Sunday, October 31, 2004

All's Un-Hallowed

A sloppy girl with battered black tulle wings and a torn skirt. A twenty-year-old man in a makeshift diaper. A sexless creature in a gorilla suit smoking a cigarette on a dark street corner. Gaggles of ghouls, a flapper in white fringe and sequins, two guys wearing enormous afro wigs. All drunk and shouting expletives, stumbling into the street while bored police officers looked on, unmoved and unmoving. Halloween in Georgetown—happy it was not.

I could smell beer fumes stealing through my car grill the moment I stopped at the light on the DC side of the Key Bridge. Loud music was echoing off the brick sidewalks and storefronts—it was ten minutes to midnight and the roads were thronged with partiers apparently fearless of the midnight pumpkin transformation. I sat in traffic and muttered imprecations. Returning library books and getting needed printouts at this hour, and having to dodge inebriated students to boot.

We sang “A Mighty Fortress” this morning—Reformation Sunday, you know. Good sermon, great Sunday school (we’re going through Hebrews). Made it despite detour forced by the Marine Corps Marathon—they blocked off Lee Highway and a section of the GW Parkway (I think), so I was forced to take back roads. Only a few minutes late. Weather was perfect. Trees have just peaked, and sky was robin’s egg blue, air temperate and light.

Didn’t take the usual “Shabbas” nap, but plunged directly into my Slavery on the Black Sea paper. Except for phone calls, worked straight for eight hours plus. I had hoped to finish altogether, but there are continuity problems and one remaining gap towards the end. Hence my needing to go to campus to print the thing, plus reviews for the several books I’m supposed to have read by tomorrow but haven’t time to.

I got to school and discovered I couldn’t get into the building where the history dept. is—university card doesn’t work, neither does key. I waited for security for over 30 minutes, sitting with my back to the glass doors, watching undergrads in odd outfits cross “Red Square,” staggering, talking too loudly, kissing in the interrogating fluorescent light and insulting each other, unconscious of the Jesuit cemetery close by.

I’ve got enough candy left over to rot every tooth in the neighborhood. Probably twenty trick-or-treaters total rang the bell between seven and nine—not the hordes I had optimistically expected. Any suggestions of how to use it? I don’t want to waste it on the ungrateful wretches in my department, and I certainly don’t need to eat it myself—it may not go to “waist” then, but it will most definitely go to hips!

Saturday, October 30, 2004

An "Editorial" I Composed in August

August 2, 2004

For Americans to ask, “Why does the rest of the world hate us?” is for us to engage in a tradition of mournful self-examination peculiar to the United States. This national navel-gazing is a tradition which simultaneously exposes the fibers and flaws of our national character, and the seat of its faith.

We Americans want to be liked, we expect to be liked, and we are tremendously disappointed and distressed when we are not liked. The spoken assumption in our wail “why do they hate us?” is symptomatic of our own intemperate spirit—a spirit which was once expressed, for good or ill, towards conquering frontiers—of wilderness, of space, of previously insuperable physical and psychological barriers. This questing spirit now, rather than absorbing a measured understanding of its occasional fallibility, has allowed its periodic errors (some great indeed, but not all damning) to severely undermine its self-confidence, to the point that the loudest—if not necessarily the most widespread—external judgments about its capabilities and culpability are received as definitive.

The shrewd non-friends of the United States recognize this new American insecurity, our faltering adolescent bravado and our growing anxiety to be approved by older, “cultured” countries. The few who truly dislike what were broadly understood in the past to be particularly American values (a desire for justice, an effort for equality, an admiration for people who refuse to accept bad beginnings as reasons for succumbing to defeat) sense that we as a people no longer believe in ourselves, that “In God We Trust” no longer rings true, that a general understanding of the benefits we’ve received as citizens of a country which aspires to principles of all people having been endowed with “inalienable rights” has fallen by the wayside. And these enemies strike at those modern symbols on which we have misplaced our national faith: our technology, our wealth. And we are afraid.

An American President once admonished his initially bedraggled and pessimistic generation, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and they surged forward to become what we now call the “greatest generation.” Roosevelt’s words are considerably more applicable to our time than his. In Whom do we trust? In what do we hope? Are we looking to the bright lights of Silicon Valley for our future stability? To the magnificent cathedral spires of the proposed rebuilt World Trade Center complex for a reconstitution of our country’s pride? Are we fatally bruised by our past national sins, or are we drawing inspiration from those brilliant successes we have experienced and the bright leaders who have caused us to travel onward and upward in our individual and corporate life? Will we continue to wallow in doubt, or will we resolve to act decisively and well, in concert with our quiet friends, in defiance of that cliquish Continental clamor which has so recently rejoiced at its power to abash Americans?

Friday, October 29, 2004

JPost Article

Guys, I just found a good article in the Jerusalem Post on the upcoming U.S. elections (to read, you'll have to paste the following 3 lines into your browser--as one line with no spaces. Sorry the address is so long!):

Dreams, Nightmares and Conspicuous Consumption

11:30 PM. Marianne was puffing on her hooka, hauling on the gurgling pipe and exhaling exotic whiffs of apple tobacco over my laptop, where I was struggling to finish my book review paper for Zimmer.

I met with him in the sitting area outside his office today--Georgetown is one of the few upper-tier schools where profs have to double- or triple-up on office-space, and the fellow with whom he shares his was working on the computer. Zimmer and I were wearing almost identical outfits, except my shoes didn't look like they'd been beaten to death, and he had on faded socks that didn't match. The man needs a wife.

Anyway, he was sweet as usual, and I was exhausted. Collapsed after I came home, and had nightmares during restless afternoon sleep--all about people being drowned in a large murky indoor pool, and George Bush and John Kerry vacationing together with their wives nearby and bickering, and a combination of my father and Ronald Reagan doing what they could to save the drowning people, but just not being able to get to all of them. Oh, and then there was this scene in a chapel underneath the pool which had windows into the water, where the body of some guy who hadn't been rescued could be seen rotting down to bones. And I didn't even stay to watch Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola version) last night!

Silverman's Dracula lecture at the history honor society party before the movie was terrific, although he hemmed and hawed about my introducing him. He read the earliest extant Dracula story, which he'd recently translated from Church Slavonic--it dates from just a couple of years after Vlad Tepes died. Fresh off the press, you might say, except that it predated mechanical printing. That man was one bad dude. It was hilarious, though first only in a sick way--one account after another about Tepes impaling men, women and children, and inflicting other horrific tortures besides (we in the audience couldn't help laughing at the sheer accumulation of gruesome details, safely removed from them by five and a half centuries), and then the author claims that Tepes goes over to "his namesake, the Devil," only when he converts from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. Um, it's just me, but I think his spiritual condition had scant to do with his denominational affiliation. After Silverman finished reading the tale, he went over the documented history of Tepes, and then briefly discussed the ways his myth has been used since--I didn't know this, but in 1989, Czech president Vaclav Havel called Romanian dictator Nikolai Ceaucescu that country's modern Dracula. Shortly thereafter, like the original brutal leader, Ceaucescu was killed by his countrymen--I still remember seeing the pictures of his televised shooting, Christmas Day.

Speaking of heartless destruction, the squirrels have eaten an entire half of one of our pumpkins--the face is completely gone--and the other has a a newly-chewed ear and a cleft pallet which has obliterated its nose and reaches into one eye. It's grotesque.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Howls of the damned (or just un-damned, in this case) on the streets again at 11:30 tonight. The Red Sox won the World Series, there is joy in Mudville, and the Curse of the Bambino is broken. Whether that early-in-the-season Boston-popped baseball's hitting the boy in the stands who lives in the Babe's childhood home had anything significant to do with this will probably be debated by fans for years. Just so long as Boston doesn't sweep politically, too, I'll be amused by this superstitious speculation.

Pudgy Squirrels

"Have you ever seen a squirrel as wide as it is tall?" I asked my mother this evening.

"Only the flat ones," she said.

We have ones that are fully in the round, in the broadest sense of the phrase. The pudgy squirrel phenomenon is a result of Kevin and his girlfriend's festive seasonal gesture of pumpkin-carving. Three or four days ago, they went grocery shopping and brought home two middle-sized pumpkins, into which they carved cheerful expressions prior to setting them out at the bottom of the front steps. By midday yesterday, the pumpkins could have stood watch at a haunted mansion--they'd been progressively cannibalized, the edges of their neatly-cut eyes, noses and mouths chewed away as with leprosy. And the furry little guilty parties kept coming back for more.
This afternoon I spotted one just a few feet from the scene of the crime, with its tiny grey paws crossed on its chest above a positively portly white abdomen, obviously freshly stuffed with raw pumpkin, too sated to move. They'd better sleep well this winter, the little blighters. They're certainly fat enough.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Mea culpa...or just messed up

Ok, you'd think after a person's watched well over fifteen hundred movies she would have a bit more finesse, critique-wise, but I didn't in my last blog-entry re: Eternal Sunshine. Apparently the section that I missed at the beginning of the film was essential to comprehending the plot, as a Rummynation reader pointed out yesterday--he said at the outset a few more of the loose ends were sewn up, although I'm not sure that all were. As memory-loss movies go, though, I vastly prefer Memento, which is a test of one's own recall as well as a display of the confusion of the characters'--and no futuristic technology or time-space-continuum-porthole was required as a plot device. Oh, and I still don't like Being John Malkovich, and I saw every minute of that one!

Mindbending movies titillate the average person who does not think to fear losing the reins of sanity, but for those of us who deal with--or who have friends or family members who deal with--mental disorders on an irregular basis, the possibilities are particularly intriguing, and frightening. When the brain doesn't seem capable of processing incoming stimuli, when letters merge on the page and--although visually legible--are incomprehensible, when memory vanishes and family and friends seem like distant figures in a dark and dizzying landscape, disorientation is profound, and fear sometimes overwhelming. Makes one grateful for the "ordinary" ability to remember, understand, reason and react, to walk steadily, laugh sincerely, and speak clearly. If any of these movies encourage more folks to be thankful for these taken-for-granted skills, then I'll think better of them than I do at present.

Oh, a film (and book!) recommendation in this line...The Manchurian Candidate (the original, black and white version with Frank Sinatra) and the book of the same name (on which the movie was based), authored by Richard Condon.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Tired, Downright Unchurched

I didn't make it to church this morning. The second "gathering yourselves together" in a row that I've forsaken. Horribly bummed as a result. The first incident--missing Wednesday Bible Study--had a thoroughly legit excuse, but this sure didn't--just sleeping! Please pray that I'll have some Wayfollower fellowship this week-am in serious need of it!

Have an apparent spider-bite under my right eye--cheek horribly swollen, so much that it's interfering with my vision--but better than it was earlier today, or last night. Guess it's a spider-bite because I was lying in bed last night after my shower, reading a book on slavery, when this giant spider walks around the right shoulder of my nightgown. My cheek was already swollen, so my vision was somewhat obscured on that side, but I saw a distinct movement and my neck instantly grew abt three inches as I observed the thing--it was about two inches in diameter, although most of that was legs--the sand-colored body itself was fairly small, about twice the size of a daddy long legs. Not making a sound, I brushed it off hurriedly, and put my book down on it. Getting a piece of toilet paper, I lifted the book and snatched the spider into the tissue, simultaneously ending its creepy-crawly existence and keeping my newly-laundered coverlet from being covered with spider entrails. The ol' heartrate didn't even go up that much, but it set me to thinking--how many of the spots that I've just been assuming were freakish zits on my bespeckled anatomy have actually been caused by spiders? I'd laundered all my bedclothes, as I said, even before I saw the spider, but gosh! it makes me worry. Not that worry kept me from dropping off to sleep, or staying zonked this morning...

Friend Ellen and her husband Ed (short for Eduardo--he's from Bolivia) had me over this afternoon. She'd graciously volunteered to help me with this bloody Black Sea Slavery paper--that's what? six months overdue?--that I definitely need to get finished. But ye olde writer's block had me stalled at 26 single-spaced pages, mush, really, of notes and brief sallies into interpretation. I was over there for over six hours. So helpful. The paper's still not done, but the light is definitely visible at the end of the pipe (forget tunnel; I feel like the main character in the Shawshank Redemption, slithering through filth on my way to freedom). Speaking of movies, the last hour over at Ellen's (while we ate a late dinner of pizza) we spent watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's one of those very-well-acted, all-star-cast, well-scripted, elegantly-photographed timewaster-pieces-o'-crap that I wouldn't recommend to anybody. Totally unredeeming.

Must go study a bit more, then hit the sack. Hopefully a bug/arachnid-free sack. And dream with an unspeckled mind of the warm happiness of having all my work done.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Academics and Similar "Intellectuals"

“Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun,
That will not be deep-searched with saucy looks;
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from other’s books.
These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights
That give a name to every fixèd star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.”
Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I, Scene 1

My Loquacious, Studious Self

“Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” (Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act III, Scene 1)

She hath fed of the dainties that are bred of a book, she hath eat paper, as it were, she hath drunk ink. (With apologies to Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act IV, Scene 2)

The eBayer

“A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.” (Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 2)

The Bard on the Bostonian

William S. about John K.:
"He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat."
(Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene 1)

Users of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and other Extract-Anthologies

“—They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.
—O! they have lived long on the alms-basket of words.”
(Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene 1)

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Foreign Travel on the Mind

For much of this week, the sky has been obscured by an indefinite colorlessness, a vague moist firmament floating just above the earth, only handsbreadths beyond the wet housetops and brightly colored trees. A chill creeps indoors, and people hunch their shoulders against the depressing atmosphere. I have been curled up like a modern-day Bob Cratchet in front of my laptop, and huddled in a turtleneck and wool scarf, my teeth rattling, as I read the Russian tale “The Magpie-Thief.” Russian tales are not, on the whole, very cheerful: the main difference between comedies and tragedies is that in the former someone dies at the beginning, rather than at the end—the rest of the characters have longer to reconcile themselves to their bereavement, which makes for good cheer when the author finally leaves them in peace. Auntie Mame once remarked, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” To which a Russian might respond, “Yes, we are, aren’t we? Let us muse upon this cosmic woe…”

Speaking of Auntie Mame, who (in her non-Lucille Ball version—oh, that was dreadful!) has long been a model of sorts for me, I’ve recently had the pleasure of getting to know a couple of other older single ladies (besides those dynamic individuals in my Bible Study) who are inspiring examples of the “banqueting” group. They are both in my “Women in Russian Literature” class (for which I was translating “The Magpie-Thief”). Marie is a trim, attractive lady her early forties, Lisa is a neat, studious 39. Actually, I met Marie last year, when we were both in Kohl’s two-semester Soviet History seminar—she was the sole “non-traditional” student in the class, working fulltime for a government agency and taking courses in the afternoons. Besides discovering that we had complementary temperaments and interests, I liked her enthusiasm and her focus on South Russian issues, which encouraged me to widen my previously narrow European-Russia perspective. Also, she liked my jewelry! At first, when I met Lisa, I thought she was a settled matron—she mentioned she taught Greek and Latin at a high school, and I guess I just superimposed on her my mental image of the married schoolmarm mid-30s mom with two or three middle and high-school aged children and a rather dull paper-pushing husband. How wrong I was!

Both Marie and I started talking with Lisa after the Literature class a few weeks ago, and it turns out she is a Catholic canon lawyer, single, speaks Italian fluently—in addition to the Latin and Greek (in which she tutors privately, having quit her high school teaching job from five-year burnout)—and worked for a member of Congress for several years after she finished college in the mid-1980s (she cashed out her retirement savings from this government job to pay for her legal education). Today, she, Marie and I were chatting with our instructor about Vienna, Austria—which came up as a topic because Marie is leaving tonight for a job-related week in Armenia and has a stopover in Vienna on the way back. The professor said she’d been to Vienna, too—she flew there as a refugee from the USSR in 1979. I said I’d stopped there twice, once when coming back from Poland. Lisa said she’d gone too, also from Poland, when she was living near Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Krakow, teaching English. “Holy cow!” I said. “When was this?”

Lisa had lived in Poland in 1991, and the reason she went to Vienna was that she and a couple of companions had heard there was a Mexican restaurant there—and they REALLY wanted some good food after all the lousy grocery products then available in Eastern Europe. The cuisine, and the nightlife, had improved remarkably by 1996, I told her—Krakow was great! She said that when she was there, capitalism had not quite caught on—she and her friends went into one of the few private nightclubs near the Sukinice (the Cloth Hall) in Krakow’s town square, and discovered a band singing “Feelings” in heavily-accented English. The musicians decided they wanted to go home around 10, so the bar owners kicked out all the patrons and closed for the night. I assured her entertainment options were much improved in the years since then. She then told me that she is thinking about going to Rome, to get her doctorate in Canon Law. I haven’t been to Rome since 1993, and I sure would like to re-visit Poland and Ukraine. I think it’s about time for this single girl to start planning another little trip…

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Cries in the Night

When whooping erupted in the distance in the direction of Courthouse Square at 12:30 AM, I didn't flinch. I knew panic had not seeped into the streets, but celebration obviously had. The Red Sox are in. I don't really care, but it's obvious a lot of folks do. I could hear Marianne through the wall cursing at the TV for hours while her boyfriend (yes, belay that previous entry about her not bringing home men--this guy has slept over the last 2 nights) lay on her bed and laughed at her. She also kept calling friends on her cellphone to talk about the score, so I knew Boston was up by seven without having to leave off translating Herzen.

Had wonderful chats with two heart's-friends this evening: she of the NC nephew-natality and my dear former roommate Susanna in South Carolina. Hadn't talked to Susanna in a week at least, possibly two, which is inexcusable considering she's still recovering from major spinal surgery. She's a raconteure extraordinaire, and one sign of her increasing health is the return of her providential good humor, even about the toughest of situations. Saying "she's been through a lot" is like saying "Job had it rough"--a trite assessment of what have been trials approaching apocalyptic proportions. Yet, as often happens when Way-followers relate these episodes, the wisdom gained supercedes the misery endured, and leaves the hearer definitely encouraged. Very wierd, but true!

Susanna is a social worker in a SC piedmont elementary school. Almost two years ago now, she was attacked by one of her clients, a seven-year-old, who kicked her with such force that he ruptured several disks in her back. A second episode with a similarly uncontrolled female child added to the damage. In pain, but too overworked and underpaid to do more than accept a local physician's blithe diagnosis of back strain, Susanna struggled on with her emotionally and physically taxing job for another eighteen months. Finally, this past summer, when the pain worsened and she began to experience numbness in her legs and feet, she insisted on seeing a specialist. This doctor was horrified at her condition, and sent her promptly into surgery, where the pieces of destroyed disk were removed and a titanium rod and four screws were permanently installed. He told her afterward that she was literally within a filament's-breadth of being paralyzed from the waist down.

Since the surgery, which left her largely incapacitated (unable to wash or dress herself without assistance, and dependent on a walker), she has stayed with her parents except for several weeks she spent with her married sister and nieces. The nieces, all of whom are under seven, learned a lot about caring for and being sensitive to people with disabilities thanks to her experience. The smaller ones kept an eye on "Aunt Susanna," making sure she didn't lean over to pick something up, or take other hazardous chances. These miniature nurses took their role very seriously: Susanna joked with the three-year-old that she was a "rag doll" and pointed to her pocket, saying "that's where the batteries go," and was believed. "Who knows," she told me, "what they've told their friends about me."
I assured her it couldn't be worse than what one of my little brothers announced to his class about me when I was in the hospital (at the beginning of my seventh grade year) for an appendectomy: "My sister just had a hysterectomy!"

Oh, Susanna's life lately has been a series of bizarre Southern Gothic episodes, from the deaf little old lady neighbor who waylaid her on the street to shout about her "accident," to her apartment's being infested with a swarm of yellowjackets (and the nutty country bugman who showed up to attempt to deal with the insect problem) to random doctors' offices repeatedly confusing her appointment times, dates, and procedures. And that's not even mentioning the grandmother of still another elementary-school-age-client who's been practically stalking her and the sister-in-law's brother's law partner who's theoretically handling her workman's-comp case (although they've never met). She ought to write a book. She did say she's been jotting down notes. Believe me, there's plenty of material there for a whole series!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

And About the Cat...

An anonymous reader has inquired about the current state of "the cat." I suppose, not knowing exactly which cat is being asked after, I should report on the condition of all cats of my acquaintance:

--Data, my brother's cat, recently met my parents for the first time and was pronounced "beautiful" and "into everything." Cat and brother were in North Georgia for brother's fiancee's wedding shower. Unknown whether cat was formally invited to the party, or simply gatecrashed. He did bring along some unwelcome companions--hundreds of fleas, whose presence was discovered only AFTER he'd wandered around the future in-laws' whole house, associating with their pets. Upon discovery of these interlopers, poor Data was immediately subjected to two successive sink baths in chemical solution, which temporarily traumatized him. But he became a much happier kitty once dry.

--Petkya and Katya, the "elder siblings" of the North Carolina infant, seem to be coping well and reveling in what attention is left over from visitors come to see the small person.

--Kofi Annan, my Chicago friend Ivy's small female Sphinx, has given her stamp of approval to a handsome Brazilian ophthomologist recently come to woo her human.

--Moppet and Missy, the calico belles of Vienna, VA, will have to get used to being out of the limelight when a little Baker pops out of the proverbial oven in the spring.

--Assorted members of multi-cat households in Connecticut, Maryland, Georgia and North Carolina are all reported to be doing well at last bulletin.

The pardon of all felines whom I have inadvertently left out of this list is humbly requested. Thank you.

Note on Comments

Dear Irrascible Readers,

I have changed the settings on this blog so that you DON'T have to be a "blogger" subscriber to leave comments--anyone with a valid email can type a note.

Unfortunately (and I am not at all pleased about this, but can't figure out how to reverse the damage done) the few comments that were already posted were deleted by the infusion of the new code. I don't suppose anyone has a good comment which can help me recover the old data?

Look forward to reading your responses!

Monday, October 18, 2004

Shower Thoughts

Standing under the warm sprinkle of the shower last night, I found myself yodeling, “…when I was a young carbuncle…” and thinking, irrelevantly, of my undergrad days.

My college was one of those seemingly innumerable liberal arts institutions scattered across the Commonwealth of Virginia that hail the Father of Our Country as a necessary early benefactor. Its American loyalties had been diverted during the 1860s, but having officially rejoined the Union it boasted the usual contingent of notable graduates on its publicity literature: a minor Supreme Court justice, a handful of congressmen and senators, two major television personalities, and a solitary Great Author. The GA’s name, if not his person, was brought out, dusted off, and paraded before the assembled multitude and their cameras on any and all auspicious occasions.

The red brick pavement of the main campus bore up under the weight of tradition, and the heft of perspiring good ol’ boys with burgeoning beer bellies. Although the male graduates had opined it would crumble to dust under their dainty feet, the brick withstood the hurrying steps of reluctantly-admitted coeds and the conscientious tread of a few African-American students bent on acing their exams and studiously ignoring the tiny Confederate battle flags fluttering in the grass beside otherwise unremarkable stone monuments.

Shower done, I stepped into the hall wrapped in my bathrobe and paused. I hadn’t known it was possible to whine and bellow in the same breath, but my roommate Alissa was managing this: “It’s 50 degrees up here and I don’t have any winter clothes!” She must have been “talking” to her mother on her cell phone; I could hear her clearly through her closed bedroom door. Succumbing to sudden temptation, I vainly attempted to invoke the spirits of Alexander I, or even Stalin—who saw the invaders retreat in disorder when they encountered winter chill for which they were not prepared. But Alissa is no Napoleon (nor, I think, would even Marianne, who loathes her, make the Hitler comparison)—I can expect no ignominious acknowledgement of her defeat by foul weather, only a strategic influx of stuffed shopping bags from expensive Washington-area boutiques. She’ll be suited up in appropriate clothing in short order; good thing the little Franco-German "emperors" weren't so logistically capable. But really, what would they have done with Russia had they "won" it?

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Feline Fetish

Petkya looked up at me with the embarrassed indignity of a teenager whose parents have just walked in on him smoking pot. I'd surprised him dragging around a felt blanket in his teeth, moaning like he'd lost all hope, and his glance told me he resented my intrusion into his nightly ritual. He and his fellow feline Katya take turns licking and moving this fur-strewn polyester rag through the house--I would guestimate it travels the length and breadth of the floor from upstairs to downstairs and back at least twice a week. It's the cats' sensual fetish--a kitten, a mate, and a symbol of security all knitted into one. It probably smells terrible, being doused with cat-spittle and hauled over the carpet and around litterboxes all the time, but I can't bring myself to touch it, much less to sniff it. When it ended up on my bed last night, Petkya chewing on a mouthful with all the serious concentration he applies to a matted spot on his ankle, I let both cat and felt lie undisturbed and took a Zyrtec in self-defense. When I awoke this morning, the allergen-impregnated blanket had vanished and Petkya was purring under my fingers. Cats. So dirty one moment and so delightful the next--much like children!

Friday, October 15, 2004

My newly-minted "nephew"

Drove down to North Carolina this afternoon to visit friends and my newly-minted "nephew," their son. Good to get out of DC and away from my convalescing roommate (Kevin was not a happy camper--the surgical incision crosses his neck just above the collar bone, and he was in severe pain for days) and another, less savory roomie who's having YET ANOTHER boy over this weekend. Would rather hear small nephew crying than the unmistakable sounds of roommate's intimate activity with her paramour as I am having my pre-sleep "quiet time." Talk about unholy thoughts!

Marianne (my FSO roommate) confirmed this morning--while I was eating leftover chocolate cake for breakfast--that she is being posted to Germany in December. I told her I expect to visit, but will miss her being around. Her only vice is occasional inebriation (a requirement, it seems, for working at the State Department, where the in-joke is that you have to "donate your liver" to the job), not dragging home strange men at odd hours. Thankfully, she said that Tania, a delightful Turkish girl who stayed at the house for a couple of weeks a while back, is interested in taking her place. Tania is in law school, and keeps the same crazy hours I do, besides being cheerful and chatty.

My "nephew" is handsome sort (with his mother's nose and his father's chin), the first of a large crop of honorary relatives which are scheduled to appear in the next six or seven months. He fits nicely into my arms, a surprisingly light and strong little wriggling creature, smaller than the two cats who were previously the favored "children" of my doting friends. The cats are curled on my bed as I type, while the tiny human who supplanted them is lying between his parents upstairs--the only place he'll actually stay asleep through the night. All is blissfully quiet. Come to think of it, why am I still up?! I think I'll go to bed and dream about Dr. Zimmer...who I just found out is single and only 34!! :-P

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Towards a Better Story

I spent a bit of my time (what time? I had TIME?) this last weekend reading Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, the subject of much glowing review. Deceptively glowing review. Oh, it was OK, but Washington Post writer Michael Dirda, for example, made it and its two sequels sound so much better--or perhaps simply raised my expectations to such an extent--that I was downright disappointed when I actually had a chance to read it. I wished I'd stuck with salivating over Dirda's delicious wording and let my imagination do its duty alone. But nooo, I had to go ahead and fill in the blanks, so to speak, with the "real thing."

Dirda and Daddy both have the storytelling alchemist's touch, the former with books, the latter with movies. Daddy can "tell" a movie in such a way that it's superfluous to actually see the film in question--just the right details are magnified: the drama is intense, the dialogue succinct, and the humor or tragedy clear. On more than one occasion, I've decided that his edited version of the story was preferable to the director's cut. Just goes to show that the most vivid pictures are those made by the mind.

I aim to achieve this sort of inspirational effect in my writing, saying just enough, not overembellishing. The trick is learning exactly how much detail to provide in order to give readers an adequate understanding of a character or situation. Thus, this blog is a learning experience for me--and the feedback will help me hone my skills.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Mute the Anxiety

Professor Noah Zimmer is tall, handsome and ruddy, with a single pale mole that sits next to his mouth like a currant on a bun and a smile that lights up his entire face.

Today, I was almost in tears dreading meeting with him. As 4 PM grew closer, I quaked all the way down to my socks and not just because of the suddenly cold weather.

Yesterday, a Homeland Security official had punched me on the left shoulder and told me I looked terrible. Fyodor, who introduces himself as “Fred” to most people because he expects they’ll butcher his Russian name, has taken a year’s leave from my program to work for this new federal agency (he speaks multiple languages fluently, including Persian), and for some reason he was on campus when I was semiconsciously pacing over to the library after last evening’s literature class. “I’m giving it to you straight,” he announced, “You look really tired.” I must have been grim all day—on the way through airport security in Columbia that morning, one of the NTSB guys told me, “don’t look so serious.” The government is apparently quite concerned when I fail to be cheerful.

There were reasons I wasn’t a bundle of joy…mostly academic. Writer’s block (which affected this blog as well) had slowed my completion of paper-assignments to a crawl, and I just didn’t have the wherewithal to finish readings which I was supposed to be able to discuss in detail in class.

So, I guess you might say I was primed for a Big Brother-inspired panic attack, the first in several years, which shortly before meeting with Zimmer had me seriously worried about all sorts of things—scholastic and political—which seemed to be spinning out of my control. Waves of fear, frustration and anxiety overwhelmed me, and on the way to school I was close to breaking down altogether in the car .

Suddenly, while I scanned the residential Georgetown streets for a parking spot, God reminded me of an essential bit of information which had totally slipped through my grasping mental fingers: “C, you are not God, I AM.” Hey, there I was, having called my mother to share my misery, tied into a knot because I was helpless, when the fact is that was (and is) the only place I am capable of being. Thrashing around doesn’t hinder the One who gently and firmly carries me in His arms, but it certainly doesn't do me any good. Realizing this was an immediate relief: just as quickly as the misery had started to drown me, it receded. I did some fast, open-eyed praying asking the Lord to work through my weaknesses in my meeting with Zimmer, and hurried up to the History Department.

The meeting went great. Zimmer beamed, laughed at my jokes, and seemed genuinely happy with the contents and progress of our discussion.

I went directly to Bible Study afterwards. We’ve started a new devotional book—I got my copy in the mail today. It’s on discarding anxiety and learning contentment. It's strange, but I have this feeling Someone is trying to tell me something…

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Joy, Sorrow and Moral Confusion

My friend Rachel is twelve weeks pregnant, and got her first sonogram the other day. The resolution on those things is phenomenal—in the picture she emailed I could see the little arms and legs, the eye and jaw line of the tiny head. All these features are just a centimeter or so long, and all obviously belong to a little person. I heard that Rachel’s father was so overcome with pride at the cuteness of what he termed his "grand-bean" that he persuaded a couple of his more computer-savvy female co-workers to print up copies of the sonogram laminate them, so he could hand them around to family members. His wife rolled her eyes, but didn’t resist taking her own wallet-size copy to put in her purse.

I talked to Rachel yesterday. She'd been horribly upset (on two separate, but similar occasions) by a colleague and an in-law, who’d piously intoned that if they knew any baby of theirs would be born with physical disabilities, they’d abort it. "This is my child they're talking about!" she furiously told me. She doesn’t know that anything will be "wrong" with her baby (I think it’s most unlikely), but was thinking about worst-case scenarios--whether she would want to know beforehand so she would be prepared to care for special needs, for example. "If you have a child with a disability, your life is over," the male colleague had said, "but it's the woman's choice." "And what is his definition of 'life'?" I asked Rachel. She concurred. "It's so selfish. And he's spineless."


"She-it," cried the hard-faced white girl who'd been at the front desk when I entered the beauty shop. "I wanna tell him the lousy piece of shit he is!" Her strident tones carried to the waiting area. "How could he do this to me? I wanna tell his girlfriend what he did--he doesn't have balls enough to tell her himself. She-it!"

I crouched at the front of the room and arranged my jewelry on the bench in view of the door.

"I've just been looking up on the Internet and I have to wait until my belly gets big to get a paternity test—that's after three months, too late to get an abortion. Shit!"

A male acquaintance of the guy who had recently, and regrettably, re-impregnated her (he'd also fathered her two-year-old son, who's currently in Maryland with his maternal grandmother) came in to have his hair cut, and she accosted him and went into a semi-hysterical and somewhat crude tirade about her predicament. Meanwhile, I finished my jewelry display and had just (quietly) asked her how far she was along--"just a couple of weeks"--when she waved me silent. The owner of the shop had walked in, gregarious and unconcious of the scene that had preceded her arrival.

The owner's first customer was a tiny retired Army nurse-anesthesist, who informed me while her eyebrows were being dyed that she was in favor of a "woman's right to choose" (she went on at great length about this, hauling up the old chestnut about "a woman who's got four mouths to feed and she finds herself pregnant again"--[...never mind how that happened! immaculate conception, I suppose...]--I said that in that case the pregnancy "was the least of her problems," but the ex-military mite flatly contradicted me, and said it was this hypothetical mother's "biggest problem"). Still, she declared that although she was a Democrat on this and a host of other social issues, she would be voting for Bush—a desire for security and smaller government trumped the social issues (including fetal stem-cell research) in her mind. She bought a lovely pair of earrings from me as Hanukkah presents for a friend. Hanukkah falls on Pearl Harbor Day this year. Another bizarre juxtaposition of timeless rejoicing and infamous slaughter.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Rubbing Shoulders with the Famous

“I don’t run into Condileeza Rice as an official employee of the State Department,” Marianne announced resignedly. “I run into her as an employee of the Pottery Barn.”

Apparently, the National Security Advisor was doing a bit of ordinary home-décor shopping, and my newly-selected FSO roommate, who is temporarily supplementing her lack of government income (the paychecks of in-training State Department people are somehow in abeyance for the first two months after they’re hired) with a sales position at that yuppie interior-design establishment, arrived at her workplace Sunday afternoon to find it swarming with Secret Service people. “Who’s here?” she asked, and was told that “Condi” was in the building. Such is life in Washington, crossing paths with the mighty.

The first time I saw Madeleine Albright, she, too, was accompanied by a swarm of Secret Service people, which I guess you would expect, as she was Secretary of State at the time. Of course, I joked with a friend of mine, who’d seen Al Gore speak just a few days earlier, and who claimed that the then-Vice President hadn’t had half as many security personnel, that the reason she was guarded so well was that she was wearing a king’s ransom in gold jewelry. Last year, I was on campus at Georgetown on a holiday weekend, walking to my department along a deserted brick path, and who should come strolling toward me, wearing an enormous pair of eighties-style graduated-shade sunglasses but Mrs. Albright herself. The only person with her was a young clerical-looking white woman, speaking quietly down towards the little ex-Secretary’s ear, which was not quite as regally bedecked as the last time I had seen it. I did not attempt to introduce myself, and the women passed without a word.

Democracies are strange and delightful things, which drop official coddling of a person (except Presidents) the minute he or she departs an exalted office. Well, at least the entourage disappears—economically these ex-dignitaries are still doing well, receiving pensions commiserate with the roles they once played. This is certainly preferable to the old British system (I think it changed fairly recently), wherein even Prime Ministers had no retirement plan, and Winston Churchill had to scrape to pay his grocery bills. But, on the other hand, this returned him and his fellow ex-Downing Street residents to a semblance of appreciation for the lot of the ordinary bloke on a less-posh avenue, whereas today’s American Congressmen, Senators and Cabinet Secretaries rarely return to the relatively “normal” lives they may have led prior to being elected.

Sunday, October 03, 2004


“When are you going home to GA?” Kevin wanted to know.

“Wednesday. Why?”

“So I can go into your room and steal your stuff,” he smiled.

“I’m sure you have a real need for earrings. And I’m sure there’s a real black market for Russian history books.”

“I’ll be home for three weeks come this weekend,” he told me.

My eyebrows rose in surprise—he’s usually gone Monday-Thursday, every week.

“I’m having surgery a week from Monday.”

My eyebrows rose further.

“I’ve been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and I’m having my thyroid removed.”

“Well, that’s casual!” I said. “Oh, I have cancer, and I’m having surgery to remove it.”

He seemed amused. “My parents are coming down for the week.”

“Well, I hope everything goes well.”

“Me, too.”

So, Kevin’s got cancer and he’s having surgery on Columbus Day. He’s supposed to be in the hospital one night. He’s 23, maybe 24. The youngest of my roommates, and the only guy. He mows the lawn on weekends, watches football, fixes great meals from scratch (sometimes lets me have leftovers). Occasionally he goes up to Wisconsin to visit his girlfriend, or to Michigan to see his parents. Pleasant and good-looking guy (tall, blond, muscular, regular features), irreligious, with nice manners and quiet habits. Works for a software company that specializes in patient-management programs for hospitals, so he’s constantly traveling—spends probably 250 nights a year in hotels, and has accumulated an ungodly amount of frequent-flyer miles. Wonder how he found out he had cancer, but didn’t think it would be polite to ask too many questions, especially given his off-hand way of announcing his diagnosis/impending surgery.

Weathering animals

I scratched the brindled pit bull behind his rag-limp ears and under his massive jaws, and cooed, “What a good puppy you are,” into his tiny lidless eyes while his orange-brown mutt companion tried insistently to insinuate himself under my affectionate fingers, his muddy paws leaving streaks on my shirt.

It was an overcast Saturday morning in northwest DC, and I had appeared as promised for a service project organized by Intervarsity fellowship, which had me raking damp leaves, dog feces and overripe persimmons in the high-fenced backyard of a brick house in a morose, besieged residential area.

The pit bull’s white shoulders were rubbed bald where he’d been wearing a leather harness and managed to get himself caught on the fence—he’d spent hours trying to jerk himself free, and wore these battle-wounds months after the fact. He came over occasionally to be petted, but for the most part retired to a metal platform at the top of some stairs to watch the action, while the other dog begged for attention or contrived to slip indoors past unwary workers. I had to retrieve him twice—the other folks had no clue how to approach him. I found one hapless bullhorn-voiced fellow from Rhode Island standing awkwardly inside, waving skinny arms high above the head of the unimpressed animal, saying, “Go back, dog, go back.” I grabbed his collar and hauled him along the corridor back outside—the dog, not the engineering student, although that would have been fun!

This morning I was late to the service. Just couldn’t get up—kept staggering across to my alarm clock and pressing the snooze button, then returning to collapse back onto my air mattress. And I’ve been so prompt lately, notwithstanding university bus drivers who decide to repose on little walls at the side of the road! Perfectly clear fall weather, more chilly than I had expected, waited for me outdoors, and the good warm fellowship of other worshipers at the other end of the GW Parkway. Slipping along the landscaped curves and rises of the Virginia roads to the lilting encouragement of classical chamber music, I noticed that autumn is finally obscuring the last signs of the springtime seventeen-year cicada emergence: the brown tips of the many tree branches that were used as hatcheries for the next generation of insects are becoming invisible amidst the general colorful decay of the season.

Fall to me is more glorious than any other time, a few months when my senses seem enhanced: I am more sensitive to sound, more appreciative of sight, more able to savor my food, and my skin tingles with the cool crispness of the air, while my nose twitches at the scent of barbecues, woodsmoke, cinnamon and approaching winter. Colors are brighter, days are clearer, it’s not yet so late in the year that night comes while morning is still fresh in the mind. What a pleasure it would be to someday be able to share spice tea and an autumn afternoon with a similarly affected spouse! But for now, I will content myself with the season’s solitary satisfactions.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Piped Home

I had the window rolled down (through which bus exhaust occasionally roared in), one eye on the 6 PM traffic and the other on my "visitors parking pass" which is supposed to sit permanently in the left hand corner of my dashboard, but instead slides around and falls off onto the floor when I accelerate, decelerate, turn a corner, sneeze, laugh or think strange thoughts. It's made out of thick white cardboard, with an annually-issued colorful sticker affixed (This year the county decided to go with red stickers. Mine is already bleached pink). I'm afraid one of these days it's going to sail out of its dashboard corner and catch me below the chin, like that knife-edged bowler hat in one of the Sean Connery-era James Bond movies, and carry my head off into the back seat. But then at least the sticker will return to its correct color.

As I pulled up to a stoplight, I gave up vainly flipping radio channels and pushed the sound "off." A loud electronic buzz was immediately audible through my window. Fifty feet away, on the tiny grassy verge between the road and a parking lot, next to a Taco Bell sign and against the backdrop provided by a large Budget storage truck, a man in a black beret and the blue uniform of an Air Force officer was playing the bagpipes. No one but me gave him so much as a glance. The tassles on the ends of his pipes bobbed cheerfully as he played an encouraging military tune, like those the Devils in Skirts "danced" to on the battlefields of World War I.

I was on my way back from school, for the second time today--if 4 AM counts as "today." It took me over four hours--from shortly after the presidential debate ended last night--to print out all the articles I needed for Silverman's Muscovy class. I think that watched printers are the near relatives of watched pots. This afternoon was another Silverman-related event--he was presenting a paper on Russian Orthodox theologian Nil Sorskii to a bunch of Russianists, included yours truly. I'd never heard of "Nils" before today, but the discussion was rather interesting, talking about the church history of a non-Western denomination.

Silverman told me before the meeting that he'd "defended" me in a faculty meeting the other day. Apparently a lot of folks were going off on the Republicans (he himself does daily), and he spoke up to remark that there were some people who were Republicans because they feel strongly about some issues (such as abortion), but "otherwise were very nice and quite open-minded." What a backhanded compliment that is, I silently remarked, but said "thank you" to Silverman, and found a good, comfortable spot at the conference table. That I'm also a so-called "conservative" (I don't favor that term anymore because it represents having few new ideas, always talking about the "good old days," which as far as equality under the law and tolerance--in the classical sense--for unlike views and ethnicities was hardly a paragon of virtue) in a fiscal and political sense I didn't feel like bringing up at that inopportune moment.

The one blot--well, really, it was more like a smudge--on the meeting this afternoon was that a particular person, a very attractive and intelligent and eligible person, with a voice like Belgian chocolate and curly hair of that color, was there and apart from "How's it going," uninclined to talk. I had forgotten the sterling attractiveness of this individual, who is one of the few other Way-followers in my program. Well, phooey. Must get back to studying--much to do before I fly down to Augusta next Wednesday for a long weekend with my parents.

Inauguration of What a Rummy Nation...

This is it, my first foray into blogging, after years of diary-keeping and harrassing friends via email with "thoughts for the day" composed in a spirit of type-loquaciousness. Henceforth, all (or none) can access my latest episodes of introspection, extroversion, cheerfulness and gloom without the necessity of watching their inbox byte-limits exceeded, or their phone bills follow SpaceShipOne into the stratosphere. Enjoy! (I know I shall!)