Wednesday, January 30, 2008

...And Bacon?

My identity is already at risk! Somebody checked out a copy of Francis Bacon's seventeenth-century book Advancement of learning, Novum organum, New Atlantis from the Arlington public library using my account number! Argh. It's only a matter of days until someone buys an entire set of Hindi dictionaries or Latin prayerbooks and tries to foist off the charges on me. I've cancelled my library card in defense.

Luxury Yachts and Sports Cars

...are probably being purchased in my name even as I type. Susan and I were watching the local news last night and one of the big stories was on the theft of an external harddrive from an office in the student center at Georgetown, a harddrive containing the names and social security numbers of thousands of current and former students, faculty and staff. The theft occurred January 3rd. And only yesterday morning were notices sent out from University Information Services telling those affected--me among them--that this data was missing. We can only pray that the harddrive was taken by some person who hadn't any notion of what was on it, and its memory was quickly overwritten or erased. Particularly as we have been told the information was neither encrypted nor even password-protected, so it wouldn't take a genius to figure out how to open it.

At a "town hall" meeting this afternoon in the ICC, we were told to check our credit reports and that, in the next couple of weeks, via snail-mail, we'll be getting codes so that we can sign up for a year's worth of fraud monitoring on our accounts, courtesy of Georgetown. The Secret Service is also involved in the ongoing criminal investigation, probably because there are a goodly number of folks here on campus with security-related jobs, and having their personal information in the public domain is not good. As a mere plebe, I can only hope that they find the person or persons responsible and safeguard my data, too.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bright Lights in Dark Lands?

Reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag (deservedly a winner of the Pulitzer Prize) sent me, by a process of not entirely free mental association into my bookshelves (an ever-expanding vista) to retrieve my copy of W.H. Auden, to find and read to Susan (ever-patient) my favorite poem, “September 1, 1939.” Curious, indeed, how we cannot stand to sully the sacred image of World War II as a just war by honest realization that, to win it, we allied ourselves with a dictator of the same, or worse, dark purpose. And that both British and American leaders made possible the forced repatriation of hundreds of thousands of people to the Soviet Union who were ultimately sent to their deaths for no other reason than they had once breathed freely in the West. The “darkened lands of the earth” were not only those overrun by the Third Reich; for the next half-century, “ironic points of light” dotted throughout Solzhenitsyn’s Archipelago would “Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages.”

This morning, as I embarked on Leona Toker’s Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors, I found that I was not the only person to find that the “selfish pink old Liberal”* spoke for me, saying what I had tried and failed to say about the perpetration of evil and injustice:

On a visit to a museum in 1940, the speaker of Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts” notes how well the “Old Masters” understood the “human position” of suffering: it “takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” … Auden’s poetry displays a seismographic sensibility to contemporary moods. Most of us are vaguely aware that “even the most dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow in a corner.” We live, work, love, walk dully along, learn, plan, sympathize, control, pay insurance premiums—all the while quite well aware of “some untidy spot / Where dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” [2]

Toker herself pegs the tendency of modern developed-world citizenry: “In the global village, such untidy spots are not too remote, and the tendency to look away from them conflicts with the pervasive belief that, once illuminated, they have a better chance of being set right.” [2]

The Hillary Clintonesque metaphor at the outset notwithstanding, this is a good description of the Western mentality of today. I should amend my mildly hysterical-sounding declaration of my immediately-previous post: although much can (still) be swallowed up by the cold desert of the Siberian tundra, much more can be hid from deliberately blind, callused eyes in the middle of so-called civilization. Just a few months ago, for example, a small blurb in the magazine “Russian Life” noted that a woman in a northern Russian Federation city had been placed in a mental hospital and drugged (historically, I have read, Russian physicians have preferred chemical treatments to psychoanalysis) for expressing dissenting political views. In 2007. And the total devastation that is the churned up, barren ground of Chechnya has not, in fact, been conducted in secret—those who have ears can hear, if they so desire.

Closer to home, more personal, apolitical injustices are routinely overlooked: the poor, the homeless, the criminally undereducated are frequently left to their own devices as we drive by them, traveling from decent work to comfortable home in insulated isolation.

Happily, last night Susan and I were invited to a friend’s house in southeast DC to meet a woman and her husband just come from several year’s service among the poor in Manila. Jon, a mutual friend who had spent a year working (outside the Green Zone) with emergency aid and development projects in Iraq, also came—and I got to be a “fly on the wall” while he and the Filipino couple discussed how Christians can serve both physical and spiritual needs around the world in an intelligent, culturally-sensitive way. The Filipina wife, Lisa, was born and raised in Southern California, and met her husband, John, while she spent a year working among the disadvantaged on the island of Luzon (and learning Tagalog, which she hadn’t been brought up speaking in the US). Jon, a French-raised Armenian-American with a Latin goatee and a regular amused expression, spoke about the hazards which enthusiastic but unthinking people get into going to Iraq as Christian missionaries—some contractors in the Green Zone told him that such people are never seen again (they are kidnapped and killed). He himself was working in an exclusively secular capability, and opportunities to share his faith existed primarily when he would interact with his coworkers, not so much with the people at large whose material needs he was trying to meet. Lisa responded with her own observations that the poor in the Philippines tended to open up to her, expecting her to relate to them more fully than “Anglo” missionaries (who may speak the local language better than she does). She pointed out a couple of times during the evening that the people she was helping were not “beneficiaries” of her spiritual largess, but her friends.

I think that’s one thing that made David Livingston and Hudson Taylor exceptional in their day: both approached their chosen mission fields (Africa and China, respectively) not as “the selfless White Westerner condescending to the benighted brown heathen” but on a human, heart-to-heart level. I believe it is also useful to be doing something else besides “pure” mission work when one goes into a given culture—only in the West, Lisa pointed out, do we divorce religion from social assistance. Jon concurred.

They should know: both Lisa and Jon have Masters degrees in International Development from one of the DC universities, and significant experience “on the ground,” particularly, as it turns out, with regard to orphaned, homeless, and psychologically-bruised children. A few years ago, on behalf of a large NGO, Lisa co-authored a study of Ethiopian orphan/street-children assistance programs, asking both Muslim and Christian relief groups, among others, what made all the difference in success with their young charges. The unexpected answer: religious faith. Jon observed that an entire generation in Iraq is growing up with first-hand experience of extreme violence, many children missing limbs as a result. Finding a means of healing all these bruised little souls should be a high priority.

I wonder if this framework can be applied to the Russian/post-Soviet example. Beslan and Chechnya, Kiev and St. Petersburg certainly offer plenty of broken children, or children from broken homes. Not many years ago, the FSB (the successor to the KGB) revived, at least in small measure, the humanitarian mission of its founder, Feliks Derzhinsky, who sought to rescue many such young people, give them a solid education: in the 1920s, this was based on Soviet principles, but what is the guiding ideology nowadays? As Bob Dylan sang, “you’ve got to serve somebody.” Who will these children in Russia and Iraq, the children of the Philippines and of the United States, be serving?

*Auden’s self-description, from his “Letter to Lord Byron.”

Monday, January 21, 2008


This is my Gulag week. My Soviet Reading exam is scheduled for the end of February. And this now is the week that I set my thoughts in order about the Gulag system, which, like so many abuses visited on the more outspoken members of the Russian nation, has not disappeared, but has merely been reorganized.

It's a niave mind which, considering Russia, thinks that large-scale inhumane practices cannot continue thanks to modern technology, that somehow the word will get out, and that public outrage will necessarily follow. I think this is true not only with regard to the Russian penal system, but also with regard to their military technology, particularly their chemical and biological weapons programs. A lot of things can be squallowed up by the tundra.

Whispers and the occasional shout of protest or distress can be heard, yes, but only if intently listened for--most are easily ignored by a national media which hopes to keep its head and health (Anna Politkovskaya, anyone?), and the perquisites allowed it under the "capitalist" system. Most people--even those with established public visibility who might well encourage others to join with them to bring about positive changes--will cling to whatever pitiful creature comforts they have rather than lose them for protesting in what may well be a quixotic effort with regard to altering erring norms. And in Russia there is a millennium-old society-wide habit of keeping one's head down.

And no one seems to care about Russia outside its borders. It's very frustrating, both from a human rights perspective and from the viewpoint of national security. According to a 1977 article in Slavic Review, prior to World War II American military intelligence employed a total of twelve "specialists" to work on the Soviet Union, of whom only two spoke Russian and had professional training. Now, of course, there are several thousand members of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, but given the 300 million people who are citizens of both the United States, and about the same number who are residents of the Russian Federation, this represents small interest indeed. To have good relationships, even with one's friends, one needs to know a lot about them. And we all need to know more about Russia.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Left Foot (Again)

Yesterday after work, I was carrying an armload of boxes, missed a step in the ICC and fell down two. My ankle made a nasty crunchy noise as I toppled over, and overnight it swelled to the size of an orange (I have thin ankles—if I injured a knee it might achieve grapefruit status, but my ankle, no), the spot where the bone usually juts out becoming a dimple instead. Another set of x-rays this afternoon—the second on the same foot in a month—and the verdict: nothing broken, just a bad sprain. Stay off of it entirely for three days (yeah, right—with all the stairs up to my apartment, you think I’m going to deal with a full set of crutches?!), apply ice, elevation, and an Ace bandage, take Naproxen, and all should be well. I am glad I got my car back yesterday.

The dog-sitting job this weekend was called off on account of children—one of the owner’s volunteered to stay with their animals. It’s just as well, considering I would be trying to cope with the two 100+ lb. beasts while hobbling around, but I will miss the money.

My first meeting with my Imperial Russian history examiner is tomorrow afternoon. I turned in an extensively revised and just downright extensive reading list to her last week, so some progress academic-wise is being made.

I hope the packet of frozen pearl onions that is resting on my ankle right now will make the swelling go down enough so that I can get on a decent shoe on. As the aforementioned KJV-educated dog owner said, upon hearing of my latest injury, “…if your foot offends thee, cut it off!” I’ll keep it, thanks. At least until the next time. If it gets banged up again enough to require a third set of x-rays next month, I am going to use some Very Bad Language.

Did I mention that I cut open my thumb this evening? The hanger I was putting my coat on had a sharp edge.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Automotive Issues

Once again, I’m so grateful to be living within walking distance of school. Almost exactly to the day it reached 100,000 miles, my little Honda has decided to develop issues. Very Expensive Issues.

Well after dark last Wednesday night, after doing a run to the post office and thence to the library, I parked on the street across from my apartment. I noticed a strange noise coming from the engine—the sound of the fan, which only comes on when it’s above 95 outside and I’ve turned the car off after an extended trip, which it wasn’t and I hadn’t. Curious, I climbed back in to the driver’s seat and cranked the engine. The heat indicator went up to red. My roommate, who’d come along for company, suggested I drive around the block to see if any lights came on or gauges read differently. This I did. The engine temperature registered lower on level ground, but when I parked, it again hit the red line, and I hastily turned off the ignition and hesitantly popped the hood. The fan was blasting again, and the air coming off the engine was hot, but didn’t smell bad. Given that it was too dark to be poking around amongst the piping, and though I may be clueless about many things, I know better than to start unscrewing hot valve covers, I left the thing to cool off and went to bed only a little concerned that the whole vehicle might burst into flames and incinerate itself and the cars around it during the night.

The car was still there the next day, unburnt, but I had to work all Thursday and Friday—last minute emergency oh-my-Gosh I forgot to request this desk copy orders—so there was nothing I could do until Saturday morning (I’m foregoing the Arlington market until I pass my comps).

Saturday was sunny, perfect weather. After consulting my owner’s manual, I dove under the hood and found that the overflow coolant/anti-freeze tank had 2mm of fluid sitting, useless, at its bottom, and the radiator itself was essentially dry, with only the vaguest fluorescent green dampness under the cap. I’d been right on the verge of cooking my engine. After consulting with my dear old resident manager, who is a retired auto mechanic, I went up to the 7-11 on the corner, and procured a large jug of pre-mixed generic coolant and a plastic funnel.

While I waited for the cashier to finish selling lottery tickets to two paint-splattered day-laborers, I glanced down the double row of magazines—over twenty titles. All but one of those that were openly displayed featured a large color picture of Britney Spears or her sister on the cover. The one exception was of Benazir Bhutto. And what were the two titles carefully concealed behind modest metal panels designed to cover racy rags like “Hustler” and “Penthouse”? “The Economist” and “US News & World Report.” I guess DC-area quick-marts take the idea of politics as sleaze seriously.

Filled up the radiator and the overflow tank with coolant and drove off to see Mohammed, a North African auto mechanic with the hard-earned reputation (confirmed by both my resident manager and my roommate) of being honest. [No way on God's green earth I'm going back to the evil Brown's Honda people up the road.] He works in a tiny little oil-soaked two-bay gas station garage in an immigrant-heavy quarter of Arlington crowded with down-at-the-heels salons, cafes and package stores. I found him deep in the engine of a once-brown 80s van that looked to have been the property of the A-Team. I explained in a few words what was the matter, and he told me he’d take a look at it and call me with the diagnosis.

Then I walked back home. A pleasant 2 ½ miles. I only tripped and fell once.

Mohammed's diagnosis: Leaking water pump. What is, in non-Honda cars, a quick, inexpensive fix. In an Accord, however, the replacement is inhumanely expensive, since it requires the replacement of the timing belt. Which I already had replaced back 15,000 miles or so ago. Well, as my father would say, there it is.

At least I not only have a nicely-paying dog-sitting job lined up for MLK weekend, I’m supposed to babysit two cats I know for eight days beginning the 2nd of February. My version of biofuel—I get my car going thanks to payment for care of furry creatures. Until I have my wheels back, I’ll rely on my now-functional feet—thank God, the tendonitis has finally subsided!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What a Year!

I've been working like a dog for all of 2008. Except for a brief foray yesterday afternoon into a cheesy John Grisham novel once owned by my advisor, it's been pretty much all-out for the first week. This is good. I may not only be prepared for my comps, I may actually have enough money to pay for classes in the Biohazards program.

Last Thursday and Friday, I worked at the American Historical Association annual conference, which was centered at (but not limited to) an unholy huge Marriott hotel over near the National Zoo. I worked the curriculum vitae drop desk, which was rushed by dozens of desperate unemployed American History PhD's, some of whom said they'd been looking for jobs for years. Highlights of the people-watching (I didn't get to go to the one seminar that interested me because I was working the desk) included seeing a man carrying a sign that read "Will Teach 20th Century U.S. History for Food" and having my 76-year-old advisor talking a badgeless fellow graduate student of mine past the ID-checkers at the book sale door by claiming she was his wife ("That beautiful young woman?!" said the incredulous security guard. "Do you think I'd have an ugly one?" my advisor brazenly replied.)

Saturday, with the help of two friends, I cleaned the rest of the boxes of books left over from the fall sale out of the history department. One guy, who attends one of the "Georges" (Georgetown, George Washington, George Mason) in the area is a Chinese fellow whose wife has finally been allowed to join him stateside after effectively being held hostage for four years. But they had to leave their 2-year-old son behind with his grandparents--the government won't permit him to leave. Communist China sucks. What I don't get is why everybody over in this neck of the woods seems to be ignoring their awfulness, their incremental denial to their citizenry of those rights associated with what optimistic market economists saw as a gradual liberalization process. Internet access just keeps getting more restricted, and what makes me particularly angry is that many U.S.-based companies are complicit in these outrages. What are we going to do once all our basic manufacturing is overseas, in the hands of people who are actively hostile to our interests? Mexico is at least adjacent to us, and those folks need jobs. And neither they nor the Canadians are interested in wiping us off the face of the map or undercutting us militarily and politically.

And continuing from prior to the first of the year until late, late this evening was my fanatical dedication to translating Chapter 7 of "Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands." I calculated that I spent one hour twenty minutes per page of the chapter, and I expect that my average page-speed for the whole manuscript to date is about 1 1/2 hours. It's slow going. But we're over the half-way mark.

Once I turn in my latest drafts of my reading lists to the respective professors tomorrow morning, and drop the Microbiology Graduate Research Seminar class that I somehow was registered for, I'll feel like the semester is off to a positive start.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Year in Review/The Year in Preview

Having just celebrated the end of 2007, I would like to praise God for His care for and grace to me during that 365 days, as demonstrated by the following samples:

1. Godly husbands for more of my old friends, several after severe heartbreak.

2. My honorary nephews’ and blood niece’s continued growth and development, and the anticipation of the arrival of a couple more small relatives in Spring 2008!

3. Good mental health for me (a major blessing!), and the physical incapacitation being kept to a minimum. I am so grateful for the friends who helped me cope with the sprains, pulls and twinges during the spring and fall!

4. A full year sharing quarters with an awesome roommate! I am daily thankful for her friendship and sweet spirit.

5. Another successful year selling my jewelry, and a new, good friend who shares my fascination with making wearable art. She’s been immensely encouraging, and prompted me to experiment with more daring designs, to my own and my customers’ entire satisfaction.

6. My having gotten up to and beyond the half-way point in the “Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands” manuscript translation. On the home stretch at last!

And, some for a third consecutive year, here are my hopefully-not-wholly absurd ambitions for this coming annum...

1. Finish translation of "Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands" and sign contract with major American/British publishers for it to be produced for the English-speaking market.

2. Actually get first HISTORY article published in refereed journal, having presented the paper at a serious academic conference. And maybe a creative writing/opinion piece in a paying magazine...

3. Pass my History Ph.D. comprehensive exams in the Spring and apply successfully for dissertation research-grants. [I’m 1/3 of the way there, and if I don’t see this ambition fulfilled I’ll be tossed out of Georgetown on my ear at the end of this coming semester!]

4. Complete another full-time semester in the MS in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases program and be on track to graduate in May 2009. [Hey, I’ve passed my comprehensive exam in International Disease History, so the rest of the program should be a breeze! Except of course that Chemistry class…]

5. Get one or more examples of my artwork featured in the Washington Times or Washington Post. This happened to a friend of mine last year, so it isn't as impossible as it might seem.

6. Become comfortable enough shooting my Mosin-Nagant so I can hit the bull’s-eye with it from 50 yards away.

7. Have a fantastic romance and fall in love and get engaged [and possibly even married] to a good-looking, smart, kind and gainfully-employed Christian guy. This year, it’s all about realism!

8. Run six miles in 1 hour. Without expiring afterwards or having to have prolonged physical therapy.

9. Learn to dance. Better. Didn’t happen last year, or the previous year--maybe this one!

9. Meet Vladimir Putin and get his autograph. You know, if the book gets good press...

10. Buy a house.

Incidentally, one of my last year’s wishes, “Have the website featuring the art produced by my Atlanta brother and me linked by at least 25 other websites/blogs and move up to the top of the Google rankings,” was more or less fulfilled—our website comes up first when either one of our names is Googled. Whether other folks have linked to it in large numbers, though, I can’t determine.