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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.

Birthday(s)!

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 Amazon.com 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.