Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
For reasons that should be obvious by the end of this post, a young man I met once in college has been on my mind in recent days. I met him early in 2003, soon before the Iraq War began. I was a junior at Yale, and the prospect of war felt like all that anyone could talk about on campus.
I was at the dining hall of my residence getting dinner when I ran into this girl I knew — let’s call her Giselle — and the guy she introduced to me as her new boyfriend. The three of us sat down together. He said his name was Aleksey. He had short blond hair, what I remember as a slightly gaunt frame, and gold-rimmed glasses. He spoke with a slight Russian accent and said his family was Russian but had immigrated from Uzbekistan.
Then, in rapid succession, Aleksey offered the following about himself: He was a Tibetan buddhist; he was a master of martial arts; he was a tennis champion; he worked as a male model; he started his own company and was still the CEO; he was a member of the Russian mafia; and he was an undercover operative for the CIA.
I stared at him and then at Giselle, not knowing what to think. She just had this look on her face as though saying, “Oh there he goes again.” This was Yale. It was not unusual to discover that one’s classmates had ridiculous CVs — a goodwill ambassador for the UN here, a European pop star over there. The very dining hall where we were eating was frequented by Claire Danes, the actress, and Barbara Bush, the president’s daughter, although I cannot recall whether either of them was there that night. So had Aleksey only been less eager, had he only left out the tallest of his tales, I might have given him the benefit of the doubt. But a real CIA agent, one assumed, probably wouldn’t advertise his identity to a guy he just met.
Then the topic of war inevitably came up. “What do you think, Aleksey?” I asked. “Should we invade Iraq?” He gave a macho answer. I can’t reconstruct his words from memory, but it was something along the lines of taking names and kicking ass and showing them who’s boss.
Giselle, on the other hand, belonged to that very large subset of us young people with idealistic political views. War was anathema to her, and she said as much, now upset at her boyfriend. “Well,” I remember trying to smooth things over. “So you disagree on a political issue. It’s not the end of the world.”
“But we don’t disagree,” Aleksey said.
“You don’t?” I was curious how he squared the circle. “But you’re for war, and she’s against it.”
“Yeah Aleksey,” she chimed in. “How is it that we don’t disagree?”
“We don’t disagree once I explain it to you.”
“So you disagree right now, but you’re confident you’ll come to agreement later?” I said something to this effect.
“No, we don’t disagree. We agree on everything.”
I remember both Giselle and I staring at him, not sure what to make of this.
Giselle broke up with him some time later, and I never saw him again. Fast forward to 2006. Aleksey was graduating and applied for a job on Wall Street. Instead of a normal resume, he made a “video resume” with himself talking about his personal philosophy of success, interspersed with footage of him playing tennis, alpine skiing, ballroom dancing, benching 495 pounds (according to the subtitle), and punching through a stack of bricks. He entitled it “Impossible Is Nothing” and sent it to UBS.
Someone at UBS thought the video was so hilarious that he sent it to a bunch of friends, who in turn forwarded it onto other friends, and soon Aleksey was the laughingstock of Manhattan. He never got a job at UBS or any other major financial institution. But actor Michael Cera made a parody of the video, “Impossible Is the Opposite of Possible.” The TV show How I Met Your Mother also parodied it in one episode, “The Possimpible.” The New Yorker wrote a piece about him entitled “Aleksey the Great.” His notoriety led him to change his last name.
Then in January 2013, I heard news of his death. Some outlets reported that it was from a drug overdose with suggestions of suicidal intent. Other reports said it was from unknown causes. He was 29.
It was obvious that Aleksey had issues, at a minimum delusions of grandeur, a strange eagerness to please that made him unable to reconcile or even to acknowledge disagreement, and possibly pathological dishonesty. I wouldn’t trust him enough to lend him twenty bucks.
Still, I feel sorry for him. Had he only had the chance to work out his issues in private instead of stumbling onto the public stage at an early age, had he been born to a wealthy and connected family that could make his missteps go away instead of immigrant parents, his life might have turned out very differently.
Hell, with his set of issues, he could’ve been president.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."