Monday, March 31, 2008

ABD At Last!

The oral comprehensive exam is done. I passed. Not spectacularly—not “with distinction”, or even “with honors,” but with a simple “pass” initialed by all four of the professors on my examination committee. Frankly, this was amazing given I was incoherent throughout the two hours of “conversation.” For instance, when my advisor asked me about Soviet foreign policy beginning in the spring of 1939, I totally blanked. Deer in the headlights feeling, couldn’t remember a thing. I eventually started blithering about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but how much of the particulars did he want to know? That was pretty much typical of the whole exchange. I found it difficult to figure out exactly what a lot of the questions were actually aiming for, and my answers were correspondingly fuzzy, and I made some stupid mistakes.

Afterwards, I was reminded of my father’s observation years ago: Question—“What do they call the person who graduates last in his class from medical school?” Answer—“Doctor.” Sometimes simply finishing is the main accomplishment.

I’m one more step along towards gaining that honorific, but I confess the whole experience today was something of an anticlimax. Although, as a friend pointed out, wouldn’t I rather feel “flat” at the point of success than depressed at having failed? Very true.

Next important task on my personal docket is income taxes. Then finishing translating the “Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands” manuscript—that, along with the jewelry-making, has been on hold for the last three months. Then start researching and writing the dissertation. And applying for financial aid to make the research doable, once I have a clear notion of my thesis. Though I may not be the best verbal communicator, I can make myself understood—for better or for worse—in print without overmuch difficulty.

Friday, March 28, 2008


My stomach is even more twisted than usual, and only brisk walks/jogs with my roommate have kept me from falling apart into small quivering lumps of slightly toxic jelly, an eyeless skull with really long hair attached and a couple of stubby toes and thumbs sitting upright amongst the other debris.

I alternate between feeling that tears are imminent (though I haven't shed any) and thinking that I am going to barf (which I haven't).

Around 3:15 Monday I shall either be ABD or labeled with some unknown acronym assigned to those who flunk their orals.

Betwixt now and then I have a lot of cramming to do.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chocolate Sludge

Yesterday, having gotten over my urge to clean, but subconsciously seeking still to procrastinate on my comps studying (I am in the early colonial period, tracing the shores of Africa and the genesis of the transatlantic slave trade), I had a sudden yen for fudge. I extracted my Joy of Cooking (long untouched) from my bookshelf and launched into preparations—without realizing that through some bizarre grocery-shopping goof Susan and I had somehow run out of butter. So I called in reinforcements in the form of the NPV, who brought over two sticks of butter and was delegated the task of stirring in the pecan bits when the mixture cooled to 110 degrees. For this latter muscular effort he was given the privilege of eating the chocolate scrapings left in the bowl after the rest was poured into a pan to cool.

Fudge is supposed to harden promptly into a stiff, sliceable confection, suitable for packaging. Let the record show that I am a lousy cook, even when following a proven recipe and using a candy thermometer. Twenty-four hours on, my pitiful panful has only just achieved the consistency of grainy pudding. This is a step up from yesterday, when it remained a lukewarm thick chocolate stew featuring floating nutmeats. Increased viscosity or not, at present it is hardly the appetizing-looking delight that I was hoping to foist off on my deserving male neighbors—the thickening only means that when Susan and I scoop out spoonfuls, visible signs of our depredations remain (despite the ugliness of my fudgeward effort, it tastes delicious, and we keep nipping into the kitchen for samples). But if the two of us eat any more of it, we’re not only going to be sick, we are also going to be fat. And as I’d feel guilty about just tossing four cups of milk, eight ounces of chocolate and eight cups of sugar’s worth of edible sweetness, unsightly as it is, I must ask: Anybody interested in some yummy chocolate sludge? Free for the taking. Just return the empty pan.

Library of Congress or Exhibit Hall of Congress?

Oooo, I am mad as a wet hen. The powers that be in the US Congress and at its eponymous Library decided, just last week (I just was told of the decision today), that the European Reading Room, one of the geographic area-specialized reading rooms in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, and the very one that is most frequented, should be closed, and the area converted into exhibition/reception area. Growl. As a Russianist I am always getting notes via an international listserv to which I subscribe about the various archives and reading rooms that are closing indefinitely for "remont" (remodeling) over in Russia, thereby rendering their collections off-limits (or extremely hard to access) to researchers.

I never thought this would happen in the US.

Oh, I know that (unlike elsewhere) the information will still be available (at least I’m hoping this will be the case!)—it’ll just travel through the same broad channels as the hundreds of requests that are daily submitted through the Main Reading Room. But where are we supposed to consult with reference specialists, meet colleagues, and have relevant materials (and equipment) at our fingertips like we do in the European Reading Room? As my friends and associates know, I am a regular user of the MRR, and although it is fine for general research (provided you are really patient, and need no more than general help!), for dissertation and book research, such as I will be conducting from April 1 on (Lord willing I pass my comps), I need the environs and resources that are only available in the ERR.

There’s legitimate fear that once they cashier the space—allegedly for an exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (which is doubly ironic considering that Lincoln had a profound respect for scholarship and himself had essential dealings with major European powers, including the Russians, during his terms in office)—they will pension off the respective librarians, men and women who not only know the major European languages but who are adept at helping people who are researching topics in those fields find what they need. Too, what is the primarly purpose of the Library of Congress, to be a place where people can quietly read, becoming well-informed to the great benefit of their country, or to be a place where loud tourists can waddle through exhibits during business hours and the rich and well-connected of Washington can schmooze in the evenings?

If my readers would like to support me and my fellow historians in our effort to reverse this unwelcome change at the Library of Congress, please visit the website some of my colleagues have set up for the purpose: Thereon is posted information about the reasons for the change, its possible and probable repercussions, and the alternatives to it, besides contact information for the people who determine what comes to pass. Write a short, hot letter and cc it to them all. Thanks!

Thursday, March 20, 2008


I just returned from a pleasant three days at Virginia Beach, where it was too cold to swim but perfectly clear and sunny and thus wonderful weather for strolling in the nearby False Cape State Park, a quiet wildlife refuge with miles of ocean and marsh coastline. Monday morning Jane and I took a winding boardwalk into the marshes, through giant stands of grass that waved their tassled stalks several feet above our heads, past tiny ponds of inky water that twinkled in the sunlight, and finally out onto a broad intracoastal waterway. The alternately fresh and salty stiff breeze assured that the bugs that usually hover over such tasty spots of organic decay did not bother us, so we sat on rustic benches for a bit and watched the seabirds fly and wind-ripples form around bits of driftwood in the mud. The only sign of civilization we saw was a slate-gray F-22 wheeling in the air--evidence of the nearby military bases at Norfolk and Hampton Roads. Considering Jane is a fellow "brat" (her mom was the first woman to join the Marines in the state of New York, and her dad was in the Navy), neither of us minded this aeronautical display. Although it was a great day for flying, it was also a great day for us land-bound creatures--it was nice to feel small amid a glorious natural creation, like a fieldmouse with the wind stirring her fur, or a lizard lying still on a warm stone.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Don't Speak Ill of the Dead

Grandmother (always pronounced in full, with distant formality) is dead. I had written a long post on the subject of her curious, tragic life (and comparing her experience and character to that of my beloved maternal grandparents), but my sister called me to tell me to take it down, and that I ought to go to the funeral as the representative of my generation of my family. I acquiesced to the former demand, but am still undecided on the latter. It does promise to be an interesting cultural experience, about which I always like to reflect and write.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

At Least He Didn't Use The Word 'Adequate'

My advisor finally sent me a note regarding my Soviet written comps... "Dear [my name misspelled]: your written exams are acceptable (no grade till the orals) and you may now proceed to the oral comprehensive exams. All best..."

Saying they were "acceptable" is considerably kinder than saying they were merely "adequate." It leaves room for hope--particularly since he did approve my progress on to the orals, without any re-writing of inadequate essays.

Susan is flying to Prague tomorrow to visit a friend of ours. I am working at the Georgetown History Bowl all day Saturday and--provided all goes according to current plan--leaving for Virginia Beach right after first service Sunday morning. A friend has invited me to share her brother's condo at a resort there, so I plan to vegetate in the lap of luxury for a few days. Though, of course, I'll be dragging my computer and comps notes along with me so's to prepare for the grilling March 31. I still haven't heard a final word on my Atlantic World Migration reading list (that professor is on leave in Florida, and probably did not take *her* computer to the beach!), but nonetheless I'm going to go ahead and distribute it, along with my other lists and my responses for the written comps, to all four professors on my committee. Thus, any of them will be able to ask questions on any of the three hundred or so books I'm supposed to have memorized. I hope I don't get too flustered or burst into tears from the stress. After all, the last time I was questioned by a committee I got into an argument with one of the questioners. (What an old biddy she was! Grr--the memory still rankles.)

Just a smidgen over two weeks until the orals are upon me. And then, provided I pass, I've got to work my buns off researching my dissertation. And beautifully articulating the proposal which will show that I know what I'm about. And taking another 19 credits' worth of classes for my Biohazardous Threat Agents & Emerging Infectious Diseases Masters degree. Yup, I'm a-gonna be busy.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

International Women’s Day, March 8

I am glad that I am a woman in this day and age, in this country. As an historian—if I can call myself one having not yet heard the results of my second written exam (!), nor stood for my oral—I am regularly reminded of the ugly lives of plain (and even sometimes of pretty) women through the ages: Forced marriage or forced singleness, forced childbearing and/or forced abortion, forced adultery or forced chastity, forced labor or forced idleness, lives beaten down by circumstances, men and fatigue, voiceless, illiterate, voteless, impoverished mentally, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, unable to choose faith or destiny, limited physically by the unavailability of products to assuage pain, staunch menstrual blood, allow free movement. And cooking, sewing, cleaning all were chores that--until just decades ago--took a lot of time and not a little skill.

God, dear God, how grateful I am to be in a place and time where I can go where I want, when I want (in general—not that I would stroll around the darker alleyways of DC in the dark, but most men won’t do that either). I am healthy, I needn’t wear a veil, a corset, nor have a chaperone or scribe to travel or to communicate. Firing up the stove takes the turn of a knob, not carefully tending kindling; the only sewing required of me is the occasional stitching of a button or a hem; and vacuum cleaners and spray solvents are a gift from heaven.

I can study at university, I can worship as I please, vote as I think, speak as and to whom I wish. God will judge me on Christ’s merits, so I have a hope and a future. Now and hereafter. I only wish all my sisters worldwide had the same happy prospects.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

John Adams Premier

Last night, Paul Giamatti was dressed as one would expect of the “thoughtful” subset of Hollywood actors, in a reserved sweater and slacks and a pair of modernist ebony-framed glasses. He rose briefly from the left end of our row to acknowledge the applause from the audience of about 200, who were gathered in the formal Caucus Room in the Cannon Office Building for the premier of the new HBO miniseries John Adams, in which he takes the title role.

We were all seated on wee little bamboo-patterned dining chairs in front of a giant movie screen—Susan and I and three of our friends had prime seats, exactly in the middle of the room, two rows from the front. Before us, the enormous screen was bordered by a matte gold customized replica of the frame of John Trumbull’s famous painting “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” that hangs in the Capitol rotunda. A picture of that painting was projected on the screen until Tom Hanks and David McCullough had finished their remarks.

Before the speakers approached the podium, and while we were still adjusting our shoulders to avoid pressing those of our cramped neighbors (to my immediate left was a St. Patrick/St. Nick of a man, round and red-bearded, who I discovered to be a National Geographic photographer, a fellow who has known Mr. McCullough for almost 25 years, who had the distinction of snapping him in the company of a camel for the cover of Smithsonian magazine back in February 1984), I muttered to Susan (on my other side) that we were surrounded by people “who either were something or thought they were.” To the right of our position were two delegations of congressional staffers, clustered around their respective Members, loudly discussed legislation while the men who were to vote on it said little. Behind me, the CSCM sat quietly while his boss, Laura Major, having already approached McCullough himself about coming to Georgetown, aggressively networked CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, who claimed that at least one author had used him as inspiration for a character in a book. And, as aforementioned, Giamatti, Hanks, McCullough and their entourages were to our left. Indeed, we were in privileged company.

About ten days ago, I was contacted at Georgetown by a publicist at HBO, a woman who wanted to attract professors and undergrads to this exclusive event. She sent ten beautifully embossed invitations—marked “nontransferable” and “RSPV required”—to me by overnight courier, and I set about trying to distribute them. But I ran into an unexpected hurdle: this week is Georgetown’s Spring Break, and all the undergrads, and most of the professors, are gone. One in-town professor and her husband decided to attend, and the CSCM took two invitations for himself and Laura, but I was left with six unclaimed.

So Susan and I decided to go, and take up to four of our friends with us. Seeing Tom Hanks and Paul Giamatti is all very well and good, but the prospect of hearing David McCullough in person was too delightful to be ignored.

Our little crew walked up to the Capitol several times before we were allowed in—the Mossberg-slung security guys kept shooing us and our fellow attendees away from the building as Someone Important (we never figured out exactly who) was entering/leaving. Thus, we missed half of the pre-showing reception in Statuary Hall—I had only time enough to eat a single shrimp, one steak-on-a-stick and a miniature chocolate cupcake—before being hustled along with the rest of the crowd down to the basement and through a disorienting series of pipe-ceilinged tunnels to the Cannon Building and up three flights of marble stairs to the Caucus Room.

Once things had settled down a bit, a long-winded Member of Congress from Massachusetts established himself behind the translucent plastic “HBO” lectern and waxed eloquent in welcome and introduction of his fellow members and of Tom Hanks (gushing, “I loved Charlie Wilson’s War…”), who was welcomed to the podium with a star-struck explosion of flashbulbs, which continued throughout his ten or so minutes of comments. I was pretty favorably impressed. I realize he’s a good actor—one of the best—but he spoke without notes and seemingly from the heart, with humor, common sense, and natural enthusiasm for the subject (he produced the HBO miniseries, just as he did the great From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers) and with fulsome praise for Mr. McCullough, who then spoke for 15-20 minutes.

McCullough also did not resort to notes, but talked on what has no doubt been a favorite theme of his—the lamentable historically-illiterate condition of Americans educated over the last 30 years. He expounded at length on the care for accuracy and attention to detail expended by the folks who brought his Adams biography to the small screen, the principles of whom he recognized en masse.

After all this affirmation of quality, anticipation was bound to run high, and could have been disappointed. But I am pleased to report that the part of the series we saw (the second episode of the seven) more than measured up to all the “puffery.” It was excellently done, and Giamatti, who is no reed-thin Adonis, was well-suited to the titular part. One problem: Susan and I do not have cable. So we’ll have to wait until it comes out on DVD to see the rest. But it was so superb (and about some of my favorite historical heroes) that I may pre-order it on Amazon before it has even aired. My readers who do have HBO should absolutely set aside time to see it when it is broadcast. It will not be time wasted. And after watching Episode II, you’ll definitely want to get a smallpox vaccine if they are ever offered.

Oh, and we did get to meet Mr. McCullough after the showing. He was quite gracious, even to us peons who were squeezing ourselves between Congressmen to reach him. We got a group picture with him. A nice souvenir of a pleasant evening.