Friday, November 30, 2007

Birthday, Celebrated

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Birthday

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

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

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

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

People have been sweet.

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

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lubyanka Lullaby

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

Not exactly a subject to lull one into blissful unconsciousness.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You said you didn't want it."

"I never said that!" he said.

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

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

"You don't need too."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Gulag

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2007


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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Alphabet Obsession

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

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

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

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

In her mother's running shoes on the treadmill.

At least the grin shines through...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Insomnia in Rhode Island

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

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

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

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

Susan is an angel.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2007

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Monkey is Back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2007

Another Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 09, 2007

New Years 1942

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

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

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

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Reschedules and Mortal Remains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


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

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

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

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