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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cooties

Paul, Kimberly and I met Ivan, a Ukrainian guy who goes to the church we attended last Sunday, for coffee this afternoon, and he took us to a store specializing in chocolates and then to Independence Square, where a couple of thousand people were lackidasically waving sky blue and Soviet red flags while swilling large quantities of beer and listening to rock music. The Orange Revolution this ain't (the Orange people I've talked to don't take these opposition demonstrations seriously, since most of the flag-wavers are being paid $30 a day to show up, and TV interviews have revealed a broad spectrum of political ignorance, not only about the government they are demonstrating against, but also about the policies which they are allegedly supporting). Most of the thousands of other people who were in downtown Kiev today were ignoring the demonstrators and talking on their cell phones and shopping.

After we'd tried to ruin our appetites by "testing" various chocolates, and Kimberly and I had mailed our postcards from the central post office (where a cheerful troika of postal workers helped us find pretty stamps--heaven forbid our postage be unattractive!) Ivan took us to this homestyle cafeteria downtown called the Great Spoon. It has a large gold-painted spoon in front. It was good, and very cheap--the four of us ate a full meal for the equivalent of $24. Last night, Paul had taken us two girls out to a good Mexican restaurant, and the meal had set him back a cool $100--including two margaritas for me. And yet I was still capable of walking the 3 miles back to the apartment, including another trip on the Kiev funicular. Perhaps it was the nigh-overpowering odor of the port-o-pots near the regular demonstration sites that sobered me up. Gosh, what an odor.

Anyway, after we bade Ivan goodbye, we took a detour through the city market, which is a basketball arena-sized building that looks to date from the end of the 1800s, filled with stalls selling fresh fruits and vegetables, enough caviar to sink a battleship, whole bouquets of dried fish, and meat butchered on the spot with short broadaxes. Kimberly got some good candids. I bought a kiwifruit.

At home, I quickly took advantage of the facilities to brush the accumulated sugar off my teeth. It wasn't until I was scrubbing my tongue that I realized it wasn't my toothbrush I was using. It was Paul's. He didn't seem fazed. I was nauseated. Kimberly found this all highly amusing. What was worse, he told me that he'd found the toothbrush--still in a cellophane wrapper, he said--on the ground outside a Dallas dentist's office. Argh. I rinsed the foul implement with boiling water, and then brushed my teeth again--with my own brush. Eww. Cooties. At least my mouth now feels very clean...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Orphans in Ukraine

I was going to write about “fun on the funicular”, which is a curiously old-fashioned method of mounting mountains that we employed twice in both Kiev and Odessa. The one in the capital employs four-stepped carriages, and costs 50 grivna (10 cents), while the one in Odessa is tiny and free. But visiting the orphanages yesterday and the day before in the suburbs south of Odessa, and the children’s AIDS ward today in the wilderness just north of Kiev, were far more interesting.

On Wednesday afternoon, we toured an orphanage for developmentally disabled kids with a young Ukrainian television news producer named Lena, a 27-year-old Christian woman whose enormous energy belies her petite stature. After we met her in front of an Irish pub in the city center, we flagged down a private car and bargained for the 30-minute ride—it cost 25 grivna ($5). Lena lives in the northeastern part of the city and can rarely afford a taxi, so the trip for her takes 1 hour on good days and 1.5 when the traffic is heavy. On the way, she told Paul and Kimberly and me about the management of the orphanage. There are city orphanages and region orphanages, and the city ones tend to be better funded—we were going to a regional orphanage. In both cases, the municipal and regional governments provide money for food and staff salaries, but other needs have to be covered by private sponsors (which Lena is highly skilled in finding, but she is one person, not an army). There are different orphanages dedicated to the care of children for different disabilities (such as cerebral palsy, vision-impairment and deafness)—many of these children are not actual orphans, but “social orphans”—their parents simply determine that they cannot care for them, and leave them to be wards of the state. “Mainstreaming” of people with physical or mental disabilities is simply not practiced here. The cut-off age for young people to remain in orphanages is 18—that is, the day before their eighteenth birthday is the last day they can stay in the “internat” or institution. Handicapped kids, though, frequently stay longer, because they need to achieve a roughly 9th-grade education level prior to their departure. Many of such children are at only 5th or 6th grade level by age 17. Eighteen-year-olds who are too badly off to live on their own go into “ugly” (Lena's word) nursing homes, where most of the patients are over fifty, and the care is little more than rudimentary.

Orphanage #4 was in a gentrifying neighborhood a few hundred yards from the Black Sea shore. Although the place has been there for 100 years in one form or another, people in the government have recently been attempting to dispossess the institution, since the land has increased exponentially in value, and nouveau riche businessmen, foreigners or Mafiosi would pay top dollar to subdivide what are already small plots on either side of a residential road into homesites.

The assistant director, a stocky middleclass woman with bleached-blond hair, was delighted to see Lena, as were a motley assortment of goofy adolescent inmates who embraced her enthusiastically. Our tour was not comprehensive: the model apartment they have set up in one building (in order to teach the children what an ordinary house looks like) was locked, and the key unavailable, as was the boys’ trade center (they are taught woodworking) but the lady was able to take us into the girls’ training center, where a workshop of five sewing machines and one serger was available for examination. Two of the machines were fairly new, but a couple were older than my 1930s Singer—they were foot-pedal driven, not electric, the black enamel on them so chipped that the name of the maker was illegible. The serger was similarly ancient, though synthetic power-driven. The idea behind teaching the girls to sew is to give them a trade which they can use to support themselves—they spend some 27 hours a week in the sewing room. But no one uses treadle machines anymore, even in Ukraine—they haven’t for fifty, if not seventy, years. But an electric machine goes frighteningly fast for some of the children, and they simply can’t be acclimated to it.

Orphanage #4 is the first such institution in Ukraine to be certified and outfitted with equipment and training to teach autistic children. The director and several teachers proudly showed us the couple of rooms where the handful of such students they have this year (the number is expected to double next year) are instructed.

The children were doing their homework in the classrooms—they have two hours of homework time each evening, and we had come at the beginning of this period. The little classes rose to their feet respectfully when we opening the doors and the teachers acknowledged us. Garland-draped portraits of Shevchenko, the nineteenth-century literary giant who is considered the national poet of Ukraine, hung in the front of each classroom, over the blackboard, in the place where Lenin’s picture used to reside in the old days. Lena told us later that when she started coming to the orphanage four years ago, there was still a statue of Lenin in front of the flagpole in the central square, but it disappeared shortly thereafter.

Lena is a dynamo—she builds relationships with the orphanages and their administrators, and the administrators (most of whom obviously love their work and care about their students) tell her what their most pressing needs are [sometimes it is an emergency essential--the boiler at Orphanage #4 broke last winter, and the entire place was without heat from February through March--it was so cold, there was frost indoors--imagine children trying to eat, sleep and study in the depths of the Ukrainian winter, which even on the Black Sea isn't known for mildness]. She is also frequently approached by people who want to help the orphans, and so acts as a liaison between them and the institutions. Sometimes she (who confesses to having been quite shy in the recent past) surprises herself by boldly approaching potential sponsors who have never exhibited an inclination to assist charities, and they are remarkably receptive. Such it was that a Russian Yiddish men’s choral group, of all things, which had never donated anything anyone could remember in its over a half-century of existence, ended up supplying over 70 new beds to Orphanage #4.

How bad the old beds were we got to see yesterday at Orphanage #7, where 115 cerebral palsy-affected children live. Nineteen of these do not have living parents. Perhaps thirty children with living parents are visited by them regularly. The rest may visit every few years—so said the director of the orphanage, a young, broad-shouldered man who has accomplished amazing changes in the year he has been at his post, Lena told us. He does not merely have vague ideas of how he’d like to improve this or that aspect of the campus, but a definite sense of what must be done and how it can be accomplished. He showed us the dormitories first—these are in an old Romanian horse stable, where up to 22 children sleep in a single room. The beds look to date from the imperial age, too. I’ve seen the same beds in pictures of wards from the 1917-19 influenza epidemic—plain iron pipe bedsteads with thin mattresses resting on hammocks of metal mesh. Not the sort of contraptions anyone should sleep on, much less children with physical degenerative disorders. The director, with Lena’s help, had found funding for some of the toilets to be refurbished. The old ones were ghastly. And did I mention that Orphanage #7 does not own a washing machine? All laundry has to be done by hand. Sheets, clothes, everything, winter and summer.

This afternoon, a physician’s wife from one of the churches in Kiev took us to a children’s hospital where we visited the orphan AIDS ward, which is one of the nicest areas of the treatment facility (since foreigners from all walks of life do give money to HIV/AIDS care). There, I spent over an hour holding a tiny, tiny little two-month-old boy who is currently being tested for HIV. I asked how much he weighed, and got an exact answer thanks to a nearby scale—exactly 4,5 kilos (less than 10 lbs). His (probably drug-addict) mother abandoned him when he was just a few weeks old. Such a sweet baby, with perfect miniature hands, long eyelashes, and fuzzy dark down on his warm head. There was another (very round) little fellow in the room who is two years old who found my sunglasses just as entertaining as my niece did the first time she saw them. We got some good pictures. This boy, a great mimic, was very silly, and happy, since a young Catholic nun is now staying with him most of every day--she is so kind and cheerful, patient with her wee charges. Previously, he and his tiny roommate (and the assortment of other infant/toddler HIV/AIDS patients who are usually in residence in that same small room) were left by themselves, in their cribs, alone. The infant still doesn't cry at all, because he knows already that no one will come. Poor little mite. He was so cuddly. Kimberly was almost in tears leaving them, and I decompensated almost immediately after we got home tonight. The minute I get a real, regular job, I'm going to start the adoption process. I really want to have children, and these little people are so vulnerable. And the HIV/AIDS babies are the “lucky” ones—they are at least getting attention from Sister Deborah—the other ones are simply abandoned to sit in their solitary cribs at the regular orphanages, where no one visits. And in those are worse conditions than I saw in the AIDS ward bathroom (which was relatively new, with only standing sludge in the large open floor drain, and a toilet that wouldn’t flush properly, and one roach crawling up the wall).

I hope I never forget what it was like in each of the "internats." What it is like. What it will be like until adults act with ongoing unselfishness. Maybe I can be a part of that turnaround.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Window-Dressing

Paul is starting to snore on the couch behind me (he's one of the most high-energy people I know, besides my niece, but when he crashes, he's down for the count), and Kimberly is quietly packing in another room, so I have a few minutes to update my blog. We're leaving on the train for Odessa tonight, to return on the overnight train Thursday. Yesterday morning we went to church (in an office building just a few doors down from the train ticket office). The service was in a combination of Ukrainian and Russian. Paul and Kimberly sat at the back, near the guy who was doing simultaneous English translation, and I sat closer to the front, where I shared a hymnal with a skinny dark local, who darted up to the lectern midway through the service to read one of the Scripture passages. The Ukrainian pastor (a word which has the obvious meaning of "shepherd" in Russian) used the VA Tech shooting as his opening illustration, and then went from Proverbs 1 to Psalm 1 and thence to II Corinthians 6, talking about the essentialness of spiritual direction, passed down from parents, a passionate commitment to imparting the importance of fleeing from evil, however attractive and enticing it may be. I was pleased to follow the thread of the message, understand the illustrations, and the points in the various verses he emphasized. Of course, if I didn't know the Bible passing well, I'd have been clueless. From a purely secular perspective, it pays to have a text in common.

We met several Americans after the service, one of whose husband was having a birthday party at a nearby Chinese restaurant at lunch. We were invited on the spot, and spent a very pleasant next few hours getting to know our countrymen and listening to a wide variety of fascinating stories, which ranged from Afghanistan to China to rural Virginia, from Soviet ex-generals to Golodomor (the Great Famine in Ukraine during the 1930s) and the challenges of teaching Turkish students English. And the needs of AIDS orphans, some of whom we may get to meet on Friday, when we return to Kiev.

As to the literal window-dressing... In the window of an expensive shop near the building where we are renting a three-room apartment, there are some cowhide-covered cactus-planters. The planters are a little bigger than kleenex boxes, neat cubes containing fat, bristling little cacti, covered in white and brown cow fur. It's decidedly wierd.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

What Revolution?

We went down to Independence Square yesterday, after we bought overnight train tickets for Odessa (leaving Monday night, coming back Thursday night), and there really wasn't anything going on, other than the usual throngs of fashionably-dressed pedestrians out shopping and talking. We were being shown around by two of Paul's friends, Olga and her sister Natasha, who, when asked where people were, said, "It's the end of the week." Apparently Ukrainians take the weekend off, even when they are encouraging government change. The socialists and veterans were still esconced, but these are being paid $30 a day for their presence, so can hardly be considered really ideologically-driven. We went into the Globus shopping mall, under the square--it was crowded, and we sat down for hot chocolate, coffee and tea at a table overlooking the downstairs fountain, into which lots of kopek coins had been tossed.

A nice two-bedroom apartment in Kiev costs upwards of $250,000 now. Mortgages are popular, despite the interest rate running to 12%. On the top of the Stalin-era apartment near the central market downtown, the area around the star-topped spire was thronged with tiny satellite dishes, and next to practically every set of windows was a sleek brand-new German-made heating and AC unit. Olga, 34, works for an IT company, and Natasha, 20, is a manager for a local office of an international drinking-water distributor.

I am glad I brought my new long coat. There were snow flurries yesterday morning, Paul told me. He's an extremely early riser. I was woken at 2 PM, after going to bed at 1 AM. It's good to get sleep after having had only 2.5 hours in more that 48 in the day before and after I left. I was finishing the tiles for my brother's May 5 art show in Atlanta, and then had to make a necklace to fullfill the commission I'd already been paid for.

Before going to Globus, we stopped in a yellow-painted Orthodox Cathedral across from the University metro station. There was a wedding going on, but this being an Orthodox church, uninvolved people were milling in and out all the time. The service was heavenly. Incense rising towards the vaulted frescoed ceiling, two choirs chanting responsively, hundreds of beeswax tapers lit in front of icons, a dozen priests and acolytes robed in embroidered cloth of gold vestments performing the rituals before the iconostasis. I could have stood and watched and listened for hours.

I changed my 20-Euro bill (left over from my brother Bob's trip to Ireland two Christmases ago) and bought a good-quality DVD of one of my favorite Russian movies, Sluzhebnie roman ("Working Romance"). From the '70s, fun romantic comedy about a hardbitten female Soviet agency director and one of her nebbish male employees.

From Globus we hoofed it uphill to one of the pair of ancient (10th and 11th-century) churches that dominate the Kievan skyline, where the carillon trilled at 9PM, and then into the cobblestoned old section, where Pushkin would have felt right at home. A gold-cupola'd church glimmered against the deep cobalt sky, and the street-lamps were straight out of Gogol.

I love Ukraine. And Russia. There's nothing like sweet milky tea and butter on fresh Slavic rolls for breakfast, and I like eating dinner at close to midnight. This morning, I awoke at 6. Yesterday's rest seems to have given me energy!

First Evening in Kiev

We went out to Independence Square last night--they've been having demonstrations (in an orderly and non-violent way) down there, but most people had gone home for the night--we were swimming upstream against the crowds heading home. There was a camp of red-flagged, hammer-and-sickle socialists in tents, with a beat-up Lada wearing a sound system that was too big for it that was blaring soviet slogans and music, and an army contingent (from what what I could see on the partly-obscured sign, a delegation of Ukrainian Afghan War veterans--these had blue flags). The orange-flagged people were the tons we'd seen going home, I think, as none were in evidence. The big rock-concert-style temporary stage in front of the post office was dark and empty, and the ranks of port-o-johns (yes, this was a pretty orderly revolution) were rank and deserted. Today, we're supposed to go again and watch the action. We walked home after a good meal and midnight, and, threading our way through a series of crowd-barriers, passed in front of the court, where demonstrators and security services/and more port-o-johns were still gathered. The demonstrators in this case were a few young, scraggly stragglers, full of tobacco and beer, and the riot police, who looked bored and sullenly dangerous. One guy in fatigues was having a bit of trouble taking off all his extra gear so he could get into a port-o-john.

Kiev is beautiful. The people are far better-dressed that us tennis-shoes and jeans-wearing Americans, and the streets are lined with expensive Italian and French clothiers. The food at the MegaMart is cheap, and the bed in my room is comfortable. And the city and national government is riddled with corrupt bureaucrats. The Ukrainian man who picked us up at the airport yesterday had spent the entire morning and early afternoon going from hospital to hospital, clinic to clinic with his 13-month-old daughter, who has something wrong with her thumb--an ingrown nail or somesuch. The public hospitals refused to treat her, because her parents are not registered in Kiev (the Ukrainians got rid of the Soviet system of official place-registration, which preventing people from moving around at will, but failed to substitute anything in its place, and the hospitals have fallen back on demanding registration as a prerequisite for treatment), and the private clinics are expensive and didn't have anyone on site who was available to look at the baby, either. So he was stressed, and talked the whole trip. About the socialized medical situation, taxes and people's logical unwillingness to pay them, and the demonstrations: "Blue flags are the bad guys, orange flags and the good guys, The white flags with the red hearts--they're good, too." Elections are currently scheduled for May 27.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Recommendations Needed

Ryan Clark, the 4.0-average triple major at VA Tech who was killed by the gunman on Monday morning, was from my hometown, and went to my high school. I think he would have been a freshman when my brother Nate was a senior there--he was nine or ten years younger than me. An awesome guy, even taking into account the usual panegyric glow--spent his summers volunteering at a camp for the developmentally disabled, academically brilliant, a musician and friend of many. Murdered when he rushed to help one of the lowerclassmen on the hall where he was a resident assistant.

The usual anti-gun hysteria has gushed forth in the national and international media, and some of the professors in my department were literally shouting yesterday afternoon about the need for gun control, by which they mean abolition.

I consider most gun control legislation to be implicitly anti-woman (the gun is one of the few weapons that does not require great strength to operate--and thus a great equalizing defensive tool that many women, who are frequently subject to male attack, should be encouraged to become familiar with), not to mention, in a purely practical sense, illogical--the European countries which so deplore our gun-freedoms are by no means crime-free (even gun-crime-free!), and in fact have been recently rife with inter-ethnic strife. However, something obviously must be done to prevent evil people (those handful who do attempt to get guns through legal channels, rather than doing as most criminals do and simply procuring them through illegal means) such as the VA Tech shooter from obtaining arms.

The solution I've come up with (which I think far more effective than criminal background checks, but which should be used in conjunction with them) is personal recommendations. For many of the major, normal transactions in life a person has to have one or more personal recommendations. To get a job, you have not just your own account of yourself in writing and in person, but a list of references, contacts not related to you who can attest to your good character. To rent an apartment or buy a house, you have to have references. To get into a school or club, you have to have references. To get a driver's license, you have to have references (that is, the assessment of your skills from a person trained to judge them). If a person were to have to supply the names of people who were willing to back his or her desire to own a gun--and if those people knew there would be some serious penalty for supporting the application of a person later proven to be guilty of a felony related to owning the gun whose purchase they had supported, the avenue which was used by the VA Tech killer, among other people, would be entirely closed off.

The VA Tech killer was wholly anti-social, well-known to be fascinated with death, and frightening to his peers long before he launched his rampage Monday morning. He, and others like him, would never have procured the support of friends (he had none) to support his application for the handguns he used to murder more than thirty innocent people.

The key to self-control is frequently the degree to which one is imbedded in a caring community, and the key to good gun-control, I believe, is based on the same principle.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Crossing the T's

This will be brief, as I am exhausted and have to be up and ready for church in seven and a half hours.

Today was one of the more productive of my life. I had two projects: tiles and taxes--the latter being sales taxes, not income taxes. Due to the Commonwealth of VA by April 20. As I am slated to depart for Ukraine April 19, these had to be done early. They are.

The taxes were a small project compared to the tiles. These are due to be included in a show in Atlanta May 5. I'm not supposed to return from Ukraine until April 30, and the tiles have to be down south at least two days before the show to allow them to be arranged in the mantel mock-up my brother Nate is putting together (actually, the mantel will be finished, but the tiles will just be temp-set, so that if someone at the show wants to buy the collection on the spot, they can be installed in the person's house without delay).

Well, Nate emailed me the design outline a week or so ago, discovering to our mutual horror that it required 59 3"x6" tiles and 20 3" square tiles. Argh. At that point, I'd made about 20 3"x6" with salamanders on them, but those had taken at least six hours just to rough out. So I started making just tons of plain ones. It's amazing how long this takes.

I had to hand-measure each one. And clay tends to warp as it dries, and tiles have to be flat for uniform installation. Oh, and it can take forever for clay to dry. Then it has to be fired (once dry) to make it ready for glazing, then fired a second time when it has been glazed. Making a single piece can easily take weeks, and here I was trying to make close to 100, and have them done before I leave for Ukraine--or at least to the point where I've glazed them, to ready them for the second firing, which can be done while I'm abroad. Adding to the complexity of the matter is the fact that I use studio space at a community center that does (maybe, if we're lucky) weekly firings--and as of this week none of my pieces were done being produced, much less bisqued!

This afternoon I prayed for mercy, went to the studio and prayed while I worked. I worked flat-out for four hours. I got everything cut out and carved and signed. I managed, through God's grace, to arrange for a special firing for my pieces. At a cost, of course. They were being put into a kiln when I left this evening--they're going to spend the next 36 hours on "warm up," which should (hopefully) dry all the moist ones (most of them), then be hard-fired starting Monday around noon. If they are not completely dry, they'll explode in the kiln and my work will be wasted. But barring that, and if I am again the recipient of grace, on Tuesday night I may be able to sit in on my friend Hannah's pottery class and start glazing. Wednesday night, if all goes well, I should finish glazing, and everything will be back in the hands of the studio staff.

I hope to come back to Arlington at the end of April to find that all my tiles are ready and waiting for the trip to Atlanta. I've been pricing plane, train and rental automobile costs, because I'm going to have to hand-carry them south--because there is no way the postal service can get them there by May 3, without charging a fortune. We're talking well over 30 pounds of highly breakable ceramics. So the solution is to shepherd them down there myself. And maybe pick up my bookcase (which is sitting on Paxifist's porch) on the way back. I'm definitely going to have to rent an SUV!

Just pray I sell a lot of books on Amazon between now and Wednesday--I'll have to close out my listings for the duration of my trip overseas, but the more I can sell beforehand, the more cash I'll have to pay for all this frenetic creativity and travel. And souvenirs!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Rhode Island Ramblings

Last Thursday, when my sister pulled up in her station wagon and I hefted my suitcase into the back next to Rita's carseat, that small person took one look at me and burst into tears. My sister explained that she was probably disappointed that I wasn't my brother Bob, whom Rita adores and whom they'd left off at the airport several days before my arrival. She did calm down fairly quickly, though--when we got to their house twenty minutes later, and took off our coats and shoes, she ran across to the couch and grabbed a remote (one of the four), padded back over to me, held out the remote and said, plaintively, "DVD? DVD?" She'd quickly sized me up as a soft touch, and figured that I'd let her watch the Sesame Street DVD that her mother reserves for special occasions. Little stinker.

A day or so later, my sister and I were in her room, watching her climb on the furniture, when Rita suddenly declaimed, "I want to be alone." I was startled--who was this, a miniature Greta Garbo? My sister identified the statement, however--it was a line from one of the Frog and Toad stories, which Rita has memorized. It was funny listening to her thereafter--she'd be playing by herself and reeling off lines from her favorite books. She insisted I read the Frog and Toad Treasury several times, plus the George and Martha collection, and Dr. Seuss. We also went upstairs to the desktop computer and she showed me how she can use the mouse and "type."

In church Saturday night she amused herself by walking along the kneeling benches and crawling under the pews. We were in a sparsely-populated back corner, so her high energy didn't disturb other worshipers, though she did start to dash up the aisle a few times and had to be nabbed. My brother-in-law and sister later told me I was nuts when (at the end of the service) I let her set the pace and vector for approaching the communion rail at the altar--they prefer to make the trip as quick as possible, and there I was letting her mosey around near the praise band. But she didn't get in to any trouble. I had firm hold of her little hand, of course.

When my sister dropped me off at the train station Monday morning, Rita said, "Aunt C--, Aunt C--," so maybe I've gone up to Uncle Bob level in her estimation. I miss the little pipsqueak.

On the train back I sat with a postal worker (wife of a fire fighter) and a "traditionally built" (as Alexander McCall Smith would say) old lady Methodist minister from Sierra Leone. People are such an interesting variety, whatever their age or origin!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Me, A Jedi Knight?

There are two pieces of startlingly space-age machinery in our department at Georgetown. They frequently break down, as such amazing devices are wont to do. And it is always only when the most technology-skittish faculty members rush up to the front desk in a panic, wailing, "The copier's not working!" (when they have barely moments to make it to class with a sheaf of handouts) that we who have the desired expertise to fix the problem are told there even is one. Given this recurrent issue, two weeks ago I posted the following notice:

***If this machine jams…Let the folks at the front desk know. We may appear omniscient, but we don’t automatically sense a “disturbance in the Force” when a copier malfunctions. In most cases, we can restore it to full functionality in short order. But only if you tell us it’s misbehaving!***

Thank you.

Clear, slightly humorous, and succinct, no? Well, for at least one fortyish professor, the humor was lost, because he didn't get the allusion. He was standing at the machine last Wednesday, laboriously photocopying, when I walked by.

"What is 'disturbance in force'?" he asked, curiously.

I looked at him in horror. "You don't recognize the reference?!"

He paused, and then guessed, hesitantly: "Star Wars?"

"Yes."

He looked vaguely pleased with himself, and said, with an air of satisfaction, "Disturbance in force!"

Sometimes I despair.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

He Is Risen!

This is perhaps the first Easter of my life I have not gone to church on Easter. Instead, my sister, brother-in-law, little niece and I went to the Great Vigil last night at her tiny Anglican church. All was dark in the sanctuary at the beginning of the service--a single candle came in with the sacristan--and it was not until dusk that the shout went out "He is Risen!" and the candlelight allowed to spread over the altar and then throughout the room. It was a new perspective on the resurrection--that until the third day after the crucifixion all was dark, seemingly hopeless, the written promises dim on the page and life of his disciples fumbling along by rote familiarity rather than real fervent participation. And then Jesus arose! Hallelujah!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Riding the Rails

The train trip to Rhode Island on Thursday proved as fascinating as ever—on this occasion, rather than sharing hours of conversation with a New York housekeeper to celebrities or a British middle-aged cricket nut, I made the acquaintance of an Washington-based international journalist employed by a French press agency and an Alaskan grandmother-turned-African-Peace-Corps volunteer. Betty, the former, was highly personable, a slight woman with graying fly-away hair and a comfortable down-to-earth attitude, not the hard-bitten fedora-wearing cigarette-smoking male correspondent of yore. She was wearing a trench coat, however, in classic journalist fashion. Jo, whom I met in the line waiting to board the train at Union Station (it was half an hour late coming up from North Carolina), was in the process of crisscrossing North America to say goodbye to friends and family before disappearing into the Botswana bush for two years. The both of them were good examples of the varied experiences of middle-aged American single women: well-traveled (Betty spent many years living in Europe, and Jo had just spent several weeks in Thailand, a few of those days trekking through the jungle, one of them on the back of an elephant), well-informed (we talked about everything from Internet dating to Russian politics and the sub-Saharan AIDS epidemic) and well-connected (not in the snobbish sense, but in the practical context of having friends in this or that place or discipline to whom to turn for assistance, intellectual or physical). As I’ve said before, the atmosphere on trains is much more congenial than it is on airplanes—the very tardiness of the transport-medium contributes to the laid-back atmosphere, as do the unbelted roomy seats and the right to stroll the aisles at any moment on the trip. The cabins aren’t pressurized, and the commuters aren’t as pressured, either. I imagine that ship-board travel is somewhat similar, though a transatlantic trip would take a week, providing opportunity for boredom to set in, which it seldom does on the train.

My trip to Rhode Island was actually the result of my misunderstanding the Georgetown University calendar. The Easter Break from Thursday through Monday actually applies only to students, not to staff members, who only get Good Friday off. But I had already booked my tickets, so my boss (bless her!) allowed me to go ahead with my plans.

Rita has changed so much since Christmas! She's talking in complete sentences, and her appetite for books has only become more voracious. She has the Frog and Toad stories and a handful of Dr. Seuss books memorized (most notably Green Eggs and Ham), as she demonstrated before bedtime yesterday, when she recited selections to herself while playing in a corner of the living room. Little children are sponges--just goes to show parents (and proud aunts) have to be so careful about what they expose them to. Rita's second birthday is coming up on the 18th--I need to go on Amazon and buy her some more books. Maybe some Mercer Mayer and the Pinkerton series. And the Henstra-illustrated version of Petronella. And the Church Mice books. And about a hundred others.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Affection and Food

My little niece said, "I love you," for the first time yesterday.

Unfortunately for the self-esteem of her parents, they were not being addressed. Instead, Rita was bestowing her affection on a tub of hummus. She does love hummus. Among her first words were "crackers" and "hummus," not to mention "dates" and "tea." The "tea" is 9 parts milk to 1 part tea, but it was the only way she would drink her milk when she was just learning to walk--if Mommy drinks tea, Rita must have tea, too.

"More! Dates!" she would demand. "More! Tea!" She has a very Morroccan diet, since she also likes olives, feta and yogurt. And she's very sure of what she wants to eat, and asks for her favorites succinctly and distinctly. Of late she's been on a casserole kick.

She's also a chocolate fiend, although she's only had a tiny taste of it in her short life. There was a dramatic scene a few weeks ago when I was on the phone with my sister right before dinnertime and could hear a small voice in the background begging for chocolate. Denied, my niece cast herself down on the floor in despair, moaning "Choc'late!" between meows of woe. "Poor little kitty cat," my sister said, caught between compassion and mirth.

If Rita is this dramatic and opinionated before her second birthday, what a rollercoaster ride the "terrible twos" will be!