by John P. Deever (Ukraine 1993–95)
This essay won the 1996 Moritz Thomsen Award for Best Short Work about the Peace Corps Experience.
“LIFE’S TOO SHORT to peel potatoes,” a woman in my local supermarket announced, as she put a box of instant mashed potatoes into her cart. When I overheard her I nearly shrieked.
After recently returning from my Peace Corps stint in Ukraine, I tend to get defensive about the potato in all its forms: sliced, scalloped, diced, chopped, grated, or julienned; then boiled, browned, french-fried, slow-fried, hand-mashed, baked or twice-baked — with an indulgent dollop of butter or sour cream, yes thank you.
A large portion of my time in Ukraine was spent preparing what was, in the winter, nearly the only vegetable available. Minutes and hours added up to a string of days handling potatoes. I sized up the biggest, healthiest spuds in the market and bought bucketsful; I hauled them home over icy sidewalks.
Winter evenings – when it got dark at four p.m. – I scrubbed my potatoes thoroughly under the icy tap (we had no hot water) until my hands were numb. Though I like the rough, sour peel and prefer potatoes skin-on, Chernobyl radiation lingered in the local soil; we were advised to strip off the skins. So I peeled and peeled, pulling the dull knife towards my thumb as Svetlana Adamovna had taught me, and brown-flecked stripe after stripe dropped off to reveal a golden tuber beneath. Finally I sliced them with a “plop” into boiling water or a hot frying pan. My potatoes, my kartopli, sizzled and cooked through, warming up my tiny kitchen in the dormitory until the windows clouded over with steam.
Very often my Ukrainian friends and I peeled and cooked potatoes together, either in my kitchen or in Tanya’s or Misha’s or Luda’s, all the while laughing and talking and learning from each other. We kept our hands busy (we had to, to eat) and that made sitting and communicating easier, less formal, and never awkward. Preparing potatoes became for me both a happy prelude to nourishment and, when shared with others, an interactive ritual giving wider scope and breadth to my life.
But how could I explain that feeling to the Instant Woman? I wanted to say, “On the contrary, life’s too short for Instant Anything.”
Now back home, I’m pressed by all the Instant Things To Do. In Ukraine, accomplishing two simple objectives in one day — like successfully phoning Kiev from the post office and then finding a store with milk — satisfied me pretty well. I taught my classes, worked on other projects, and tried to stay happy and healthy along the way.
Now it takes an hour of fast driving to get to work, as opposed to 12 minutes of leisurely walking in Ukraine. I spend hours fiddling with my computer to send Instant E-mail. Talking to three people at once during a phone call is efficient — not an accident of Soviet technology. With so much time saving, I ought to have hours and hours to peel potatoes. Somehow I don’t.
What I wish I’d said to the woman in the supermarket is this: “Life’s too short to be shortened by speeding it up.”
But I wasn’t able to formulate that thought so quickly. Instead I went to the frozen food section and stared at Budget Gourmet microwave dinners for a while, eventually coming to the sad, heavy realization that the Szechuan Chicken looked delicious.
[July, 1996] John P. Deever is the Assistant Editor of Give & Take: A Journal on Civil Society in Eurasia published by ISAR (Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia – www.isar.org). He gives credit to fellow Ukraine RPCV Lisa Swaim (1993-95) for helping him reduce a three-page potato thesis down to this award winner.