in my tiny Manhattan kitchen come dining room. My left hand is soaking in a blender – cold water is unsuccessfully trying to soothe the pain radiating from a large burn across my palm. I don’t care. I am happy. I achieved a dream that I hadn’t even have the guts to dream about. The dream is sitting right here, on the wooden table, on a black wire tray a foot and a half away from me. The dream looks like a misshapen slightly burnt brownish lump still covered in a thin coat of whitish powder. It’s about the same size and shape as a human brain but it’s slightly less symmetrical. I gingerly caress it with my fingertips; I run them along the rough folds, grooves and ridges of the surface. Something crackles faintly underneath. I bring my head close to it and almost touch the surface with my ear. Heat irradiates towards my head and I can feel faint noises coming from under thick crust. It’s talking to me. It says, “Hi.”

Goya in New York

goya, etching 55

Goya’s etching 55, titled Until Death

In 1799, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya published a series of 80 etchings called the Caprichos. He used the etchings to systematically illustrate the vices, foibles, and evils of his world. In no way, are the Caprichos easy or pleasant to watch; each etching radiates anger, fear, sorrow, hopelessness and suffering. The etchings are not particularly subtle; Goya drove his point home with a hammer made out of crude satire.

Etching #55, Until Death, shows a Platonic ideal of an ugly old woman beautifying herself in front of a mirror. When I first saw it, I just thought, “Oh, whatever, it’s such a no-brainer to mock a vain dumb old hag.” To me, the etching was one of the least interesting in the series and it faded from my memory quickly.

It took me twenty years to understand that this etching was just as much born of Goya’s genius as any other.

Yesterday morning, I was walking down 6th Ave in Manhattan. As it intersected 30th street, a light breeze playfully blew the rancid smell of a homeless person up my nostrils. As I started breathing with my mouth, I looked around and I saw an old woman standing next to a cart full of recycling and refuse.

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