Friday, December 28, 2007


In honor of a certain young(er) relative's return to the ol' home place sometime this evening, I commend to my readers "Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog." Scroll and click through his list of others' Submariner blogs, and you'll know more that you ever dreamed about the character of the squid community.

If the notion of claustrophobic living for months inside a submerged metal tube abristle with nuclear power and weapons appeals to you, here's some recommended print reading for the New Year: Clear the Bridge (a WWII--that is, non-nuclear--sub captain's story of his forays in the Pacific. Well-written and illuminating about the mindset of the successful strategist amid serious challenges), Blind Man's Bluff (which is--"off the record"--highly recommended reading for officers-to-be on U.S. boats, a history of submarine espionage, particularly during the Cold War), Hostile Waters (Cold War submarine confrontation between the US and USSR, told from the Russian perspective, of events which almost led to nuclear meltdown and the irradiation of the entire American Atlantic coast) and, for fun, The Hunt for Red October (a well-researched novel probably inspired by the actual events recounted in Hostile Waters).

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bhutto's Assassination

One of my friends is in Pakistan right now. She's a US military officer who speaks Arabic, so I imagine her work became even more interesting this morning.

Sandmonkey (see the link on the sidebar) has a good post on the former Prime Minister's assassination. Her killing does make relationships in that area even more convoluted, as trying to figure out just who of the many people who had motives to murder her actually carried out the plan may never be possible.

And remember, one of the delightful aspects of Pakistani unrest is the fact that the country has nuclear weapons. Of course, it also has large numbers of enslaved people working in brick kilns throughout the country, denied all basic human rights, but that ongoing domestic injustice tends to influence international diplomacy less than the threat of cross-border mushroom clouds.

Speaking of evil in its personal forms, among Sandmonkey's recent posts is also a highly amusing black-humor musing about his strenuously racist mother, who has a Ph.D. from (can you guess???)...Georgetown! Oh, I am totally not surprised.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Rare Victory

This evening I achieved a victory that has been mine maybe once or twice in my lifetime: I beat my mother in Scrabble, and by a considerable margin, too. This never, ever happens: on the rare occasions when she's pressed for spots to play, she can usually squeeze twenty point gains out of a couple of strategically-placed single-point letters, and she always leaves me scrounging around the margins of the board, licking up the dregs from her triple word scores. To be fair, she had really bad draws this game, bereft of "E"s turn after turn. And I managed to play the "Z", the "Q" and the "J" without overmuch trouble. But, wow! It'll probably be years before I can duplicate this feat.

OK, back to Chapter 7 of the "Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands" translation. I mentioned my progress to the VBHIK on the phone this afternoon and he claimed he'd never heard me mention the project. Apparently he doesn't read this blog. The possibilities for abuse of this key bit of information are tantalizing. Bwahaha.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I'm in Macon, GA, with my grandparents, staying over Christmas Eve with my aunt and uncle, a gregarious pair of Baptists who insisted we come down for the holiday, particularly since my parents' Christmas plans include only eating canned soup and cleaning the house. Lest my esteemed progenitors sound like a couple of grinches, or worse, I should note that as my brothers aren't expected until this weekend (my seven-months' pregnant sister and her family can't come at all), and I was the only offspring in town, my mother was more interested in preparing for my siblings' arrival than cooking an unnecessary Christmas dinner for me and my father. And since we don't exchange wrapped presents anymore (haven't for a decade now), there was no special reason I should be on hand at home tomorrow morning. In fact, given that my parents tend to rise at the crack of dawn, it is likely I'll get more sleep here.

Perhaps the one thing I have missed about our family's non-commercial Christmas is the tree. I do love a Christmas tree, a real one that can be strung with lights, hung with ornaments and topped with a star. And so it was a truly great pleasure to be asked by my aunt to decorate their tree this afternoon--my uncle had decided at the very last minute (Christmas Eve!) to get a tree, and had talked the seller into giving a Frasier (spelling? I don't know if I should be channeling Kelsey Grammer here.) Fir to him for $9. It's lovely, about 6-7 feet tall, and well-balanced. My aunt had the ornaments out, ready for me to hook them onto the boughs. Fun!

The candlelight service at their enormous Baptist church (two young people were dunked in Believer's Baptism this evening) was good--lots of singing, and a short, solid homily (to give its Presbyterian name) focusing on the costs of Christmas: specifically, the cost to Mary (aspersions on her character, a 70-mile trip when heavily pregnant), Joseph (aspersions on his character), the shepherds (doubts as to their sanity when they went around talking about a savior in a manger), and the oft-ignored mothers in Bethlehem (whose male children, from toddlers down to newborns, were slaughtered on jealous Herod's orders after the visit from the Magi).
And most of all, the cost to God of his only begotten Son. The pleasure of sharing the company of family and friends, and good food, at Christmas needs always to be tempered by the realization of what these delights cost.

It has been a truly good Christmas thus far. I've thrown away two large bagfuls of trash from my room (which no longer contains any furniture except for my wood chair, my parents having donated my old, 27-year-old bedroom suite to a local ministry last week), and set aside three boxfuls of stuff to the Salvation Army. There are a lot of things to be gone through still. Hopefully this cull of my possessions will ease my mother's mind (she's waged a life-long battle against my pack-rat tendencies) and prepare the remainder for a permanent move to my own digs some time in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, December 21, 2007


My merciless sister left a snide message on my cell phone (which has been dead the past two days--sorry folks!--because I crunched the charger) yesterday, accusing me of all manner of wickedness for having misled my readers as to the nature and appearance of Japanese fruitcake.

My only defense is that I have never made a fruitcake, nor have I read a recipe for one, and I just blythely assumed that all fruitcakes, whatever their nominal nationality, resemble one another in their essentials. Apparently my Grandmommy has more than one fruitcake recipe, because the one I saw her make once LOOKED LIKE STAINED GLASS WHEN IT WAS SLICED!

I don't cook, I seldom bake, and although I like to eat, apparently I should never attempt to rhapsodize over food because I will get slammed to the mat and beaten with an egg whipper thingy. Those are called whisks, right?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Birthday Notes

My dear Granddaddy turned 91 yesterday. Grandmommy fixed him his traditional birthday cake: Japanese fruitcake. It looks like a stained-glass window when sliced very thin, with all the candied fruit transluscent and the pecans and other opaque ingredients making interesting "leaded" patterns. I won't touch the stuff. Candied cherries aren't my thing. But I admit it is lovely.

The pecans this year are from Granddaddy's own trees. Despite the late-summer drought in GA that has left much of the state panting for water (and the blueberries in his backyard and out at the 25 acres we grandly call "the farm" shriveled on the 200+ bushes), the pecan crop in the middle of the region has been larger than usual, so much so that G&G have had to prop up the branches of the two trees on either side of their house with pieces of lumber so that the weight from the nuts won't break them. Of course, the squirrels (against whom Granddaddy wages a constant war) have considered the props a special favor, sparing them that taxing trip up the trunk, giving them direct access to the pecans. Still, despite the fuzzy-tailed competition, G&G have gotten a fair number of nuts, and I'm looking forward to a couple of handfuls on Saturday, when those members of the family who are in GA plan to converge to celebrate yesterday's birthday.

Granddaddy was concerned about his heart a week or so ago, and so his doctor sent him in for the usual stress test. They put him on the treadmill and kept cranking up the speed, until at the end, he was running. He admitted to being a little winded afterwards. The doctor said his heart was fine. The test did wonders for Granddaddy's morale, not just because of the resulting clean bill of health--there were men half his age at the testing center who couldn't jog, let alone run, on the treadmill. When I called him on Sunday, I told him he ought to consider entering a marathon, since he'd win his age group, and he and Grandmommy laughed and said he would be signing up for Boston next year.

I love my Granddaddy! Many happy returns!

On the other end of the age spectrum, I'm down in North Carolina visiting my friends Paxifist and Deacon Paul and their two little boys. Paxifist is expecting a third baby in February. I walked (hopped) about a mile with the crutches today, while she pushed the stroller with the toddler in it and the older boy wandering along with us in the distracted way that little boys do. It's been fun to be "Aunt C" here, and take a quiet break--you don't realize how much constant ambient noise big city living subjects you to until you leave DC for a rural small town. I continue down to GA tomorrow, where I will figure out the best way of getting up and down my parents' stairs without killing myself or breaking anything (yes, it's apparently just tendonitis, but I've still got a week to go before I should put any weight on it).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Crutches for Christmas

I'm waiting to see what the x-rays say--it could be either a nasty spot of tendinitis or a small broken bone--but in the meantime I'm hobbling around on crutches. Perhaps "hobbling" suggests too much finesse. I'm not that good. Crutches are a pain in the wazoo. I plant, hop; plant, hop; plant, hop, a few yards, then have to pause for breath. There's a reason you never see a fat person on crutches. My stomach muscles are already so tense a circus clown could use them for a scrub board.

To what outlandish action do I owe my injury? The radiology people at Georgetown Hospital were obviously hoping for some Pulitzer-winning story along the lines of jumping down on train tracks to rescue a kitten and leaping out of the way just as a locomotive roared past, but sadly it's just due to a dance Saturday evening. A Presbyterian dance, at that. Of course, John Calvin was probably spinning in his grave as we all mimed and rocked along to Madonna's "Material Girl," but as far as wild stories go it was pretty tame.

I noticed that my left foot was sore on Sunday, but given that I was severely sleep-deprived (not due to the dance, which was over at the respectable hour of 11, but due to the post-college girls in the department upstairs, who started clogging and singing later, at 2:30 AM, when Susan and I were already long abed), I didn't assign much importance to it. And there were more than enough other things going on to keep my mind off all aches and pains. For example, the candlelight Christmas concert at the church that evening turned out to be wholly candlelit, since high winds had knocked out electricity to that entire part of the county when Susan and I arrived at the church shortly after 5 PM. While the two children's choirs said in the dark at the front of the dais, deacons went around scrounging flashlights so that the orchestra up on the stage could see their music, but the primary illumination came from candles, both tall formal tapers that were perched on large brass stands, and short, fat pillars stuck on plastic plates that had been stuck underneath many orchestra members' chairs.

It being an Advent service, there were several unintentionally humorous moments when the lyrics in the songs, or in the 'tween-music readings, referred to "great darkness" and "light". But the great point which left everyone--the congregation (the sanctuary was packed), the orchestra and the choir--wholly convulsed in laughter was when our new, very young, Scottish assistant pastor, who was doing the readings, paused at one point in his text, then said, "The Laird spoke" and BANG, all the electric lights in the church came on. We all went into a prolonged fit of giggles at this, with some frankly in doubt that this hadn't all been planned beforehand, it was so perfect. But the paroxysms of the pastor and others who would have been in on such a Calvinist conspiracy had one existed confirmed that the coincidence was in fact a delightful bit of serendipity, or Sovereign Humor.

Monday I was in considerably more discomfort from my foot, which throbbed even when elevated next to the warm oven where I was baking date-walnut cookies. Cookie baking is a great activity when one is reading a book on the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920. You can absorb a couple of pages, a few hundred or thousand dead, and then "beep," the oven timer goes off and you have to pause to remove one batch of cookies from the metal sheet and spoon on another dozen's worth of dough. Without the regular pauses and the promise of warm sweet calories to be consumed, the body-count fatigue would just be overwhelming.

Susan and I went on a walk yesterday evening. I didn't tell her my foot was bothering me, as I was hoping it would just go away, particularly since I needed the exercise (in addition to the cookies, I'd also whipped up a batch of homemade chocolate peanut butter cups, and you know that you have to test those things to make sure they're safe for others to eat...). By the time we got to Georgetown (I figured we'd walk there and back, since both of us needed a neutral place to check our email, since we'd been trespassing on friends' hospitality too much in that regard lately--we're hoping to get DSL after New Years), my foot was burning. I thought that was bad until we started the two miles home. I was in tears, and not--as S Dawg or other uncharitable relations might suggest--because I'm naturally whiny. Gosh, it was awful.

Once we got home, while Susan fixed the lasagna for a small get-together we've planned for this evening, I soaked the offending foot in near-boiling water to get the swelling to recede, and then took 750mg of Naproxen to supplement the effort. I was able to sleep some last night, but this morning it was time to head to the Student Health Center, praying that they'd have an opening for an appointment. Thank God, they did. Thank God, I also had my book on the Civil War with me, because I ended up waiting over an hour to be seen there, and then again another hour plus in the Radiology department, where they sent me for x-rays. The second waiting area at Radiology was comfortable for me, as a fully-clothed female, but decidedly uncomfortable, or potentially so, for the man and assorted elderly women who were instructed by the two techs to go into the little booths right across from the chairs and remove various bits of material and put on the hospital gowns provided.

I managed to finagle a wheelchair from Radiology to the other side of the hospital nearest the parking garage, as it is nearly impossible to balance two plastic bagfuls of books, a purse and a heavy winter coat and somehow stay upright on crutches. I left everything but my cell phone, keys, one credit card and the crutches in the trunk of my car before attempting the trip to the history department, where I am processing three decidedly tardy desk copy requests prior to leaving for GA tomorrow.

Whatever the x-ray results, I'll be on crutches for Christmas, but as a result I'll start the New Year with really nice sets of biceps and triceps, and killer abs. See, there is a silver lining!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Faxes and Recent Facts

One O’Clock After Midnight and I’m in the history department working on the last of the professors’ desk copy requests, trying to tie up the loose ends of my responsibilities for my graduate assistanceship prior to my departure for GA next week. I hope to be finished with all the faxing and filing by 2 AM. At least it’s quiet here in the department—not a soul stirring except for the odd night-owl graduate student and a lone Hispanic cleaning lady—and I’m parked right outside the front gate, where there is usually a campus security officer’s car (if not the officer himself). And the weather’s clearer tonight than it was yesterday, when a Jack-the-Ripper sort of Victorian mist suffused the whole area, damping the glow of the path lamps and throwing the bare trees into gothic shadows.

The History Honor Society Craft Sale last week went well—better, in fact, than all previous. Over all, we grossed more than in previous years (my sales were down slightly, but my friends’ were up considerably), but what made the process a pleasure was having enough carts to transport the loads of items to and from storage in the department to the lobby of the student center. Having only to make two trips to move everything, rather than up to six, was a Godsend. And having good help to set up and arrange the merchandise in the mornings (without Leah, DesertRose and the NPV, I could not have managed this) and to pack everything neatly, compactly and swiftly in the evenings (my two friends/fellow artists came to help with the last few hours of selling and pack their things all three days) is essential. It was remarkably, providentially low-stress. Especially after having lost the use of my computer two days before, and having comprehensive exams looming a little over a week after.

About those comps. Friday, my advisor asked me back to his office, sat me down on a worn leather chair and lit up one of his unfiltered Camels. “First, I want you to know that I’m on your side,” he said. A phrase designed to fill the listening heart with dread. I love my advisor. I’ve told him that he’d better not die, or retire. He’s 76, after all, and smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish. He’s awesome, one of the most interesting people I’ve met, but his health habits aren’t to be imitated. In any case, he assured me that he won’t retire, nor die (this latter he’s not the one to decide, though he thinks he is), but that I was going to have to postpone the comps, as the other Russianist on my committee had complained that I hadn’t spent sufficient time preparing my reading list in consultation with her. My reaction was a chaotic mixture of “Oh, dear!” and “Thank you, Lord!” On the one hand, I need to get this mess over with. On the other, it’s no exaggeration to say I hadn’t studied diddly for the Russian History tests and was in no way prepared to take them.

So that’s what I’ve been doing the last several days. Reading Russian history. At last. I’ve gone through John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World (a Bolshevikiphilic eye-witness account of the October 1917 revolution), and am currently embarked on Bruce Lincoln’s Red Victory, a secondary work about the Civil War of 1918-1921, which had the misfortune of being finished in 1988 and published in 1989. That is, immediately before some archives were opened that might have complemented the considerable materials the author had already assembled. Too, Lincoln doesn’t delve much into the nationalities question, which issue had such profound importance for the post-Soviet period, the Soviet period having been, in Lincoln’s opinion, intrinsically shaped by the experience of the War.

Susan and I went on a 5-6 mile walk this evening (we did run about a mile of it, proving that we can go a bit faster than a quick waddle when we really set our minds to it), and I filled her in on some of my recent reading. It helps to talk about it—my memory is horrible, and if I didn’t process it verbally, it would flow out of my sieve-like mind without leaving a trace. At least this way, it has time to curdle a bit and the rime sticks to the sides of my brain. Poor Susan—she’ll know more about the Soviet Union than she ever cared once this process is finished.

Dang it! It’s almost two o’clock. I’m exhausted. The fax machine is crawling. But only three more pages to go, and then I’m done.

Monday, December 03, 2007

No Time blog. Have had two shows this weekend, and the biggie at Georgetown starts tomorrow and runs for three days. Without Leah and DesertRose, I don't know what I would do! But I still don't know what I'm going to do Wednesday, since neither of them can help set up that day. If anyone reading has a yen to be at Georgetown at 7:45 AM that day...I'll buy you a muffin.

My laptop died last night. I bought another this afternoon at SAMS. Thank God for a stipend and jewelry income.

The good thing about these major bouts of stress hitting all at once is that at least I'm getting economies of scale.

Haven't even thought about comps.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Birthday, Celebrated

It ended well. A good group of a dozen friends, representing my art, academic and IV lives, all assembled for dinner at Bilbo Baggins in Alexandria, where the food was tasty and the service excellent. Altogether we were remarkably abstemious, consuming only three bottles of wine collectively, but my pals were unselfconscious enough to sing "Happy Birthday" when my triple chocolate-caramel-vanilla ice cream confection was placed in front of me. It's nice to splurge every now and then!

Being with kindred spirits is the best possible way to spend a birthday!

The final crowning happiness was getting home to discover a voicemail from my grandparents...their doing a duet of "Happy Birthday" for me! This is probably the only time in my life when I've had three separate musical observations of my birthday.

I wasn't expecting any gifts, but was pleased to get a (very random) assortment of paperbacks from friends: the VBHIK (who engulfed me in a wonderful hug...but yes, folks, he's dating someone else, as you'd expect) gave me a collection of policy works on the "Axis of Evil"; my friend Leah gave me Ginny: the Dog Who Rescues Cats (which I read in its entirety before bed Wednesday night); and one of my undergrad coworkers in the History Department (who didn't make the party) gave me Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. This last has a drawing of a dead bird on the cover. I'm not sure what sort of psychological profile one could develop from this selection of literature--my readers will have to speculate in the comments section.

Thursday night was another farewell get-together for a friend moving overseas. Between fifteen and twenty of us ate sushi downtown (I didn't think I would be in a sushi mood, but this stuff was delicious. I chop-sticked in so much rice and seaweed-wrapped raw fish I thought I was going to grow fins. Yum. Especially the spicy tuna.) and then a subset repaired to her half-barren apartment for wine and prayer (yes, the two do mix). For the second night running, I was overwhelmed by God's goodness--getting to listen to (and hopefully learn from) such interesting believers is a treat!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Birthday

It has begun well. When I arrived at the department, my boss brought over a vaseful of pink tulips and a birthday card signed by faculty and grad students--there was heart-shaped confetti in the envelope with the card. Silverman kissed me on the forehead and wished me happy day, as "You are one of the nicer people in the department, and we like having you around." Argh.

A bit later, as I was checking my email, I heard my TAship professor's voice.

"Are we going to do a sort of barbershop quartet?"

A gaggle of professors then shuffled around the corner and lined up against the front wall as my boss brought out a poundcake with candles stuck in it. The ten or so of them sang "Happy Birthday" to me, and I was urged to make a wish before I fanned out the candles (I'm getting over a cold, and so didn't want to share the joy by blowing germs over the cake), and popped a raspberry from the cake plate into my mouth.

People have been sweet.

But, I swear, if I get kissed *on the forehead* again today...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lubyanka Lullaby

1:15 AM. I can't sleep. For the umpteenth night in a row. I hope my little niece hasn't caught my cold, but I've certainly contracted her insomnia. So I'm reading a history of the Soviet KGB.

Not exactly a subject to lull one into blissful unconsciousness.

But an excellent illustration of the truth of Isaiah 8:12:
"You are not to say, 'It is a conspiracy!' In regard to all that this people call a conspiracy, And you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it.

Throughout its history, the Soviet intelligence services seems to have been guided by unreasonable fear--fear of conspiracy (international or domestic, individual or collective), of the pervasiveness of traitors, of the voices of dissidents (perhaps not so unreasonable a fear, but countered with all manner of evils, from attempts at moral compromise to success at assassination), of truth-telling (you didn't confront Stalin with criticism and live long to tremble over your impertinence). It's all well and good to be wary, but the lack of trust in anything and anyone but their secretive organization meant that much of the information that the service was able to gain (and especially in the early years of the USSR its agents did a superb job in collecting data and establishing long-term sources) wasn't analyzed well, if at all, and wasn't heeded when it was analyzed. For the most part, from the Western democratic perspective, this was a happy consequence, but it cost the Soviet Union dearly in lives when Hitler attacked in June 1941. And beyond dismissing previous intelligence, Stalin actually disbelieved eyewitness front-line reports, wholly unable to comprehend that there might not be any honor among thieves as had been so permanently established by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.


I don't sew. To be more precise, I can't sew. I've tried. A straight edge I can do, and I can tack on a button, but anything more complicated than that turns me into a nervous wreck, the threads involved into snarls and the fabric into a mangled wad. Nonetheless, I spent several hours this afternoon in 2 northern VA fabric stores, pawing pathetically through piles of remnants and gazing, dumbstruck, at row after row of bolts of simply woven material printed in a galaxy of colorful patterns. How do people who sew ever decide? It's worse than beading, because you can always rationalize cloth's practicality, which you can't do with a packet of Swarovski. It's probably a good thing that I don't sew, or I'd be even more broke than at present.

Today, though, I was shopping for nightgown material. My friend DesertRose, for whom I made the wedding headpiece a month or so back, has sweetly agreed to make a few for me after the pattern of my now-disintegrated "Miss Havisham" model, and I wanted to find fabric that was the right weight and a pretty print. And enough of it. DesertRose took the original completely apart and determined that the copies needed 7 1/2 yards. Each. The design is rather full. (It's actually meant to be an over-hoop chemise, so should I go to the Renn Faire next year...)

Happily, it being the weekend after Thanksgiving, everything was on sale. Which of course didn't make my decisions much easier because I had a much larger range of options from which to choose. Not that I'm complaining, certainly! All the colors were mesmerizing.

I was in the greens, moving slowly towards the blues when I heard a peevish marital spat to my left, in the purples.

"I just want it to look royal," the man said. "How's this?"--pulling out a bolt of rich purple muslin.

"But how are you going to make it look like a robe?" asked his wife. "Are you going to hem it?"

"Do you want some gold braid to trim it with?" inquired his mother-in-law. "We could get some cord over there."

"Wait, wait, this is getting way too complicated," he said. To his wife: "What's wrong with your other robe at home?"

"You said you didn't want it."

"I never said that!" he said.

"That's the reason we're here, because you didn't like that robe!"

"Look," he said, "I'll tell you the sermon right now."

"You don't need too."

"What do you think of when you think of kings?" he plowed on, "you think of..." Then he paused. "I thought I might put in a few jokes at first. Then I'd bring out the robe."

"Do you want to get the cloth?" his wife interrupted.

"No, it's not like I'm paying them for the job," he said, and the three of them left, still bickering slightly.

A few minutes later, as I was shifting slowly back towards the yellows, even more bewildered than before by the thousands of pretty prints on four rows in front of me, a couple of girlish voices erupted in happy greeting to my right.

"It's so good to see you! It's been ages!"

"I haven't seen you in so long! You ought, in sha'Allah, to come over for dinner! Come by the house, in sha'Allah!"

This paroxysm of reestablished friendship continued for some minutes. Two Muslim women, both wearing hijab, were smiling at each other with unveiled affection. The younger, an employee at the store, was clearly delighted that the older had sought her out, and this happiness overflowed--she'd been cheerful to begin with, but now she bubbled.

After I'd bought enough fabric to sink a battleship, or at least camouflage it entirely, I put the cloth in the car and went to the nearby grocery store. Given my ongoing cold, I'd swilled all the orange juice we had in the house last night. And I'd run out of toothpaste and been forced to make do with baking soda, which (though effective) is not particularly tasty. I filled a basket to the brim and went to the "express self-checkout" lane. It was definitely not the quick option. The bloody machine kept spitting out error messages, telling me first to remove items, then to return them to the original location, then to remove them again. It was digital Limbo. Next time, I stand in line and wait for a human who's got the technique down to run my groceries.

It's good to be home. I mean, not only back in town, but also back on Susan's couch in my own apartment. Being snarfy was a good excuse for not going to the market this morning (no need to turn a usual cold into an unusual bronchial infection), and so a whole vista of unsullied time stretched before me. And I got a lot done today. But it's good to have those tasks complete, those errands run, and to be able to curl up with a good book, a warm laptop, and a cold glass of OJ in the relative quiet. A Scrabble game would make my happiness complete, but Susan doesn't return until tomorrow.

Now if my little niece would only let my sister and brother-in-law sleep at night!

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Gulag

I hadn't read Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago before, much to my shame. I had read his Cancer Ward, First Circle and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but not the "experiment in literary investigation" which could not be suppressed, which saw him exiled and eventually awarded the Nobel Prize.

The committee in Stockholm doesn't hand out awards to people like him anymore--they are too busy congratulating dubious peacemakers to make much note of people who expose real injustices.

Reading Gulag is also for me the absorption of necessary perspective, as most of the Soviet history monographs I've been reading have been largely silent on the subject of the terror that pervaded the state from the days of Lenin onwards. And, too, they tend to imply that the terror only swept up Communists, those who were outstanding in some way, rather than a cross-section of the society, from peasants who were shot for gleaning the fields of the collective farm they worked on to the sons and daughters of disgraced Party members who were lured into alleged insubordination to the Revolutionary cause. Furthermore, the deliberately, pervasively violent tactics employed by the Cheka (the secret police) to exact "confessions" are often overlooked even by historians who talk about Stalin's crimes. The conventional Soviet punishments of "enemies of the people" made Nazi techniques toward their chosen victims look clean and restrained by comparison.

I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in the mid-1990s, saw the cell where Fr. Maxmillian Kolbe and his compatriots were murdered, the reconstructed gas chamber and ovens, the pictures of former inmates, the piles of shoes, toiletries, suitcases, and the great vial of human bone ash in the barracks. One building had been dedicated to horrible "medical" experimentation, basically vivisection, and in the basement various prisoners had been tortured. One case that sticks in my memory is that of the pitiful woman who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by one of the camp commandants and then bricked up alive, pregnant with his child, in tiny chimney-sized brick cell, where she couldn't sit down.

But Cheka members of all ranks did that sort of thing as a matter of course. Not necessarily sexual assaults (although there were those), but enclosing people in claustrophobic crawlspaces, starving them, afflicting them with extremes of heat and cold, beating them, knocking out teeth, prying off fingernails, breaking backs, and so forth. And applying the infamous "9 grams" of bullet-lead to the back of the skull. And whether one was subjected to this was entirely a matter of chance in many cases--whether you'd talked to a person deemed to be guilty of some seemingly minor political infraction that would doom him to the dreaded "quarter" (25 years in labor camps), or even being in a handy location when there was a quota of arrests to be made. What the Nazis carried out with racist finesse, the Soviet Communists managed crudely, but with arguably more "success"--but for the words of Solzhenitsyn and a handful of other survivors, there is relatively little memory of the Soviet camps, their hundreds of thousands of victims have sunk silently into the soil, unremembered and unremarked. Whereas the lessons of the Holocaust are anxiously taught, its precipitating factors studied, its descendants swearing "never again!", the lessons of the Terror that was life under Lenin and Stalin (before Brezhnevian boredom set in, after the semi-catharsis that was Khrushchev) have been ignored by modern Russian society; only the heirs of those who perpetrated it seem to remember what it did, and those harness popular fear to build up their individual and corporate strength.

And even into the Gorbachev era these camps persisted. Reading Gulag reminds me of Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya, which I highly recommend also. Some experiences should not be ignored or forgotten.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Thanksgiving wasn't at all icky. My sister is a wonderful cook. But I've come down with a nasty cold and will be returning to DC a day early, to sleep in my own bed and sneeze and sniff as often as I please. My sister is totally paranoid about germs, and is following me around with a bottle of disinfectant.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Alphabet Obsession

My little niece--who will not stay still long enough for me to get a decent photograph (examples of my failed efforts are posted below), as she loathes the flash that she expects will inevitably come--is obsessed with the alphabet. She's constantly reciting it (when she's not reeling off lines from Dr. Suess, etc.), getting people to write letters for her or to shape them out of Playdoh, and putting her various toy alphabet letters in proper order. And in books she spells out certain words, when she's not correcting the hapless reader who leaves out a word or phrase in her favorites, which she has memorized cover-to-cover.

And she loves Tom Petty. Mary Chapin Carpenter just doesn't do it for her.

Last night there was a minimum of wailing and gnashing of teeth at bedtime because she hadn't had a nap all day and dropped off fairly quickly after her bath--she did pitch a short fit when her mother cut her off after only two books before lights out. She's the most non-sleeping, high-energy little person I know.

I went along with her and her mother to her dance class this morning. Five little girls, one with her father and the rest with their mothers, were run around doing things like somersaults, ribbon-waving, and trampoline-jumping by an enthusiastic and remarkably buxom instructor. Rita kept getting distracted by the posters on the walls, and instead of playing the instruments the other little girls were vigorously banging and shaking, she wanted to inspect how they worked. She has a very engineerish mind.

In her mother's running shoes on the treadmill.

At least the grin shines through...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Insomnia in Rhode Island

My little niece took about five minutes to warm to me--and she was grinning from around her father most of that time. She liked the shapes templates I brought her from DC, and we spent about a hour before dinner coloring (when I wasn't running down to the basement to put on my laundry, which I'd shoved in my suitcase instead of proper packing) with crayons. And she kept saying my name over and over and giggling. Apparently there is something fundamentally amusing about me.

My train was 45 minutes late coming in to Providence, making the trip almost eight hours long. It wasn't wasted time, though: I was able to get through three books for my comps list during the trip. I spoke to no one except the conductors (to ask how far behind we were running), keeping my headphones (silent) clasped over my ears for the duration. It was refreshingly quiet.

It's a good thing I'm a relatively competent touch-typist, as almost all the letters on my sister's computer keyboard have been inked out by a certain small person.

As to the previous post, I didn't intend to be mysterious when I removed it, but cautious--I'd learnt that there were issues with my relationship to the CSCM's boss that invalidated many of the cheerful statements I'd spent so long artfully composing (apparently what I'd hoped was display of calm confidence was taken as deliberate presumption, to my utter chagrin. ARGH!), and I'd included some key words which would have made it easy for involved parties to find. So before Google catalogued it too carefully, I erased it. I almost erased it too thoroughly--having worked so hard to get the words just right, I wanted to copy the post offline, but my computer rebelled Friday night and refused to do so. It was only after a storm of tears and the Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore movie Music and Lyrics that I was able to retrieve it from electronic purgatory.

Susan is an angel.

Oh, I almost forgot to share the Saga of the Eight Chickens. A girl from IV was turning thirty (ah, youth!) and her boyfriend determined to throw a surprise party for her, inviting some sixty people, of whom some fifty said they'd come. It was a pirate-themed party, with the option to come in costume, which of course Susan and I did. But I'm getting ahead of my story. Susan, being a close friend of the honoree, was asked to be on the planning committee for the party, and volunteered (not knowing exactly the scale of the event when she did so) to cook the main dish for what was to be a dinnertime gathering. For fifty people. She decided to keep things comparatively simple by preparing a single entree, a Caribbean combination of chicken and rice, Arroz con Pollo (the recipe she used is here). You will note that the serving yield can be adjusted, and that through the miracle of modern technology the ingredients amounts will shift appropriately. Try it for fifty people. Yep, that's right. Eight whole chickens. And to follow the recipe, they had to be cubed before they were cooked.

When I got home Thursday night (the party being scheduled for Saturday evening), Susan was almost in tears (and she doesn't yield to them with anywhere near the frequency and ease that I do), her little hands curled painfully from clutching utensils for over two hours, having not even finished cutting up one of said chickens. I helped her with another, but it still took an hour. The kitchen was covered with raw chicken debris. Obviously, outside help was needed.

Have I mentioned the kindness of the NPV lately? Susan "outsourced" two of the chickens to him, and the remaining four she took to the boyfriend of the birthday girl. We met the latter in a Rite-Aid parking lot late Friday night: we gave him the poultry (and a key to our apartment so that he could return them when they were pieced), and he gave us a fog machine and an ammonia-like bottle of clear liquid labeled "fog fluid". I hoped we would not be questioned by law enforcement.

The party was a great success, although the boyfriend had neglected to mention that some ten of the forty actual attendees would be under the age of seven. These ate almost nothing. We had lots of leftovers. Most we sent home with grateful bachelors (we would have kept the food ourselves--the recipe is delicious--but for two things: we were both leaving town on Monday, and we were so sick of thinking about chicken that the notion of eating it for a week or more was nauseating). The fog machine worked almost too well--before the host unplugged it, the entire house was choked, and the pictures a friend took with my camera show indistinct figures in a pervasive blue-white mist.

Well, enough rambling. It's 3 AM, and I've been awake since 2. A certain small person may run up squealing and jump on my futon in just a few hours, and since she's a bundle of energy pre-dawn to post-dusk (at 10 last night she was still going strong, and she cried for a hour about being put to bed), I need all the rest I can get.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Monkey is Back!

Sam, the author of the Rantings of a Sandmonkey blog, linked on the sidebar, has resumed writing! He's frequently profane and crass, but boy does he give one a unique window into the world of Egyptian politics and the Madness That Is the Middle East.

Sam had quit posting in May, feeling some trepidation about the authorities' going to arrest and try and torture him (signs seemed to be pointing in that direction, and he was getting increasingly frustrated with the intransigence of Egyptian socio-political culture, its unwillingness to accept such universal values as freedom of speech, of the press, etc., despite his best efforts to forward these goals), as they have several other major indegenous bloggers, but a need to share the emotional and familial upheaval associated with his beloved grandmother's death drove him back to his website in mid-August.

For those who don't know anything about Muslim burial customs, this is a highly-readable personal account of how the process proceeds in even upperclass, wealthy families, from the washing of the body and the sewing of the shroud, to the rapid interment after special prayers, in a spontaneous atmosphere of collective mourning. Plus, it's a sweet tribute to a beloved grandmother.

Changing the subject abruptly, the patience of Susan, and mine, has been tried, as has the forbearance of at least a subset of our neighbors, by the arrival, a couple of months ago, of a noisy brace of post-college girls in the apartment immediately above ours. Their friends smoke on the stoop, leave cigarette butts in the stairwells, and shout in the vestibule. The girls themselves run around their apartment in what sounds like clogs (although that elephant-herd-like thundering has subsided slightly since they got rugs to go over the hardwood floors this past week), and they converse at the top of their lungs. Right now, they are playing their television at a high volume, it being now past 10 PM. When I went upstairs to complain a bit ago, they turned the set down a few notches, but the young flibbertygibbet who answered the door said, "Isn't her bedroom in the back?" when I told them that Susan was trying to sleep. "I'd writing directly underneath you," I said. This did not seem to cut the mustard with the little snip. I hope that at least one other of my neighbors complains to them this evening. For two nights running I've been kept awake by ongoing conversations in the room above my own, between one of the girls and a boyfriend of hers. This is not a college dormitory, for crying out loud!

Hells bells! They just turned on heavy drum-based music!

Oh, I want to have my own, free-standing, house so badly!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Another Death

It's a dreary chilly morning, all damp, overcast, and the ground and most parked cars are plastered with wet, rotting leaves.

I decided to drive in to work. I've got to finalize my Russia-related comps list today, and thanks to energetic cleaning Saturday (I deliberately, excuselessly missed the market Saturday, since I knew I couldn't get done all I needed to and work there all day), I've unearthed my relavent class notes and revealed some of the hardwood floor around my bed, where I can spread out the paperwork for this project.

I was striding purposefully towards my car when I spotted my manager at the screen door of his apartment, staring out at the unappealing weather. He called to me to pull around once I'd cranked the car, as he had something to say to me. This didn't sound good.

I swung around in front of the building and rolled down my passenger side window. He leaned over to talk to me, and I saw tears trickling down his cheeks. He told me that his younger brother, Arthur, the brother closest to him, died yesterday evening. It was entirely unexpected--they'd talked on the phone (Arthur'd sounded a bit groggy, like he'd been asleep), and then Arthur had gone to lie down, since his stomach felt off. A while later, his wife had found him with blood coming out of his mouth and nose, dead. At this point in the story, Mr. M. broke down, and I put my car in park and went around to give him a hug.

He doesn't think he'll be able to attend the funeral, that it would remind him too much of his wife's--only weeks ago.

And he wasn't much comforted by the ominous grouping which American tradition assigns to such events: "They say these things always come in threes."

Friday, November 09, 2007

New Years 1942

I've finished translating Chapter 6 today, zipped it up and emailed it off for inspection. I won't move on to 1943 until I've gone back to 1890 or thereabouts and considered the suggestions that a poet in California has made about tweaking the first five chapters--he's one of the chaps on our ad hoc advisory board. Russian-English translation is slow going, but this is a unique opportunity, better, in my opinion, than Strobe Talbott's getting his hands on Khrushchev's memoirs back in the 60s, because this story is of a much superior literary and personal quality. Too, I get to consult with the woman who has so lovingly and beautifully compiled these original documents, who has thus opened a unique window on the intellectual and moral world of young Soviet Russians coping with unimaginable challenges (war, years of separation, the death of friends and family, starvation, illness), and through it all maintaining an intense affection for one another and a strength based on the works of the great authors and thinkers of the past. I am the very first native English speaker ever to have an opportunity to read these in the original Russian, and to translate them. The poet's just a proofer. What an awesome task!

I made ten pairs of earrings today, and one necklace. The necklace is simple, just a string of roughly faceted peach moonstone beads, but it shines beautifully in lamplight, and will coordinate with a lot of colors that are "in" this season. I don't plan to go to the market tomorrow. The weather was grim today--cold and drizzly. It's supposed to be grim tomorrow too. If I could have another couple of days as or more productive than this one, I'd feel much more sanguine about my comps.

I'd really appreciate prayer. Even more than the first written exam, this one is tying my stomach in knots. I couldn't sleep last night. But it's not just the nerves, it's the fundamental lack of recall of the bits and pieces of data about Russia that I've studied over the years. And this is my major field. I've got to finalize my reading lists tomorrow, after I help Susan clean house. The new management agency for the apartment complex is coming to inspect next week, and we want everything to be shipshape, though they are basically just looking for possible water and gas leaks, and testing the smoke detectors. Still. If they get their ankles bitten by a dust bunny with HUGE HORRIBLE POINTY TEETH (yes, I have been watching Monty Python while stapling reading list book reviews) it would be bad.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Reschedules and Mortal Remains

So my comprehensive exam dates have been changed again, this for the final time, Lord Willing. The four professors have all agreed to January 23 as my oral date (and I've reserved the conference room), and I'm to take the Soviet Russian comp the week before Christmas, which means that I won't have to be stressed about the thing over Thanksgiving, nor worried about how I'm going to swing the Phi Alpha Theta sale in between it and the final text. Plus, I can actually have a real, on-the-date get-together for my birthday! For like, the fourth or fifth time in my entire life!

I talked at some length with both the imperial and the Soviet Russian professors this afternoon during their respective office hours. The former was appalled at the sketchiness of my book list for her, which had holes big enough to drive a troika through in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the latter gave me about four Russian language sources to add to the list for him, sources which I doubt I'll be able to find in the university library, or through ILL. You'd think that given the USSR's long-term status as the United States' International Rival #1, libraries in the DC area would be chockablock with books on the subject. On the contrary. And absolutely nothing of this little is on tape or CD. I had hoped to be able to find some sources in audio form, so I could listen while doing other things (say, making jewelry), but the Arlington County Public Library--which is sterling in most other respects--had nothing of the kind. Cheesy panegyrics to the career of Hillary Clinton, yes. Zilch on Russia. Nada on the Eastern Front in World War II, either.

It's not like I'm studying potato production in Western Congo during the years 1932-1933. It's eleven-time-zones-hundreds-of-millions-of-people-dozens-of-languages-thousands-of-nuclear-weapons-gold-gas-diamonds-gulag-Islam-and-Orthodoxy-centuries-of-history RUSSIA, for crying out loud.

So I came home this evening and continued polishing up the translation of Chapter 6 of "Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands." I'm in the summer of 1942, and there's fierce fighting going on around besieged Leningrad, which won't be liberated for another almost two years. Death is an omnipresent threat.

Speaking of death, I have been reflecting on the recent wake and funeral of my resident manager's wife. I am becoming less enamoured (never having been particularly enthusiastic) of modern American funeral arrangements. When Susan and I and our neighbors arrived at the viewing the night before the funeral, the heavily-lacquered carved cherrywood coffin was surrounded by a dozen generous floral creations from relatives and friends of the deceased. Lying within was a breathless lump of putty-colored ex-humanity, its withered, needle-bruised right hand curved like a claw at the edge of the box. Dead is dead, no matter how nicely it's made up and crated. For this, the burial fees and expense of the next day's ceremonies, the grieving widower had been dunned over $20,000.

The service was conducted by a straightforwardly Christian Protestant pastor whom someone had called in for the purpose, and although he had not known the lady, and had become only briefly acquainted with her bereaved husband, he provided what comfort he could through the words of the Old and New Testaments that spoke to the hope of believers. No hymns were sung, though faint music emanated from discrete speakers on the ceiling of the neat, featureless chapel, which was adjacent to the funeral home. The room was devoid of any religious symbolism. The pews were fitted with kneelers, but no book-racks. A couple of unobtrusive funeral directors moved smoothly around the walls, including a stocky elderly woman in a dark suit who later calmly directed the traffic in the parking lot into a orderly cortege.

It was all distressingly efficient, clean, comfortable, and dull. The finality (from an ordinary human perspective) and awfulness and ugliness of death (in a word, its reality), seemed divorced from the neat procedure of the day. The pastor's homily was the only point at which I felt any emotional connection with the situation, and even then I was forced to admit that because I didn't know the spiritual state of the deceased, though I could be encouraged for myself, I could not necessarily (although there definitely was hope, given some circumstantial testimony from others I knew) meditate on the assurance that she was "in a better place" in the stock comforting phrase.

Please, when I die, just put me in a plain box, no preservatives needed, and stick me in the ground. I don't want to be cremated, but I also don't want some silly expensive container for my disintegrating mortal remains. I'd like a big flat tombstone with a witty or sentimental verse carved into it, and my age of expiration down to the days, just like they used to do in the early nineteenth century. Sing a lot of good hymns robustly at the service at the church, talk about me and about what God did in and through my life, and then eat a lot and divvy up my worldly goods. Later, you can always do a modified version of the Russian tradition (of going out to the graveyard on certain days and drinking vodka) by taking a book and a bagged lunch to the cemetery, and enjoying a good read, a sandwich and a thermos of tea on my tombstone. After all, that's what I used to do in college.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


OK, so I can't keep away from blogging for long. I'm sure my readers will have gone elsewhere long ere now, but what the hey.

I am sooo sick of the whole comps mess. My Soviet History exam is scheduled for November 26-29, right after Thanksgiving and over the top of my 33rd birthday. I just don't have time to learn what I need to learn meantime! And I had also hoped (today) to get the date for the oral nailed down--December 13, two Thursdays after the last written, I thought was a particularly pleasant date, a week after the end of the annual holiday crafts sale at Georgetown, which is my baby, and usually an extremely lucrative (and exhausting) event. Then my imperial Russian history professor hit the roof this afternoon, all disgruntled about not being talked to about my reading list (well, not in the last three months, anyway), and so forth. The other professors have been cool with the whole slapdash process, but she wants to put her oar in. I get stomach spasms talking to her, and more thinking about the questions to which I have no answers. And she wigged over the 13th. Couldn't I do it earlier, etc. Short answer: no. I may be stuck with a date in January. Oh joy and rapture indescribable.

I went to a lecture yesterday on theater and public performance in late imperial Russia. It reminded me why I'm studying Russian history, and really whipped up my enthusiasm for the subject, but it also imparted a great deal of fear. I recognized the names and terms as things I had heard, but not things I would be able to define or identify with any precision.

Plus, the little follicle color printers in my scalp are running out of ink. I'll be completely silver by New Years.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Hiatus

As of this evening, I will be taking a hiatus from this blog for as yet undetermined period of time. Much has occurred that is blogworthy, but lately I've just not got the energy and time to give full written treatment to these memorable events. Furthermore, I am going through some depression, and I'm afraid that this would tint the tales, coloring happy circumstanced with an unpleasant pall, and I'd rather not write--and suspect that my readers would rather not read--such dismal prose. Frankly, I am quite discouraged by my lack of accomplishment heretofore, by my languishing creativity, and I need to regroup. I would appreciate your prayers.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ren Faire and Russian Civil War

The weather continues to oscillate between eighty and sixty, cool, clear and breezy, and contradictorily hot, muggy and dry (we haven't had a good rain in months, and the water-restriction signs have sprung up all over the area like two-dimensional mushrooms). Saturday was gorgeous, with just a bit of a nip in the air, which was good, because I was wearing not only tights under my kneebreeches and boots, but a velvet cape over my leather corset (not as salacious as it sounds), and a long-sleeved muslin chemise under that.

The Maryland Renaissance Faire is far and away the best I've seen or heard of. Several forested acres of twisted avenues of craft shops (or should I say "shoppes"?), multiple stages scattered about with simultaneous performances of everything from comedy to Shakespeare to music (geared from children to adults), with a jousting area having room for twelve horses and their sweating armor-clad riders to stand in the lists. There were thousands of people there, of whom perhaps ten percent were, like me and two of my four companions, got up in fancy dress. Many families with children of all ages--some had tricked out all their kin in matching Tudor brocades and tassled accessories--and couples in garb ranging from the sleazy to the sophisticated. Mostly nice.

It was a fun day. That sounds so bland, but the experience was anything but. The costumed stall-keepers were a special breed of odd, what with their deferential "my lord" and "my lady"-ing, and the serious discussion I overheard between a fellow running one of the hand-made mask booths and a couple of women in front of me while I waited to buy a leaf-shaped half-face mask made of carved and curled brown leather. There is a whole "Fairie" underground--he has a "fairie" name (which he told them), and the retired Navy man and his wife and their "brood" (his word--they have four kids) who lead the group of which he is a member have such fanciful monikers too. I don't know what they do, exactly. Dress up with gossamer wings and feathers in their hair and glitter on their faces, I expect. But what besides is anyone's guess. How are these people organized? Are they related to Wica at all?

Not only do the masqueraders have singular names, the other marketers do too. Later on, I admired the swordsmithing of a cherry-burl-handled dirk and was told that it had been made by "Bear." No other name, just "Bear." A longsword had been created by "Ferret." Ferret's embossed business card carried a complicated coat of arms and a website address.

Aside from indulging in a bit of cheery dress-up on Saturday and church this morning, I've devoted the weekend to reading the English translation of the 1300+ page Russian epic Тихий Дон (literally, "the quiet Don", but usually given the English title Quiet Flows the Don) by Mikhail Sholokhov. Yes, this is for comps. It's considered the greatest novel of Soviet literature (Soviet, as opposed to books by Solzhenitsyn and others, who were not approved of by the regime), although it, too, fell afoul of the official line by not being wholly fawning towards its Bolshevik characters. Stalin himself eventually had to green-light the project, which was published in serial form beginning in the 1930s. The language and descriptions are really hauntingly beautiful, yet the story, if (as it has long been considered) it is indeed an accurate representation of the Russo-Cossack society at the time of the Revolution, leaves no doubt, spiritually speaking, why the empire (despite its "Silver Age" flowering of literature and the arts) soon crumbled into a seething mass of self-destruction. It is alarming how true and familiar the book rings, as not one of the characters is truly admirable--all are fallen and yet many are appealing and likable. The reader can see his or her own character refected in them, and is simultaneously attracted and repelled by their frustrating humanity.

One passage in particular made me think of my Granddaddy, and what things he saw in World War II, which memories seem to still intrude upon him from time to time, more than sixty years later. Sholokhov describes a Cossack squadron's grisly find in a darkening pine forest on the Eastern Front in the early days of World War I:

In a small clearing they came across a row of corpses. ... The Cossack's attention was captured by the figure of a lieutenant, who still looked handsome even in death. ... The fair curly head from which the cap had fallen lay with one cheek pressed lovingly to the earth and the orange blue-tinted lips were twisted in sorrowful bewilderment. The man to the right of him lay face downwards, his greatcoat land lost its back-strap and was rucked up, revealing the tensed muscular legs in khaki breeches and short chrome-leather boots with misshapen heels. His cap was missing and so was the top of his skull, which had been shorn clean away by a shell splinter; the empty cranium, framed with a few damp strands of hair, was filled with light pink water, left there by the rain. Next to him lay a stocky thick-set figure with his jacket open and shirt torn. There was no face; the lower jaw lay askew on the bared chest, and just beneath the hairline there was a narrow white band of forehead, the skin of which was scorched and curled up at the edges; between the jaw and the top of the forehead there was nothing but shattered bones and a thin blackish-red pulp. Further on lay a carelessly assembled heap of limps and the tattered remains of a greatcoat with a torn mangled leg where the head should have been.... [Book 2, Part 4]

I remember Granddaddy once mentioning that when the Japanese torpedo ripped into the sleeping quarters of the ship he was on, at least one man he knew was torn in half. Susan told me that she recently read the account of a 9/11 survivor, a lady office worker, who saw much the same sort of thing on that clear fall day just six years ago. God grant that we never have to see such sights ourselves.

So, betwixt the lighthearted gaeity of a modern reconceptualization of the Renaissance (one which hasn't nasty things like plague, smallpox, bad dentistry and class tension, but rather everything cooked well and served on a stick, acceptance of "The Lady Visa and the Master of the Card" and proper, non-malodorous port-o-potties), and the horrors of historical warfare, internecine rivalry and regular marital vow-breaking (gosh, the Cossacks and Bolsheviks were a randy lot, much like many Washingtonians!), it's been a spiritually tumultuous period of late. Hopefully I've absorbed at least some of the lessons that the Holy Spirit has been teaching me through it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Death of a Landlady

Our resident manager's wife died this morning, around 9 AM. She was 67. They'd been married 42 years. She'd been in the hospital for the last two months, mostly in intensive care, battling bedsores, e. coli, kidney failure and other things that followed after back surgery. Besides the obvious pain and discomfort these caused her, it's been very tough on him. He'd been spending every morning and evening at the hospital the whole time she was there. Several times, when he met Susan and me coming in from walks, he'd talked at length to us about the deplorable condition of his wife, always holding out hope, though, that "she'd turned a corner" and was getting better. There were episodes of minor malpractice by the nursing staff, but in general he reported that all were good and caring. But we could tell he was getting increasingly frustrated by his wife's deteriorating health, as the surgery seemed to have gone so well at first, then complications followed complications. I confess I was not particularly optimistic after the first setback, as the lady was in poor shape to begin with--overweight, on oxygen (I believe both of them had been heavy smokers) and barely ambulatory, physically elderly without being chronologically so. Still, I feel awful for him--he's such a sweet, kind man, always looking out for us residents, teasing me about my social life, and so forth.

He doesn't know what to do with himself now, really. When he stopped by our apartment this evening to tell us the news (Susan was home, but I was still at work), he looked drained. The funeral is scheduled for Tuesday, but what time hasn't been set yet. Susan and I will be going, of course. I expect quite a few others in our buildings will, too. Some, who have lived here for years, reportedly spent the day crying almost as much as the widower himself.


Today is my dear Grandmommy's 85th and my brother Bob's 25th birthday. I am really blessed to have such an awesome sibling and grandmother. Many happy returns to both!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Love Me, Love My Scars

This evening's painful encounter with the apartment complex dryer's coin-drawer was but the latest in a series of damaging indignities my poor body has had to endure. I bent over to retrieve my laundry, and WHAM! I sat down on the concrete floor, seeing stars. It didn't bleed very much, but golly, am I going to have a goose egg. I already have swollen lacerations on both legs from similar unwariness about my physical surroundings, and the bruises on my arms from close encounters of the hard corner kind are only now beginning to fade. I haven't felt so beat up since college, when I fell down an entire flight of stairs. Graceful I ain't.

More along the lines of walking in beauty, rather than walking as if in darkness, after church yesterday, Susan and I went to a public rose garden a few miles from our apartment. The cool fall air and the bright sunshine set off the still-heavily-blossoming bushes delightfully, and we spent a lovely half-hour strolling between the varieties, inhaling the fragrance of one kind, then another. The only moment of dissatisfaction came when we breathed in a stiff whiff of cigar smoke--some olfactorily numb person was sitting in his car next to the garden, puffing a stogie! Roses and cigars do not mix well. Except at births, when the cigars are chocolate.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

They Are Wed

And I am off to bed (soon). Desert Rose and her new husband are on their way to Niagara Falls (the Canadian side) for their honeymoon, and I am going to take a shower and hit the hay. It's been a long, long week.

You can probably tell from the fact that my most recent post was on Monday what kind of week it's been. Typical was Thursday night, or--more accurately--Friday morning. Until 4 AM, I was out in Fairfax, sitting in Desert Rose's living room, while the bride was hemming her dress (which I'd previously helped pin), and I was finishing up the last touches on her headband. The latter had taken more than thirty hours of concentrated effort to complete. I was pretty pleased with, and also thoroughly sick of looking at it by the rehearsal, during which I finished tacking on the tulle for the veil and securing the combs to keep it from sliding off her head during the ceremony.

Having mulled over my options while at the beach last weekend, I returned to town to take apart her mother's bridal tiara, and, using silk thread, stitched those beads, plus hundreds of glass seed beads, and dozens of cultured freshwater pearls, onto a fine silver (99.9% pure, four point nine percent more parts silver than is contained in sterling) screen mesh, which I had cut out to match a headband frame I had made out of heavy-gauge sterling wire. That's a brief summary of what consisted of days and days of work. At her mother's request, I also sewed on a pinch of blue seed beads, so as to fulfil the requirements of the ditty. Lots of pictures were taken of the result, which I plan to post once my friends email them to me. It's truly an heirloom.

I'd made the three attendants' necklaces and earrings (garnets interspersed with small sterling leaves, which they all raved about--they'll match a lot of outfits!), and Desert Rose had asked me--if I had time--to make her jewelry, too. So, yesterday afternoon, while I waited for the tulle to be cut to the proper elbow length, I put together the bride's set: white Akoya (Japanese saltwater) 7.5mm pearls on a thin (1mm) white gold chain, spaced about an inch apart on the necklace, with single pearls swinging at the end of the same chain from simple white gold hooks in the ears. The set looked exquisite on her. The headdress was so intense, she needed something a bit more simple between it and the dazzling white dupioni silk dress.

I'd been too tired from the semi-all-nighter to drive out to Fairfax yesterday afternoon, and had ridden the bus--one transfer, virtually door-to-door (the top of our respective streets) service from Washington's Metro system, heaven bless it!--out instead, taking my comps reading along with me. A book on nineteenth-century Russian female revolutionaries. Fascinating stuff. Made me wonder whether there might be a possibility for women in repressive Middle Eastern cultures to turn to "progressive" terrorism, rather than the reactionary Islamic terror in which they seem to have an increasing presence. What makes the circumstances so different? It would make a good comparative study, to examine the effects of Western ideas and education on the radicalization of women in these two cultural contexts.

Speaking of less radical transformations, the bride, who had been remarkably calm up until Friday, was finally overcome by fatigue and had several mini-meltdowns (tears, not Bridezilla--she was still sweet, just too tired to think straight) that afternoon. So at the rehearsal dinner (at the Silver Diner, which is an awesome place for a rehearsal dinner--it has mint cookie milkshakes!) another former Bible Study buddy and I made the command decision to take the programs (which Desert Rose just hadn't had time to do, and was going to struggle to stay up to finish) out of her hands, and announced this to her without accepting demur. I couldn't stick around to help, due to my dependence on Metro to get me home, but my friend went home and stayed up until 2 AM finishing the programs. They were exactly right. And the bride was able to get some sleep the night before her wedding. She looked much more relaxed at the service today than she had last night at the rehearsal.

Desert Rose had asked me to be her stand-in should the caterers or the florist or the baker or anyone else have questions which she knew she would be too stressed-out today to answer. I had to be at the church starting at 8:15. Everything went smoothly, thank God! The questions I was asked I knew how to answer, and the caterers arrived thirty minutes EARLY, and were beyond wonderful in their kindness, calmness, efficiency and professionalism. The food was delicious. This is the second wedding I've been to that they've catered, and both have tied for the best food I've ever eaten at a reception. Besides the catering team, the photographer, the furniture folks (the chairs had to be brought in, though the church provided the tables), the florist, the baker and the guests were all great to work with, and several other ladies from our old study showed up to help set up, which made it a breeze.

The weather could not have been more lovely if we'd had it made to order. Crisp, cool, clear, with the leaves turning and just a bit of a breeze--the perfect autumn day.

I got home at 4:30. If I ever get married, I'm going to elope, I swear. Even with the beautiful coalescence of all the elements of today's event, it would have been way too much for me to handle if I hadn't been helping out a friend. Being the female principle in this production would have been overwhelming. My father would have had to carry my gibbering body down the aisle, or perhaps I would have used the shiny new wedding cake knife for purposes entirely unintended.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Great NJ Vacation

Never did I think I would be singing the praises of New Jersey, much less for the quality of its beaches, but my life is full of such odd twists, and so I am doing now. Susan and I and two girl friends of ours just got back this evening from Cape May, NJ, which is the southernmost tip of that much-maligned state. The town was a picturesque collection of Victorian houses, and the beach was wide, clean, and uncrowded.

The moment we arrived around noon Saturday at our old shorefront hotel (our two rooms were small, but comfortable fourth-floor walkups with outrageously feminine decor, all pink and white and flowers and frills, with a filmy white netting canopy pinned to the ceiling above the double bed), and I breathed a lungful of the pure salty sea air, I relaxed. It was as if the scent and the relative silence (by comparison to the constant roar of traffic in DC, the constant roar of the ocean is quiet and soothing) wicked away all the tension in my soul.

We spent several hours at the beach, then showered and strolled into the heart of the historic district for dinner. The weather was so perfect we ate outside, enjoying a very good Italian meal with local wine. There were tiny white lights strung in the trees, the food practically melted in the mouth, and little pleasant breezes accompanied the fall of dusk, making every sense seem both preternaturally alert and supernaturally satisfied. The conversation at dinner was better than the food, if that were possible, ranging from travel, to faith, to favorite memories.

It has been said that an army travels on its stomach. In my family, we frequently mark our great moments traveling by the memorable meals we've consumed, and this was one to add to the annals.

After dinner, we strolled with scores of other visitors, down the pedestrian arcade lined with pleasant little shops, boutiques and restaurants. Young families with children, fresh newlyweds, elderly couples, groups of friends all mingled and eddied around the favorite points: the estate jewelry dealer and the fudge shop. We eventually went into a little ethnic clothing store, where my friends bought jewelry and I purchased a fuchsia sarong with a print of purple dragonflies to wear to the beach.

Sunday morning we went for a walk down the beachfront promenade, then returned to primp for church. We went around the corner from the hotel to a small Baptist congregation in an airy little santuary with the Beautitudes inscribed on the stained-glass windows. They were beginning "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" when we arrived, and we had the pleasure of joining in the rest of the congregation in five of my favorite old hymns, singing every single verse of each one. Oh, it was awesome. The sermon was on the bravery that God gave Nehemiah to stand up to fear. It was a great morning.

After changing at the hotel, we drove out to lunch, then on to a local winery, where we did a tasting, and then to a couple of antique shops, which was nice. Then we decided to pick up picnicking supplies at the local grocery and take our evening meal on the beach. When we walked down to the shore, a pod of dolphins surfaced not far off shore, and so while we ate, we watched them swim and jump in the surf. Really lovely.

This morning, we checked out of the hotel early and went to Uncle Billy's Pancake House for breakfast. It reminded me of the fifties diner where my family used to eat breakfast twenty-five years ago when we visited St. Augustine, FL, for a week every summer. The booth seats were so high that our feet didn't touch the floor, and the waitresses wore little nursemaid uniforms with a couple of deep pockets in front for straws and order booklets. A lot of families crowding around a roomful of formica-topped tables and a cash-only policy at the register.

After breakfast, we went to the end of the end of New Jersey, the Cape May lighthouse and bird sanctuary. We opted not to climb the lighthouse, but walk out to the shore, where we saw a very attractive lesbian couple being "married" by a singing officiant. Then we went to the platform overlooking the inland marshes, where between forty and fifty dedicated birders were arranged, Swarovski lenses at the ready, sighting the latest migrants. One man reeled off an impressive sequence of species names and counts to a late arrival as we strolled around the observation deck. One woman actually had a series of mechanical counters (coded by bird-name-abbreviation) to keep track of the totals. I couldn't help but think of the movie Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation as I listened to the twitterings of this peculiar subculture.

It took five hours for us to get back to DC. Part of this was a thirty-minute stop for antiquing and lunch in Mullica Hill, NJ, but the rest of the slow progress was due to a serious accident on I-95 between Wilmington, DE, and Baltimore, MD, which forced us to take a detour on secondary roads. Susan, who did all the driving, was exhausted, and I was only a little less so. Still, it was worth some subsequent fatigue to be that relaxed Saturday and Sunday. Speaking of fatigue, though, I need to go to bed.

Studying for the second round of comps (Soviet History) begins in earnest tomorrow. Prayer appreciated!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Patience and/or Diplomacy

It seems obvious that the Lord is trying to teach me patience, or diplomacy, or both. It's 9 PM, and--ten hours after setting foot in the History Department--I am still here. I had planned to be home at 4:30, working on DesertRose's wedding headband all afternoon and evening. Instead, I am still waiting for the components to arrive via UPS (guaranteed 2-day delivery), which definitely earned a black mark in my book today, although a couple of employees of that organization have (in the last few minutes) gone a long way towards explunging the ink.

The man in brown generally comes mid-afternoon, and so I occupied myself meantime with cleaning out the leftovers from the Phi Alpha Theta benefit booksale. I filled five 23-gallon recycling bins to overflowing with discarded paperbacks and pages ripped from hardbacks. I never thought I would be ripping up hardbacks, but when it's a copy of Modern Economics from 1962, there's more value in the pulp than in the text. Hardback covers can't be recycled, so there's no help for it but tearing the pages from the binding. It was a cathartic experience.

But by 4 PM, I was sick of trashing books, and I was finished with the cull from the boxes at the back of the department (the leftovers I sorted by genre and re-packed neatly), ready to pick up my jewelry components package and go home to constructive effort. Upon finding that the box in question hadn't arrived, despite my paying extra for the express service, I phoned UPS.

"It's on the truck--we have another 45 minutes until close of business," the representative told me, rather shortly, as if he were insulted that I would question his drivers' promptitude.

An hour later, still no package. I called again.

"We attempted delivery, but the address was incomplete."

Horse puckey. I've gotten packages from this shipper before, using the same address, and no one had trouble.

Numerous calls, tears, extension-transfers and hours later, another representative figured out that they'd typed the zip code into the UPS system wrong, and the package was on a truck somewhere in southeast DC. About half an hour after this revelation, I eventually made it through to the depot supervisor, a woman who actually was together, brains-, organization- and and customer-sensitiveness-wise. She tracked down the packages, and said she'd do what she could to get them to me.

Five minutes ago, she called me. She'd arranged for one of the secretaries at the office to hand-deliver the package after she gets off work at 9:30. This impromptu courier won't be here until almost 10 PM, given transit time from the depot in Maryland, but golly, am I grateful.

This is a really sweet answer to fervent prayer. DesertRose is stressed out enough from the wedding preparations as it is (she's making her own dress, and it was still incomplete when I visited her yesterday--I may be recruited to help sew on the pearl trim next week), and not having a headband in hand by tomorrow (when I promised her she'd get it) would just add fuel to the worry-fire.

But this will be the second day in a row that I'll have been gone all day and up until late at night, though with good and productive reason both times. Yesterday I was booked from morning until well after dark, what with work, a great celebratory lunch with my friend Leah and little Noah (who greeted me at the front door with "Aunt Ditty, Aunt Ditty!" and a wide grin, then proudly showed me his smiley face project from school), then another dear church friend and her little girl (who played while we grownups prayed), then Desert Rose and then my new friend Carrie, who took me along for sushi and then back to her apartment to hang out and play cards. I'm not much of a card player (frankly, given my druthers I'll pass on almost any game besides Scrabble, but I also find cards remarkably dull and unproductive, though I know lots of people love bridge, poker, et al.), but she and I and her aunt from Aruba went through multiple games of "Kings in the Corner" while one of her male friends called in on her speaker phone and we joked around with him.

Turns out Carrie's going to the Maryland Renaissance fair on Saturday (the one I'm supposed to be going to in 2 weeks), and had to show off her costume to me and her aunt. She's going as a wench. I'm going as a pirate, but in breeches--less sexy than wenchdom, but considerably more comfortable. I've got the boots, the breeches, the cloak, the corset, the dagger, and am bidding on the hat on eBay. Still need to get a good chemise/blouse though. And some leather gauntlets. I'll look more Three Musketeers than Renaissance, but there you are. I love dressing up!

Thirty minutes until my package arrives. My friend Paul said he's going to come over tonight and get me and Susan some Papa John's pizza (we watched his copy of "Casino Royale" the other night, but he's coming to fetch it away). He's supposed to go back to Ukraine for a couple of weeks at the beginning of November. Lord willing, the next time I go to Ukraine, I'll be there with the purpose of conducting dissertation research, having finished and passed my comprehensive exams.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Third Anniversary of Rummynation

I forgot! Yesterday was the end of my third year blogging. I spent the day cleaning my room. The floor is now visible, at least in spots, and the sheets are laundered and actually on the bed, as opposed to being stretched out in the spot where I sleep (so that I could wrap myself in them like a mummy without mussing my duvee). Oh, and all my clean clothes are folded and stacked, and my books are in the bookcases at the foot of my bed. Civilization has arrived. Temporarily. All this order will disappear once I plung into preparation for the Russian History comprehensives. Still, every couple of months it's nice to remind myself that I can get organized, and to hound out the dustbunnies in the corners before they proliferate unto the fourth and fifth generation.

Going in mornings to the History Department, where my TAship professor says "hello" to me as he rushes past the front desk (no other word does he speak), is like having a season ticket for a comedy improv show. Two of the three undergraduates who have replaced me as secretary (there's an interesting power-ranking: "She does the work of three undergraduates!") come in at the same time on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and it isn't too many minutes after they arrive (usually somewhat later than I, who am by no means known for her promptitude) that one has made some remark that has set the other to chanting song lyrics which sends the other off on a story from her childhood (in Ukraine or Brooklyn) which is interrupted by the other with a nonsequitur about a movie scene, which is followed up by a "duck" sighting. I was initially confused by the duck mentions, but it turns out this is a code designating a cute guy. Oh, and they are constantly logging on to Facebook for illustrations of this or that person. Listening to them is for me looking through a strange window into the collegiate mind. And I thought my life was complex when I was an undergraduate.

They were absolutely shocked and horrified to learn that I was 32, having assumed I was in my mid-late twenties. "Bless you, my children," I told them.

I biked in to school this morning, forgetting that my purchases (bought with my gift certificates, so they only cost me $4.81 in ready cash) were supposed to be delivered today. I bought a new set of headphones for the train journey to Rhode Island for Thanksgiving, and a deluxe Scrabble with a turntable for Susan's and my use at home--no need to involve others now! But the boxes these items came in are way too large to put in a backpack and carry home on the bike. I may have to walk home with them and come back later for the bike. Or bike home and drive in tomorrow. Ah, decisions, decisions.

Yesterday, the Potomac was smooth as a pond, with a solitary luxury speedboat reflected in the still water, next to the muted shadows of leaf-changing trees. It looked like an advertisement, all tranquil, colorful. Of course the noise from the rushhour traffic on the bridge spoiled the image somewhat.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Round One: Win or Draw?

I got feedback from my comprehensive exams on the history of disease. The professor said, overall:

Regarding Question 1 (this one was on historiography): "I’ve not examined students in this field before, but comparing this apple to other oranges, I’d say this answer is in the top 10% of written comps I have read."

Regarding Question 2 (this one was "choose the 2 worst plagues in the last millennium"): "On the apples and oranges principle, around the median of written comps I’ve read." I got marked down for not finishing this one. But median isn't failing, is it?

Based on this rather inconclusive mandate from the sole voter, I'm moving on to read for the Russian history comprehensive, just six weeks away.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Growing a Backbone

I survived comprehensive exams, but by Thursday afternoon (I didn't get the questions until 4:30 Monday, and so I had until the corresponding time 3 days later), I was getting a little nuts. And more spineless than usual. I felt like a fillet of sole. Or talapia. That I was the fish, rather than in the mood to eat it. I had gone out Sunday and stocked up on provisions, including 2 vacuum-sealed packs of wild salmon (brain food), but I really didn't eat that much for the duration.

Ended up with 27 pages, rather than 40. Emailed everything in 30 minutes prior to the deadline--I was fried, and there was no point messing about with minutia when I either had it already or didn't. The professor acknowledged receipt with the words "Got it. Get some rest. And some exercise." I have no idea when I'll hear about the results, but on the presumption of passage I'm going ahead and starting cramming for the second round, in mid-November. This'll be the biggie--on late imperial and Soviet Russian history, rather than disease. Of course, disease is a part of it--cholera epidemics, bubonic plague outbreaks and other lovely things affected that country periodically in the 18-20th centuries. In fact, a smallpox outbreak amongst the Swedish troops confronting Peter I may have been the key factor in enabling him to capture the land whereon he later built St. Petersburg.

But I digress.

I had less than 48 hours to get ready my jewelry stocks ready for Clarendon Day, which was yesterday. I didn't do as well as last year, but still well enough that it was entirely worth it. Didn't get home until almost 8 PM. I was not in an entirely happy mood. I was angry at myself, primarily. Like I said, financially the day had been pretty good, and besides, I'd re-contected with Carrie, the sweet Jewish girl I'd met at that lively housewarming party back in July. But as one of my dear (non-Christian) friends had said to me, "Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but you are ridiculous." My lack of guts, of mistaking masochism for meekness, and knuckling under with niceness when I ought to say (more in actions than in words), "No!" is galling.

The sermon this morning was on the beatitudes, particularly the one "Blessed are the meek..." Biblical meekness is not the "use me for a doormat, please" mentality in which I have long indulged. It is realizing that one's value comes from Jesus, and operating from that position of humble strength.

I have a large jewelry home-show scheduled for October 25, which is the week after I'm supposed to go to a Rennaisance "faire" up in MD. I have been assembling the necessary accouterments for a good outfit. Next weekend, Susan and I and two girlfriends are going to the beach. In New Jersey. I didn't realize that New Jersey had beaches, much less that they were sufficiently attractive to draw out-of-staters, but live and learn. The following weekend I'm the wedding coordinator for Desert Rose's nuptials, and then the weekend after that... Wait, is there a conference at the church the same weekend as the Renn faire? Say it ain't so!

As to my book project, I have news: Thursday, my friend emailed me that she'd given "Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands" manuscript to the "Zvezda" publishing house to have the calculation of the publication cost made. Publishing in Russia, of anything other than a popular foreign-language pulp fiction novel translation (for which job hapless semi-starving translators are paid a small contract fee), is at least partly self-financed at the outset. But this is a step. "Zvezda" is one of the best-known publishers in the country, so if they accept it, even under the circumstances, we are on our way! American publishers are much more likely to pick up translations of published books than they are of mere manuscripts...

Monday, September 24, 2007

On the Cusp, or Long in the Bicuspid

Actually, I don't think that bicuspids are the ones that keep growing in some animals, leading to the standard "long in the tooth" meaning. Incisors, I believe, are the teeth in question. Argh! Yet another bit of health-related trivia I don't know.

It's a quarter after noon and my comps questions have not yet arrived via email. I'm sitting here at home, my insides in turmoil, waiting for the blade to drop the gun to go off, and it's overdue. I've cleaned up bits of the kitchen and bathroom, gone to the post office, and picked up a vegetable "griddle" at the Silver Diner in Clarendon as a special brain-food treat, and now I'm just waiting.

Eighteen minutes after the hour and still nothing.


I think I'm going to go barf up my breakfast.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Panicky Preparations

I haven't gotten to all the books on my reading list. I'm so slow. My mind is racing and I can't remember what I need to be looking for in the texts I am slogging through. Two French ones yesterday. I remember the name of the author. Not much else. How I am going to stretch my little knowledge into 40 pages of brilliant prose betwixt this Monday noon and Thursday noon, I haven't any idea. It's really going to take a miracle for me to pass this.

I have decided on my epigrams, however: two quotes from Genesis, one from William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples, and another from The Matrix. Agent Smith's "human beings are a disease" soliloquy is just too appropriate not to use. Even desperate efforts need good epigrams.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pearls of Wisdom

3:05 AM. Dang, I hope I’m conscious enough to make it to church in a few hours. I’ve spent the last six re-learning the peculiar art of pearl-stringing. I was reminded that there was a good reason jewelry stores (at least 5 years ago) charged $3 per inch for such services. This was not, however it may appear, an idle fancy, whim, or obsessive urge.

My friend Susan is getting married on Saturday next.

Not the Susan I live with, the one with whom I have been friends since third grade.

We’ve drifted apart over the last several years. Still, when I heard she was engaged, I started to think what lovely thing I could give her as an appropriate “send off” for a relationship just shy of 25 years (this is truly one of those relationships where marriage spells "the end"). Then she emailed me and asked me how much it would cost for me to create a pearl necklace and earrings set for the occasion. So I responded that this would be my gift.

It’s taken me months to get the right pearls (she likes large rounds), find the right clasp (white gold with a sprinkling of diamonds) and the appropriately simple coordinating posts with pearl drops. I didn’t want to get freshwater pearls, because those tend to be less lustrous, and don’t hold their value the way that saltwater gems do. On the other hand, I had a budget (I may be a jewelry snob, but I'm also a graduate student). I knew, too, I would have to string them on silk myself (something I hadn’t done since working at the jewelry store all those years ago) because Susan told me she wanted a choker, and most companies who pre-string render a standard 16”, 18” or longer.

You have to string on a single, unbroken strand, with knots between each pearl so they won’t abrade the lovely luminescent finish on their neighbors. Plus they have to be snug, so the pearls won’t slide between the knots. For hours, I struggled with silk that kept breaking after just five to seven pearls, over and over again. I was at my wit’s end. And then I realized that I was using silk that was too thin. Thank God I have a selection. Thicker thread, a gentler touch, and everything came together beautifully. At 2:45 AM. I’d actually gotten quite good at the technique by that point.

Yes, I continue to study for my comps. I got some reading done at the market this morning (gale-force winds, but I made money). I just had to finish this project today so it would be ready to mail tomorrow and arrive in time for the wedding. Which is less than a week away now. I won’t be going. I’ve got the exam instead. Oh, joy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I am under a great deal of strain these days, primarily due to my less-than-complete preparation for comps. I have just over a week until the first one begins. It will be either a 48-hour or a 72-hour take-home. The professor has already told me that I will be writing on two questions, which I will select from a list of four. One will be a broad, general history, and the other will be a historiographical essay. I looked "historiographical" up in the OED just to make sure I had it straight what he was talking about--I thought I knew, but all my readers know my first impressions are not always correct. It didn't illumine things substantially. I will have to write about twenty heavily-footnoted pages of response to each question. Please pray. I've gotten through about a fifth of the stuff I need to have read. I'm a very slow reader, and panic is further slowing me down. This feels very much like my experience preparing for the final in first-year Russian. I tried to cram and didn't do so well. Severe case of nerves, plus free-floating worry. My skin is a mess, and I'm not sleeping well.

At least I met a nice elderly former instructor from the CIA's Russia-education program at the library today. He retired in 1994, after over thirty years' of teaching young intelligence professionals about a country he visited for the first and only time for a month in 1990. By that time, he'd forgotten almost all his Russian from underuse, as he studied the language for only a year at the Monterrey Institute in California--said he was there when Stalin died. That was 1953. I imagine you'd get a bit rusty after half a century and no on-the-ground experience to speak of. I gotta go back soon!