Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Scoring Against an Evil Empire?

On Saturday night, my friend Paul and I went to see The Breach, the new movie about the last few months in the traitorous career of senior FBI official Robert Hanssen. The agency had long suspected the presence of a mole, and gradually the search had come to center on this devoted family man (father of six children with his wife Bonnie), a twenty-five year veteran of the Bureau, a Catholic so observant that he went to mass daily and was a member of Opus Dei. Hanssen was intellectually brilliant, and (as the movie presents him) a relentless, slightly obnoxious evangelist of strict conservative religiosity that concealed two repulsive secrets—a sexual fixation that profoundly violated his wife’s privacy, and an ongoing betrayal of his country’s trust to the Soviet Union and Russian Federation. The latter breaches in security led to the deaths of several people and the strategic uselessness of many others. When the government had finished building a coherent case against him in early 2001, Hanssen was arrested, and is now serving an irreducible life sentence for treason, spending most of his day in solitary confinement.

Last night, my roommate Susan and I went to see Amazing Grace, the new movie about William Wilberforce’s almost twenty-year campaign to end the British empire’s involvement in the slave trade. As the empire was the preeminent power in the seafaring world of that time, this was no little local gesture, but a tremendous effort that would affect most of the trans-oceanic commerce in human lives. While a young member of Parliament, Wilberforce underwent a pivotal conversion from nominal to evangelical Christianity which was to shape him for the rest of his life. He became a tireless campaigner for social justice in the face of entrenched opposition—economically and politically, the slave-owners and slave-traders were far more powerful than he. But he pressed on, despite considerable physical weakness. One of his great strengths was his wide circle of believing friends, who not only encouraged him as a Christian, but buoyed him in his political and social efforts, which were repeatedly defeated. In the midst of these setbacks, he met and married the like-minded Barbara Spooner, with whom he eventually had six children. In 1807, he finally triumphed, seeing the trade abolished. And three days before he died in 1833, he had the pleasure of hearing that British Parliament had finally made slavery itself illegal throughout the empire.

Two devout men, both bright, neither with caring fathers (Wilberforce’s died when he was very young, Hanssen’s was psychologically abusive) who chose two different paths in playing politics with “evil empires”. One spent his career quietly delivering people over to death in the land of the enemy, the other fought vocally to rescue those who were perishing at the hands of his countrymen. One’s pride triggered his treason and his descent to a footnote in the annals of infamy, having ruined substantial parts of his country’s security and not much benefited that to which he sold her secrets. The other’s humility caused him to be loved and admired before and after his death by people all over the globe, even as he bettered the conditions in his homeland. As Wilberforce’s pastor John Newton (the former slave trader who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”) says to him in the film, “I know two things: That I am a great sinner. And that Christ is a great Savior.” Only when we are conscious of these two fundamental truths can we love others purely and generously, and serve our respective nations faithfully and well.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Details on Abdul Karim

Folks, Sandmonkey's got a great overview of the Abdul Karim case available here. Welcome to Islamist Egypt.

Cell Phone Saga

Tuesday was not shaping up to be a good day. I had, happily, received some twenty of the forty books I'd ordered off ABE (all are for my comps--nothing frivolous!), but then was faced with the challenge of getting them home. I was depressed because of a child-murder I'd heard about. Then I was late leaving the department. Running down the sidewalk, my backpack stuffed and both arms stretched under the weight of the pounds of books, I saw the bus (which only runs once an hour) pulling away from the curb, preparatory to its turn toward the gate. The handle on one of the bags broke. Dozens of able-bodied people walked past unseeing as I struggled to collect my things. I resumed my dash toward the point I knew the bus would have to pass.

"Ma'am! Ma'am!" shouted a girl, "Ma'am, you dropped your scarf!"

I looked behind me, and a young man was slowly picking up my Russian shawl from where I'd been bent over the broken book-bag. He began strolling toward me at a snail's pace.

"Run it to me, please!" I barked at him. "I've got to catch the bus!"

The bus rounded the corner, and I dashed into the road, so it couldn't finish the turn without acknowledging me. The driver grimaced and opened the door.

I stuffed the recovered shawl into one bookbag, hoisted my load up the steps, and collapsed, panting and sweaty, into a seat. At that point, I remembered that I'd not locked the office and hadn't set the voicemail on my way out. I fished out my cell phone and called a coworker, an undergraduate who lives on campus, who agreed to do the needful. I noticed the phone battery was about to die, and made a mental note to plug it in to charge before bedtime.

Susan was so sweet to me when I got home. While she fixed dinner, she listened to my woe, and then we sat down to a delicious and peaceful meal.

Before I knew it, it was time to leave for my Russian lesson. I wasn't ready--I'd also left the printout of the translation I'd been doing at work--but I knew I'd better get on my way.

Police were all over the place, blocking the roads, on my way to the other side of Arlington. It took me a minute to figure out why: Mardi Gras. The annual parade. So I was ten minutes late to my lesson. I glanced around for my phone, so as to call Svetlana, but didn't see it.

The lesson when well. We talked about movies--Svetlana had seen several English films that she recommended--and the troubles of autocracy.

Despite the smattering of rain, there was ice all around the patch of bare road where I'd parked, and I had some trouble backing out--seesawing back and forth over the "hump" so as to avoid hitting the cars on either side, and praying that I would make it at all.

Home again, I couldn't find my phone. I ransacked the house, then I went back out to my car and scrounged around under the seats. Nothing. Somehow, between 5:30, when I'd called Fara from the bus, and 7:10, when I arrived at Svetlana's penthouse apartment, the thing had disappeared.

As my sister had had her phone lost and (probably) stolen last week, I was primed for horrible possiblities, but I resolved not to panic until I was sure I'd re-traced my steps.

Early Wednesday morning I drove over to the road where Svetlana lives. No phone or shattered remnants thereof. I raced back home only to miss the bus, so I walked to the metro (it was still too icy to walk all the way to school in the high heels I was wearing) and boarded the Georgetown shuttle from Rosslyn. At the curb at Georgetown, I started querying all the drivers: had they found a cell phone? No, but I should check at the transportation office--the bus in question (all are individually named after Catholic saints) had had tire problems just after the 5:15 run, and was in the garage--maybe I could get someone to search it for me.

The Georgetown Transportation office is four stories underground, beneath one of the new dormitories in the southwest corner of campus. It looks like a high-tech bunker--you step out from the brushed-steel elevator into a claustrophobic flourescent-lit concrete vestibule, where a bank of greenish bulletproof glass windows in heavy metal frames greets you. Despite the unwelcoming architecture--everything is watched by the unblinking eyes of security cameras--the fellow behind the desk was friendly, and soon reported that there was no phone on the bus. I asked him about the military atmosphere. He said it was partly due to the fact they are responsible for putting boots on illegally-parked cars, and people tend to be "pretty upset" when they come in to complain about this. Furniture has been hurled at employees.

So I returned in a morose frame of mind to the History Department. But while I was gone, my mother and sister had called to say they'd been contacted my a guy in DC who'd found my phone. Amazingly, it had just enough juice still in it for him to get a few relevant numbers out of my address book before it quit completely.

I called him and found he lived on the same street as my Russian tutor. "I must have lost it as I was going to my Russian lesson, " I told him.

"You speak Russian?!" he said, amazed. "I speak Russian!" So we ended up having a nice conversation in that language.

Last night, when I finally made it over to his townhouse, he returned my phone and lent me three Russian movies on DVD: "You can leave them in my mailbox."

Isn't that cool?! God is really gracious to me, wouldn't you agree?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Free Abdul Karim

Those Sharia-esque assholes (sorry, no other phrase adequately covers my revulsion regarding them, except perhaps "cess-pool slugs") in the government over in Egypt have sentenced a blogger to four years in prison for exercising what should be his basic human right to religious and political freedom of speech. Sandmonkey attended the trial and was actually quoted in the Reuters article about it (visit his blog for more details and the backstory--hope he's not going to get arrested next). Egypt is supposedly one of the most "progressive" countries in that part of the world, too. So, if you are interested in expressing (in a firm, coherent and formal way) your disgust at this action, I herewith provide the contact information for the local Egyptian embassy:

Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
3521 International Court, NW
Washington, DC 20008

Telephone: (202) 895 5400
Fax: (202) 244-4319

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tea at the Ritz

My friend Leah sent out an E-vite about a month ago inviting me and some other friends to share Sunday afternoon tea at a small inn in northern VA. It was a lovely plan, but on Thursday, just ten minutes after she phoned to remind me about the event, she received a call from the owners of the inn. Apparently the lady who ran the teashop had neglected to pay her rent, and had been evicted ten days before. By happy Providence, the owners had found her appointment book, and noted that we had reservations for a date rapidly approaching. Faced with a venue vanishing, Leah created Plan B with admirable aplomb --tea at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. Not since the water-jar wine at the wedding in Cana has Plan B been so superior to Plan A.

Three other friends of Leah met us in the Ritz lobby at 3:30 this afternoon, and we found our reserved table in the candlelit parlor. The tea lights were already glowing in the individual pot-warmers, and the silver and china were laid. We all settled into quiet cushioned comfort and each opted for the "Tea Royale," which was distinguished from the prosaic "Afternoon Tea" by the prefix of a choice of champagne, mimosa, or bellini. I chose the champagne, and (from a two-page list of varieties) the "Ritz-Carlton 'Blue'" for my tea. There were little tea-strainers for each person (no plebian teabags in the pots at the Ritz!), and tiny jars of white clover honey next to the covered bowls of white and brown sugar lumps.

A light-fingered pianist wearing a cacophanous tie played 1980s Broadway tunes on the Steinway in the corner at irregular intervals, and solitous hostesses (they were much too proper in manner and uniform to be termed "waitresses") brought out the raspberry jam, clotted cream and lemon curd in little bowls rested in lion-headed trivets. The currant scones, salmon and caviar finger sandwiches, and sweets appeared on two similarly intimidating three-tiered trays. It was all very good. The conversation centered on wireless plans, work, and children. Thank God I have a clever and entertaining little niece, or all the discussion of potty-training, naptimes and the challenges of encouraging toddler vegetable-consumption would have been strange territory.

We lingered over our lovely repast for over two hours. Which was about the time it had taken me to earn the price of the experience--Ritz teas don't come cheap. But it was well worth it! Six hours later, I'm still so full of scone, finger-sandwiches and sweets that I can barely move. And I got several little unopened honey-jars in a royal blue gold lion-head-embossed bag to take home. I suspect the honey will be a nice addition to the regular old bagged tea I usually drink.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Salt on the Roads and Sand in the Gears

Yesterday was one of the best Valentine's Days ever. My boss called on my cell phone at 8 AM or so to tell me that Georgetown was closed because of the ice. I turned off my alarm, turned over under my covers, and didn't get up until 1 PM. Then I had three chocolate cupcakes (smaller ones) for breakfast, and my roommate and I went on a walk. I fell down the stairs outside the apartment (they were covered with ice, and my feet just shot out from under me), but as I was bundled up, and have lots of natural padding on my backside, I landed softly. I did hit my left knee and my right wrist (the one for which I've been taking pain medications), but other than temporary soreness in the one and entire relief from discomfort (yes, I know it sounds wierd, but it's true!) in the other, there were no effects. It was fun trudging over the ice, avoiding sub-ice cold water puddles, and enjoying the fresh air. We stopped for lunch at the Silver Diner, and had hot chocolate and a vegetable "skillet" (sliced mushrooms, zucchini, potatoes, tomato sauce, bell peppers and onions on top of scrambled eggs with cheese--delicious), then hiked back home. I made four "expressions" bracelets, watched a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, drank two pots of apple tea, and went to bed. A lovely day.

I am re-listing Tony Woodlief's blog on the sidebar, after following the link from Paxifist's to discover that he's been posting regularly the last few months (I'd removed him from my blogroll after he didn't update the site for six months). Tony's a superior writer, and a thoughtful layman theologian--don't let that term put you off--he's both accessible and enjoyable. His meditation on the experience of Mary, mother of Jesus, is a post of late December (or early January), to which I would particularly recommend scrolling. Leaving the computer feeling spiritually enriched is an experience worth seeking, and if you read his ruminations about faith and American society, you will have found a treat.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Martyr's Day

St. Valentine was shot to death with arrows. It was very painful. As I don't expect to be the recipient of any flowers, cards or candy on February 14, the "arrow through the heart" symbol of romance seems particularly ironic in light of the method of the titular saint's martyrdom. At least it's not "St. Joan of Arc Day"--then the heart diagram would show it being burned thrice and sprinkled with chemicals (according to Catholic legend, Joan's heart was impervious to the flames which killed her, and required special effort to destroy it entirely). I still wish I'd get flowers, though!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Two Elizabeths

I've seen two movies about female British monarchs lately--Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchette as the first reigning queen of that name, and The Queen, featuring Helen Mirren as the second. I enjoyed both. The second had fewer ahistorical hystrionic moments (one would wish for a bit of that legendary British restraint when a director proposes a--possibly mythical--liaison between queen and courtier, but we were instead treated to all the graphic details), but both proposed novel ways of looking at the inmates of that peculiar institution.

Just as Russia's Catherine the Great adopted and adapted preexisting symbols from classical antiquity and Russian history to create a popular image for herself at home and abroad--she was at once the caring "mother" to the Russian people, Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), an Orthodox saint and a perceptive Renaissance salonniste--so, the director of Elizabeth would have us believe, did England's queen coopt the Mariology that threatened to split her realm into warring religious factions, and become image of the Holy Virgin around whom all her subjects could rally.

The Queen also delves into the nature and strength of the public image of the monarch, who in this case (the occasion being the accession of Tony Blair to the prime ministership and the successive death of Princess Diana) clings to the past models for proper behavior to the possible detriment of the entire popular legitimacy and continuity of the crown itself. Queen Elizabeth I had her deliberate protector and advisor in the person of Walsingham, head of her security and secret service; here the protector and advisor is, ironically, Labor leader Tony Blair, whose party and partner in life all rail against the outdated, insular aristocracy. The young "revolutionary" PM and the old "reactionary" Queen embark on a personal battle of wills over the proper, or rather necessary, governmental reaction to the demise of the "People's Princess" (Blair's description), and come to a sort of mutual sympathy in their understanding of how the necessary political action intersects with the mercurial temperment of the madding crowd. In my opinion, Her Majesty came off far better, in the end, than did that blond beauty whose life and death did so much to disturb her equinimity. One wonders if others, particularly in Britain, have seen it that way, ten years after the events portrayed on film.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

No Mon', No Hon', No Fun

Didn't get the grant. Drat.

Need a hug, but the VBHIK is dating someone else. Drat.

Comps reading is proceeding slo-o-o-owly. Drat.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Fur and Information

I have a large, no, very large, well, gargantuan fox fur hat I bought in Russia twelve years ago. It's beautiful, but its sheer volume makes it almost ridiculous when worn. I usually just display it, or occasionally carry it around the house in the wintertime, because it's so soft and warm, like a muff. Today I wore it to school. It more than proved its worth during the cold trek. I was toasty. Shortly after I arrived, my major professor, a famous Russianist, came in wearing his own Russian hat. It was homesewn of the hide of a Siberian wolf which a bartender in St. Petersburg had hunted down almost thirty years ago and presented to my mentor as a gift. My hat seems almost prosaic by comparison, size or no.

Today was supposed to be the day that the names of those who won the Washington Area Universities Consortium research grants were to be posted. I have yet to hear anything one way or the other, despite several emails to the woman who manages the program. This will determine whether I go to Russia in March or not. If so, more cold weather gear will definitely be needed!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cold and Colors

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, it was seventeen degrees Fahrenheit, with wind gusts of up to twenty miles per hour, when I crossed the Potomac this morning. Prior to coming out of the shelter of the wall-bordered bike path on the Virginia side, I clamped my cell phone to my leeward ear and called my mother to tell her that if the frozen babushka-bundled body of a woman was found in the middle of the Key Bridge, she would know it was me. About half way across, my left eyebrow started aching so severely from the cold that I had to clamp my gloved hand over the exposed windward side of my face, though my head and shoulders were swathed in a Russian wool scarf. I need another piece of Russian-weather-gear, a balaclava.

Two colors have turned up of late in my reading, colors that I could not visualize, although they are familiar names: primrose and puce. I thought primrose was in the pink-lavender family, whereas puce was more of a green, but decided to check my suppositions, and found I was wholly off. Apparently both these hues were popular in Regency England, the era of Jane Austen’s admirable writing, and the period attempted by an entire sub-genre of badly crafted “romance” novels published nowadays. Be that as it may, primrose is a delightful old butter color, and puce is a robust fuchsia red (supposedly the color of a bloodsucking flea, from which the French took its name). Lord Peter Wimsey’s bachelor library in the Dorothy Sayer’s books is done in paneling and primrose, with vases of chrysanthemums on the mantel. When people turn puce, they are violently angry or embarrassed, not photosynthesizing in a sick grassy shade.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Dirt and Disorder

Saturday was forecast to be cold and windy. Not the sort of weather one wants to be standing outdoors in the shade. So I went on an IV-organized service project, which works through a DC inner-city ministry, helping the elderly "age in place," in their own homes. This was one of the better houses in Northeast (DC is divided into quadrants, with Southeast being the most notorious and dangerous), though still in need of repair. The resident, an elderly black lady, marshalled us like a military corps, telling us exactly what had to be done, what she'd been unable to do because of a quadruple bypass and eye surgery. General cleaning, really. Her house just had the accumulation of years of dirt, not disorder or too much dilapidation. Dirtiest window blinds I have ever seen in my life. It took me two hours to swab off most of the crud, longer than it should have, but we hadn't been given many cleaning supplies, and were force to make do. I did find that Murphy's Oil Soap works miracles on dirt-stained plastic.

The experience instilled in me a moderate antipathy towards window blinds (impossible to get really clean), and reinforced my already violent dislike for wall-to-wall carpet, particularly WTWC in a kitchen-associated traffic area. Just gross. Give me hardwood, tile and linoleum, with the occasional rug (which one can take out and have laundered occasionally), not carpet.

At the end of our marathon cleaning efforts, I sat down briefly with the lady, who professed herself a huge fan of the Food Network. As a young white person who didn't grow up in the city, I tend to assume that many older black residents grew up there, worked in average government careers and haven't left--this is the situation I've run into previously, and it's heretofore been my "default setting." Well, it turns out this lady was originally from Greenville, NC, and had been a Thai language specialist and computer person for the National Security Agency. She was also fluent in Spanish, and much of the African decor in her house she had actually gotten in Africa, during a trip to Kenya. Knocked my preconceptions for a loop, I am pleased to say. She'd spent Christmas in Florida with her granddaughter, an OB/GYN. We talked about the definitional cuteness of babies. Incidentally, there were several totally adorable ones at church this morning.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Further Evidence That Exercise Is Dangerous

My 84-year-old Grandmommy went for a multi-mile walk yesterday afternoon as usual. What wasn't usual was that my Granddaddy decided to go with her. About four blocks from home, she fell. My mother sounded puzzled when she reported, "She doesn't know why." I know why--I've walked the route many times, and the asphalt is all rutted up by pinetree roots. I've stumbled on them myself. It's a miracle she hasn't fallen many times before, but she's a sure-footed person.

Grandmommy broke her left fibula at the ankle, skinned her forehead and right knee badly (but it wasn't broken), and generally shook herself up. Her glasses were smashed. She had to lie there for a while, she said. Then Granddaddy helped her up and they hobbled for a couple of blocks before a neighbor saw them and gave them a ride home. Thank God for Granddaddy and observant neighbors!

Granddaddy took her in immediately to her doctor's office, where she had x-rays. They put on a cast and gave her a walker. I never thought Grandmommy would need a walker! This morning, my aunt drove in from Macon to take them to an orthopedist. This doctor had seen her before, and so didn't have the idea that "she's old, she's going to die soon anyway, let's not make a real effort" that many doctors tend to have when treating fractures in the elderly. He put on a different kind of cast, recommended limited weight bearing and wants to see her again in two weeks. He told her that it'll take six weeks to get over it. Thank God, he doesn't think surgery will be necessary.

Now she has to get her glasses fixed. She says she has a big black eye.