Sunday, January 28, 2007

Maidservants, Medicine, Magic

It suddenly occurred to me in Sunday School this morning why Rachel, wife of Jacob (the man who was to be renamed Israel) ran off with her father’s “household gods.” We are studying Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, and had a long section to cover today—almost 100 verses—about the last 13 years (of twenty in all) Jacob spent working for his ungrateful father-in-law, Laban, and his decision to return to Canaan, the land of his birth, with his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, and at least one daughter, besides a large entourage of manservants, maidservants, camels, sheep, donkeys and other livestock, without telling Laban of his departure. All this is contained in Genesis 29:31-31:55.

Rachel was the reason Jacob was working for Laban in the first place. Oh, sure, he’d fled Canaan under death threats by his elder brother, whom he’d swindled out of his firstborn rights, and Laban was his uncle, with the customary obligation to take him in as a guest, at least for a while, but the minute Jacob had set eyes on his cousin Rachel, he was willing to go to any length to get her as his wife. He had no currency and no cattle to pay a brideprice, so Jacob volunteered his labor—seven years of it—to Laban in exchange for his younger daughter. Wedding time rolled around, there was a big party, lots to eat and drink, and before the bridegroom knew it, he was waking up next to Leah, the lovely Rachel’s decidedly homely older sister. Laban had swindled the swindler. Apparently the habit ran in the family.

OK, Laban would go ahead and let him marry Rachel the next week (provided he worked another seven years for this “concession”). But then the real fun began: the inter-sisterly rivalry for Jacob’s affection. Rachel was the woman Jacob loved, but she was the second wife, officially the lesser in the seniority system. She also wasn’t having any children, a function imperative to a woman’s standing in the family in that ancient patriarchal culture, while her sister was producing son after son. Leah was desperate for her husband’s attention, while Rachel became increasingly desperate for a child, berating Jacob for her infertility. While Leah gave credit to YHWH for her sons, from which we can infer she had acquired Jacob’s faith, if not his love, Rachel began to resort to cruder means in her quest for conception.

First, she pressed her maidservant on her husband. Hey, it had worked for her grandmother-in-law (Sarai/Sarah, wife of Abram/Abraham). Or not. Frequently, we imitate our ancestors’ practices without bothering to pay attention to the results. Apparently the little vignette about Hagar, Ishmael, and the rest of the resulting chaos that was the attempt to generate a child of promise apart from God’s plan hadn’t percolated. So Rachel’s maidservant had two sons, and Rachel named them in such a way that indicated her childbearing rivalry with her sister was the forefront of her thoughts. Leah retaliated with her own maidservant, who also produced two sons. Rachel became more anxious. Clearly the maidservant route wasn’t working—her sister’s could match her baby for baby.

So she tried folk medicine, the consumption and application of various herbs to encourage fertility. When Leah’s oldest little boy found mandrakes and brought the plants to his mother, Rachel was willing to bargain for this homeopathic plant, which even in John Donne’s time was well-known for its alleged sexual properties (remember the phrase from his song about the impossibility of female honesty: “get with child a mandrake root”). In return for Reuben’s mandrakes, Leah got a rare night with their husband (clearly, he spent most of his time with Rachel, children or no). Maybe the mandrake would enable Rachel to get pregnant when Jacob returned to her bed. But no. Instead, Leah conceived again on her "purchased" night, and had a fifth son. Not until after her sister had produced a sixth son, and then a daughter, did Rachel finally have the baby she’d tried so hard for. But even in this moment of fulfillment, she was not satisfied: the name she gave to the baby meant “Another” (Joseph), as she announced (in the only time she is recorded to mention the name YHWH, instead of the more generic “God”) “May the LORD add to me another son” (30:24).

Rachel’s final effort to have another male child was caught up in the occult. Leah’s theology may have been sketchy, what with her attribution of God’s approval to her maidservant-shopping when she was subsequently able to have a fifth son [When she gives birth to Issachar—whose name resembles the Hebrew word for “reward”—she said “God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband” (30:18)], but it’s not coupled with obeisance to idols. Rachel’s pivotal act, however, on the family’s abrupt departure from their father’s home, was to steal Laban’s household gods. Idols worldwide from this period and for thousands of years thereafter tended to have exaggerated sexual features. Frequently, they were supposed to represent fertility, and impart this virtue to the worshiper. Curvy little wooden and clay figures, with big butts and bosoms, were Rachel’s last hope for a second son. She stuffed them into her saddlebags and sat on them, feigning menstruation, when her irate parent came storming into her husband’s camp, demanding the return of his property.

Laban didn’t get his gods back. YHWH thwarted his selfish intentions towards Jacob’s wives, children and property, too. The household gods were eventually buried under a tree before Israel’s whole family went to worship the LORD at Bethel (35:4). Ironically, Rachel was not ultimately fulfilled by having a second son—his birth, immediately following the visit to Bethel, killed her, and as she lay dying she named him “son of my trouble”. She could have spared herself the effort—the messing with maidservants, medicines and magic—and been much happier during her life. And in her death, too—Jacob eventually decided to be buried next to Leah, implying that the lonely woman at last won the rivalry for their husband’s love.

Friday, January 26, 2007

There Are Not Enough Hours In The Day!!!

ARGH! I've got so much to do! The results from the museum BT survey are coming in, and I got a call at the office this afternoon from an interested museum security person in Denver who gave me the contact info for a guy in Los Angeles and a fellow here in DC who would be able to help me with the paper. There is absolutely no way I can go to the IV dessert tonight while I'm thinking about BT and my writing and my comps and my jewelry designs. Drat. Maybe I can get Susan to go without me!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Inspect Equines Received As Presents, Too

Bob Fleischmann seems to have taken a liking to me. I’m not sure this is altogether a good thing. It’s not just that he’s widely considered to be a jerk—so widely, that the regional antiques collecting magazine runs a regular feature, “Bonehead Bob,” which records his latest egregious social gaffes—or that he’s a much-divorced loudmouth-foulmouthed atheist. It’s that with all these sterling qualities he’s suddenly intent on generosity towards me. Did I mention he’s a local developer who deals in antique, vintage, and, frankly, just used, furniture as a hobby?

So he’s been calling me every other day about bookcases. He knows (we at the market talk about housing and jobs a lot, so there are few secrets about each other’s semi-public life) that I’ve moved, and that I’m in need of furniture. He also knows that I’m pretty poor. So he was on the hunt for free furniture for me.

Yesterday afternoon he phoned. My phone hiccupped musically, as it does when the person on the other end is calling from a “restricted” line.

“It’s Bob, I’m looking at some bookcases in a basement—do you want them?”

Well, as much as I definitely do not want to be seen as under any obligation to the man, I’m just about nuts having all my books in boxes piled along the walls of my room. I suffered a moment’s indecision, stalling by asking him the dimensions (they seemed OK), and agreed. He’d said bring them over when I got home from work.

I raced home from the bus stop, changed into furniture-moving clothes, and met him in the parking lot below our building. There was only one bookcase—the other had water-damage, he said—and it was about four feet high by five feet long and a foot deep. Wood with battered gray/white paint. The two of us hauled it up the stairs to the building and deposited it on the common room floor. It was pretty dirty, but a good dose of elbow grease and mild cleaner should do the trick, I thought.

Immediately after he left, I set to work with a damp rag, scrubbing away. I’d gotten about halfway done when I had to leave for my Russian lesson (I’m getting tutoring from a middle-aged Russian lady—I can’t let what I’ve learned disappear!). When I returned a hour and a half later, I opened the door to the apartment and was almost bowled over by a nasty mildewy odor. The bookcase.

I approached it gingerly, sniffing. Yep. No question about the source of the smell. Hopeful that I could rescue the piece, I scrubbed it with disinfectant. The reek grew worse. I doused the bookcase with vinegar. That didn’t kill the odor, and added the pungency of that noxious disinfectant to the mix. I had to open the kitchen window, although it was right at freezing outside. I sprayed the beast with Febreeze. No help at all. Finally, I decided the thing had to go. Free or not, it stank.

Susan returned, made a choking noise, and seconded my decision. The thing had to be removed immediately—there was no way either of us could sleep with that nastiness clogging our sinuses. In the dark of night, we lugged it down to the dumpster, and left it leaning against the bin. It was one of the few cases, I am sure, where the contents of the bin smelled better than the outside air.

I called Bob and told his answering machine that if he wanted the bookcase back, he could find it down the road. Then I took a thorough, scrub-to-the-bone shower. I noticed that Susan, who usually bathes in the mornings, decided to indulge in a late-night soak. Neither of us wanted any lingering vestige of association with that bookcase.

When I left for work this morning, I saw that the thing had actually collapsed—as if it had melted askew against the bin. Funny, it seemed structurally sound when I got it. But then it also didn’t stink right away.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Norm at Work

When I opened the door to put this week’s bottle of apple juice (I like to have something besides water to drink during the day), I found that the department’s refrigerator is stuffed with a strange assortment of semi-edible leftovers. We operate in such a libertarian fashion that it is impossible to tell whose dabbles and tidbits these are. At least nothing smells bad. One good habit is that we tend to have receptions fairly often that demand chilled bottles of wine and cans of soft drinks, for which we need the majority of the cold space—a note on the door that the contents of the refrigerator will all be discarded by such-and-such a date so as to clear room for these all-important refreshments generally does the trick. Now if my own refrigerator were so easily cleaned out by unseen hands!

I walked to school today. There was some slippery ice and slush on the bridges, but by and large there is little snow left, just residual ice on the trees and in the shadows. Warmer and sunny, quite unlike the chill overcastness of yesterday. I was glad to be able to get some exercise, after a full night’s rest.

I continue to notice curious things on my express-walks to school (it’s downhill, and I’m frequently about to be late), although my new route takes me through mostly residential area, with less traffic. For instance, last week I passed a boxy VW Beatle-sized industrial robot, splattered with paving tar, rolling along on metal tank treads behind its handler, a middle-aged white man in tan coveralls. I wished I could have stopped to ask the man what this interesting machine did, but as usual I was in a rush.

I save money by walking to school. I also have spent less on groceries of late, being less hungry in general and also living by grazing in the mangers of the university. This last week, for instance, I had pizza from an undergraduate majors fair in the Intercultural Center Galleria and cake from a baby shower in the Government department. Today I noshed on pastries (dinner and dessert) samples from a caterer hoping to get the History Department’s business. Thursdays are History faculty meetings, with the requisite edibles. I’m not sure one could entirely survive on the crumbs from the tenured table, but it is a nice supplement to the rations of soup and matzos I’ve got stashed in my desk drawer.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Toothbrush Woes

12:30 PM (I got a late start): You know it's time to replace your toothbrush when you take a sniff of the bristles and instead of a pleasant residual whiff of mint, you are almost bowled over by a fishy odor that wouldn't be out of place in the live well of an old trawler. Yech.

1:30 PM, my mother reports via email: "Your father brushed his teeth with Ben Gay this morning. Thus far I've noticed no ill effects, although his breath did smell temporarily of camphor. The Ben Gay didn't do much for his plantar fascitis (sp?) either."

2:30 PM (blogging from school, where I'm scanning design sketches for my Atlanta brother): If I hear something wierd (I would say "fishy, but've already used that illustration once in this post) toothbrushwise from any other member of the family today, I'll have yet further proof that we are odder fish, er, creatures, than most.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Not Like Nuthin's Goin' On

The week has not been dull, nor has it been particularly interesting, but my lack of blogging is inexcusable. As is my bad spelling.

Monday, I went shopping. I rate shopping along with having teeth drilled without anesthetic (yes, I have had this done--excruciating) in the category of activities I loathe with my whole soul. I hate it. I hate looking through the racks of the latest atrocities from designers who've never apparently met ordinary women (the short, unsvelte variety, whose butts are bigger than their busts, and who look like poorly-cased sausages in "skinny" jeans), trying on clothing that cinches at the wrong points and bulges in others, the garish lights of dressing rooms that accent my every physical flaw, the outlandish care instructions on materials that won't hold up under normal wear, the sticker-shock on the paper tags that dangle from the few decent items that I've been able to find. I hate malls, with their garish ads, silly-looking mannequins dolled up in expensive pre-ripped clothing, their loud, obnoxious music, the offers of store credit-cards that I don't need, the drone-like walking of the crowds through artificially-lit indoor corridors. For me, "Why don't you go shopping" is a phrase equivalent to a curse.

But my clothes were wearing out--both my pairs of jeans were threadbare, and my two pairs of black pants had lost their hems and were downright faded. The necessary evil could only be avoided so long. So I called my friend Brittagne and she cheerfully agreed to accompany me. I prayed that we'd be able to find what we needed ASAP. Thank God Brittagne knew where to look. We went to one store (Anne Taylor Loft). It was having a sale. It wasn't crowded. I don't think there was any music playing. I found six pieces of clothing (a pair of gray pants, a skirt, a dress and three blouses) that fit beautifully within 45 minutes, and the total at the register (where I was not pushed to apply for a credit card) was $130, including tax. I was tremendously pleased. Then we went back outside (the nice courtyard area had an ice skating rink and trees and benches) and next door to the Lebanese Taverna for lunch. Delicious. Then we went home. It was one of the least stressful shopping experiences I've had. Thank God these clothes should last me through next fall...

In other activities, with Susan's help, this week I completed the addressing, labeling, printing and mailing of two major surveys--one a reworking of the "trophy art" assessment I did seven years ago (sent to the same 108 museums throughout the US and Puerto Rico), and the other a new questionnaire about museum preparations for the possibility of being targeted by terrorists (sent to 75 different American museums). I spent over $150 on postage. Ack. But hopefully it'll pay off--in terms of generating material for me to update my MA thesis into a publishable form, and giving me data on which I can write that final paper for my BioTerrorism class. Yesterday I did my VA and DC taxes. Oooh, the excitement.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Musical and Barbeque Redux

There was a group of older singles planning to go to Woodbridge, VA, after church this morning, to a barbeque restaurant. Emails had shot back and forth with suggestions for further levity, and directions, during the week, and I had decided to go, provided I could hitch a ride with someone else--it's a haul in a car without a CD player, and I already was looking forward to too many errands to be run this afternoon without adding a jaunt into the countryside to my driving itinerary. Then several people commented before Sunday school that they'd missed seeing me for a while, which led to my recounting the food poisoning incident, which, if you'll recall, took place at a barbeque place. Then the Genesis lesson was on Jacob and Esau, and the latter's destain for his birthright, exchanging it for a bowl of "red stew" (this was particularly stressed)... so I decided not to go for barbeque after all. One can only tolerate so many nausea-triggering details.

The sermon at main church was about Romans 6. We read some context-text, though, and it got me to thinking how miraculously parallel the stories of the Fall and the events of the Passion are. From a Garden to a Tree in both cases. Intimate communion with God shattered in a moment of decisive disobedience, and restored in a moment of even more painful obedience. I was again filled with tremendous gratitude for all Jesus has done. Wow. Especially since Bob Fleischmann, the market director, was giving me such a hard time about being a "religious nut" on Saturday. I'm like an exotic animal to him--and he can't keep from continually rattling my cage, trying to provoke a reaction. Saturday was a good day though--I had a one jewelry sale, but it was enough to make hours of sitting outside all worth it.

Tonight Susan and I went to an elementary school in inner city DC to watch some of the kids she tutors perform in a Christian musical. It was unapologetically evangelistic. You can talk about God in the ghetto--it's on white college campuses that the mention of the Almighty is verboten. It was an awesome evening--the children sang their hearts out, all we in the audience clapped and screamed approval until we were hoarse. Very worshipful, and so encouraging: when the kids sang "I am not forgotten, God knows my name!" I could have shouted hallelujah--a lot of mothers were chanting "amen". It is amazing what these little folks are going through--illiteracy, illegitimacy, poverty and all the crime and despair that usually accompany them are rampant in DC--and here they were chorusing praise to Jehoval and smiling at their warm reception. The school had a lot of pitiful-looking banners in the halls "future black leaders" etc. One can only hope, but what a place to begin, what obstacles they've got to overcome!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Tech and Sex

As the secretary of the History Department, mine is the job to wrangle with the technology in the department and listen to faculty complaints about the same. Some of these grouses are more creative than others. Here is today’s winner: “These old computers bury the USB port like the cloaca of an alligator.”

In other news, I got an email this afternoon from one of my oldest friends that her boyfriend proposed on New Years Eve. The wedding is slated for August. Something to look forward to while I’m planning for another event around that same time…COMPREHENSIVE EXAMS!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

We Have Liftoff!!!

Thanks to the incredible dedication of my brother, who poured hours into the design and construction, our joint art website is up and running! It's beautiful, if I do say so myself. Be sure to check out the bios, the galleries (Jewelry, Casework, Furniture & Sculpture), and contact us if something strikes your fancy. Tell your friends, and link to us, too! Thanks, ya'll!

Friday, January 05, 2007


No longer feel "like Hell"--now, more like one of the sub-basements of heck. The pitchfork poking my diaphragm has been replaced by a runcible spoon. Which brings to mind the immortal lines from the legendarily cheesy Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves--"I'll cut his heart out with a spoon!" "Why a spoon...? Why not a dagger or a knife or...? Because it's dull, you twit! It'll hurt more!"

I spent the majority of my waking hours today worshipping at the shrine of the porcelain god. Bouts of dizziness were succeeded by paroxyms of puking, and I eventually had to get a prescription to stop the decidedly uncomfortable dry heaves. I haven't barfed in years, and it was frankly scary to be shivering one minute and sweating the next, frantically thirsty but unable to keep down even water. My thanks to Deacon Paul for lending me a barf bucket to put next to my bed and complicating his babysitting duties with a run to the pharmacy. Deep appreciation to Paxifist for letting me occupy the futon for another day and a night! Folks who are willing to shelter sick houseguests are saints!

In equally nauseating news, however, two of my students from the European History class last term are challenging their grades. I find nothing inherently wrong with grade-challenging. I've done it once myself, when I had (how do I say this kindly?) a Royal Jerk of a Literature professor as an undergraduate who awarded me a "C" on a midterm paper, without explanation of the same--just a couple of check marks in the margins and then the grade at the end of all. This was the first assignment on which we'd gotten any grade, too. As I was a straight A/upper B student, in my last year of classes at the university, and a demonstrably good writer (without sounding snotty about it), I knew this was not an accurate mark. When I talked to the professor about this after class, he called me names, and so I went to the head of the English Department (in whose classes I had earned solid As) and told him the situation, and that I would never darken the door of the aforementioned professor's class again, even if it meant an "F" on my transcript. It being a small liberal-arts college, I being a known good student, my having an overload of classes that term anyway, and my word being my bond, the class quietly disappeared from my trsnscript, and no record now exists that I was ever subjected to that particular episode of misery. I was blessed in this. But concerning this latest matter of grade-challenging, neither Professor G-R nor I are jerks, and this is not a single. seemingly arbitrarily-assigned mid-term grade but the final tally, which is based on an accumulation of calculated numbers, from class participation to two exams and two papers, all of which (given the good professor's record-keeping tendencies) were obsessively documented in terms of how we arrived at the individual grades. Neither of these people who are complaining should be shocked at the marks--the final grades are reflective of the general tendencies observed throughout the semester (and of which they were made aware), and are not radical departures from the same. But there it is. I would appreciate prayer for grace--first, that the two students would wise up and realize the ridiculousness of their presumption (one's note said the student wanted to "debate" the grade, and was wholly rude), and second, that God would give me grace to interact with them in a polite, yet firm manner. I hate confrontations, particularly those precipitated by recalcitrance!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

In Transit

Staying with dear friends Paxifist and Deacon Paul in North Carolina and enjoying the unexpected affections of their wee calico cat, who from feral life five years ago has gradually acclimated to the coddled indoor existance. She hid for months in Paxifist's closet with her kittens (she was an unwed young feline mother when Paxifist plucked her from damp and hunger in the crawlspace underneath the house) before allowing me to see her. Just glimpses, now and then. After a year she would actually dash at high speed through a human-occupied living room. Her rate of passage gradually slowed, and a year or so ago she finally consented to sniffing the proffered fingers of quiet people sitting calmly on the couch. Tonight was the first time that several of us visitors were permitted to stroke her head, sides and tail. She still started at sudden movements, but didn't run farther than a few feet away. Paxifist is a miracle-worker with kitties.

Sam, a loquacious mutual friend, went out with Paxifist, Deacon, their two boys, and the Herschels (Mary H. is an old friend of Paxifist's and mine from our undergraduate days) and me to a barbeque place for dinner this evening. Sam's in love with a girl from Russia who's half his age (he's 38 or 39, she's 21 as of yesterday), and just got back a week ago from his second trip to her hometown. I don't know that he should marry her, but it seems prudent that he should hire her--she's got a great head for business and helped a lot with presenting his computer software to some local healthcare officials there. On the plane back to the U.S. from Moscow, Sam sat next to a Russian girl who is engaged to an American man more than twice (almost three times!) her age. They met at a party in New York and have been dating for three years, so it's not like they've been rushing in to anything. But, as I told Sam, what disturbs me most about the odds for longevity of this relationship is not the age, or even the cultural difference--I'm shocked by the geographical divide: She's a teacher of English as a second language from St. Petersburg, he's a real estate developer from rural Arkansas. It's not just moving from Russia to the United States, it's moving from a culturally-blessed multi-million person city to the backwoods! Still, as Larry Herschel pointed out, it's all about where your priorities lie at different stages in your life as to how you react to such changes.

Plan to be back in DC tomorrow. Hope to be able to post the link to the business website in the next couple of days, but there are some details to be added, and kinks to be combed out, before it's ready for public consumption.

UPDATE AT 4:39 AM, Friday: Got absorbed in a good book (Tiger Lillie, by Lisa Samson) just after midnight and have stayed up all night reading!! Must sleep before driving back north, although I do have a bag of dark-chocolate-dipped Starbucks coffee beans in the car.