Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sticks in the Mud!

Or is it Stuck in the Muds? I'll be forced to eat my apple cobbler myself, since no one's even taken a stab at the ideas I posted recently for blog-reader-generated short fiction (true, maybe the ideas weren't so good, but...).

I arrived at work this morning feeling like a damp sponge--today is truly one of those "it's not the heat, it's the humidity" days in the DC area. Temperature-wise it isn't that bad (being gray and overcast), but the air is, to put it gracefully, "moisture-rich." Of course the fact that I charged the two miles to campus at a brisk walking pace of 16-minutes-a-mile may have had something to do with my sensitivity to the murky atmosphere.

Yesterday, after 16.5 straight hours of sleep (went to bed at 4 Sunday for an afternoon nap, and woke up at 8:30 Monday morning) I threw myself into jewelry-making, as I plan to do the Broad Street Market in Augusta this coming Saturday, so as to pay for the $160 worth of gas it'll take me to get down to GA and back. Plus, the June "Looking Your Best" issue of Washington Woman is coming out at the end of the week, with the address of our business website emblazoned on the color print ad and carefully linked from the online version of the magazine, and it would be nice to have some items actually up on the site and for sale! I put together 25 pairs of earrings, and roughed out a bracelet and a necklace, in some ten hours of concentrated work. More time was spent simply straightening my workspace--there were beads and bits of wire everywhere, projects in various stages of completion, and just plain clutter interfering with life and creativity. Things are much neater now.

Went to see Iron Man Saturday night. I liked it--good techno-hero flick. I was probably in small company among the crowd in the theater who appreciated that for all the modulated talk of destroying masses of weapons and saving the innocent, what ultimately accomplished this was higher-tech weaponry used for a good purpose. It was the intentions of the deployer which made the difference.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Congratulations to S Dawg!

Congratulations to my sister, who yesterday was awarded her doctorate in American Civilization from Brown University.

My mother observed that with Brad strapped to S Dawg’s chest under her academic gown she looked like Mrs. Grales (a character in A Canticle for Liebowitz that had an undeveloped conjoined twin attached). Apparently total strangers were stopping her to take her picture.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

KYP’s Weird World Fiction Challenge

Sometimes some really half-baked ideas for stories, or scenes in possible stories, come into my mind while I’m just going about the ordinary business of life. A few translate well into blog-posts—enliven a couple of metaphors here and there, give a theme to otherwise disjointed observations—and others never appear in print, deservedly forgotten. Occasionally, though, a few of such a bizarre nature will spring to mind that I wonder if someone else can’t make creative use of them.

Hence my challenge to my readers. What follow are two ideas that you have to work with (you can change details as you see fit, but the kernel of the original idea has to be there). Build a story around one or both of them no more than 500 words long. The prize: a homemade apple cobbler (for local folks—you know who you are) or a nice handmade piece of jewelry (earrings, a simple necklace or bracelet) for you (or the girl you designate) who are afar off.

1) I was walking to school wearing an open-necked blouse, the morning sun shining on my bare skin. I suddenly imagined that my chest started to smoke, like an off-gassing chunk of dry ice, sublimating from solid to spirit-like mist in an instant.

2) Coming home that same day, I boarded a bus and sat down next on the driver’s side. Two rows behind me was a man wearing a hood, an anonymous dark figure who smelled bad, slumped against the window. I glanced over my left shoulder, and imagined the face turned the unnatural discoloration of death, a fly crawling out from a breathless nostril.

You can post responses in the comments section or email them directly to me. I’ll announce (and reward) the winner next Thursday, May 29, before I head home to GA. I know some of you are far better fiction writers than I am, and I want to read your work!

Gopher Guts

I like most food. For instance, in contrast to some friends of mine, I relish many green vegetables, broccoli being the obvious exception (and to be avoided at all costs). But texture is important. I do not like slime. This goes for fruits as well—the notion of eating cooked bananas is nauseating. But at least they aren't green.

My long-held suspicions of guacamole have taken a new form.

Susan’s fond of occasionally getting the Trader Joe’s guacamole kit—a neat pre-selection of ingredients including an avocado, a couple of tomatoes, garlic, a lime, etc. It’s actually quite good prepared, eaten fresh with blue corn tortilla chips, of one ignores its sick color.

At any rate, a couple of days ago the two of us were returning home after one of our jog/walks and talking about the options for dinner (dinner being otherwise known as erasing all the calorie-burning benefits we’ve just accumulated, or “eating the brownie points”) and Susan mentioned the guacamole. Which I deliberately mispronounced as “gwah-ka-mole,” and immediately free-associated with the amusement park standard, “Whack-a-mole.”

Whereupon Susan, with impeccable comic timing, launched into musical verse: “…Great grey-green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts, greasy grimy gopher guts, greasy grimy gopher guts…” (sung to the tune of “I’m in the Lord’s Army”).

So, there we have it, folks: Guacamole is what happens after you’ve whacked the mole. The song proves it.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Headaches, Various

Good things have happened this week. For instance, I have been able to keep my head when all about me were losing theirs at the office, and at the end-of-year party the department gave me a $50 gift certificate to a local bookstore. You know I can always use more books...

But there has been significant stress along with these small victories. For one, though the weather yesterday at the market was splendid--clear, 75, sunny and breezy, sales were absolutely horrible. I had only one. At 3 PM. As I had arrived at the market at 7:20 AM, this means I'd sat there for more than 7 hours without a single transaction. Ghastly. And draining--nothing saps my spirits and energy like inactivity. Wednesday night I had gotten only 4 hours of sleep, and had a full day at work Thursday, so I had to cancel my Russian conversation lesson Thursday evening, since I didn't trust myself to drive, I was so wiped. I did penance by typing my regrets email in Russian, but this was small recompense for missing the chat-practice. Friday was another full day, and I was exhausted afterwards, but still stayed up to midnight making bracelets--I felt like I ought to have some fresh things on the table. And then no one looked twice at them. Huge bummer.

By last night, given all the accumulated fatigue and the disappointment from the market, I developed a headache and put myself to bed about 7pm. At 7 this morning, I woke to the happy scent of fresh pancakes (Susan had bought buttermilk and made them from scratch), but after consuming just a couple with dark amber maple syrup (the real stuff, of course!) I could feel the aura of the old headache dancing around behind my eyes and decided to take a brace of tylenol and return to bed. I woke up at 1:15 PM. I guess I'd been a little tired. The headache was gone.

Happily, this week promises to be much more relaxed than the last! For one thing, we've cut down to summer hours at work: 10-4 instead of 9-5. I will have time to make jewelry, work on my preliminary dissertation-research (I've cut 500 pages from the 1400 pages of bibliographical information I downloaded from the Library of Congress website, but I've got a long way to go), and tackle more of the "Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands" translation (I'm smoothing out the roughness of Chapter 8), which I really didn't last week, although I made some progress in all the areas nonetheless. And it'll be nice to try to get some more sleep.

I can hardly wait to go home the Thursday after Memorial Day. I wish I could persuade Susan to go with me, but she's got a few more weeks of work before school lets out for the summer. It looks like books on tape will be my sole traveling companions again--I hope the Arlington library has a good choice of things I haven't heard before. Ten hours is too long to flip radio stations, particularly as so many play the same songs in a seamless loop they're fed from some central mixing office. Sometimes the homogeneity of American culture is really annoying!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

An EPB and Other Notices

Blogging has been sporadic of late because as usual I am trying to accomplish far more than I have time to do.

Friday night was a birthday party (small) at Susan's and my apartment. We four girls ate an entire chicken and watched the Will Smith vehicle Hitch. Given that everybody lives happily ever after, it was depressing. Well, not really. But I have been pessimistic of late.

Saturday it rained until noon. Sales at the market were correspondingly wet. It was Arlington Day, so the county shoved us over onto a side street, between the road race on one thoroughfare and the parade on the other. Needless to say, there was low traffic, as neither runners nor marching dancers tend to stop to browse. To put the activity level into perspective, my energetic friend Anita, with whom I sell jewelry, fell asleep in the back of my car while I read a biography of Sir Francis Wallsingham (the Secretary of Queen Elizabeth I's Privy Council and considered by many to be the founder of modern espionage) under the tent beside it.

It turned clear and sunny later Saturday--after I got home from the market--and after an hour or so's chatting with Susan's parents, who were visiting overnight, I went to a dinner party at a professor's house in Georgetown. I am older than the professor in question. Argh. She'd invited two graduate students and six undergraduates to share homemade vegetarian Indian food, and the conversation before, during and after dinner tended to revolve around the memorable characters in various academic departments. Apparently one Chemistry prof smokes pot in his office all day, and another (who is so severely sartorily challenged that he wears his watch over his shirtsleeve and never combs his disheveled hair) throws chalk at his students. The undergraduate biochem students were welcomed into the program with the announcement that they were all now part of the "chemical family" (the professors going on and on about their academic lineages, which apparently date back to Creation), and so when two graduate students were discovered later to be dating, this relationship was dubbed "chemcest."

Sunday, it rained. Then it poured. After church (on the happy topics of the Book of Job and "false faith"), I had to go to campus. By 3 PM I was stir crazy--no exercise for a week was driving me insane. Notwithstanding I had only just told a friend on Saturday afternoon that I was not the sort who went out to walk or run in the rain, that was exactly what I persuaded Susan to do with me when I got home. We must have seemed quite hard core, running and walking to and from the Memorial Bridge--and we were soaked to the skin in the cold downpour, but just getting outside and stretching our muscles gave us a much-needed psychological boost. Then I quickly showered, jumped into the car, and went over to Leah and Aaron's to babysit for Jonah while his parents went out to celebrate their sixth anniversary (Sunday was also my grandparents' 61st wedding anniversary, so I called to congratulate them as I was navigating over to Alexandria). By 9:30, I was home and in bed, dog tired.

Monday I had to work, and was soon talking on the phone to the advertising agent from the local 50,000+ subscriber magazine for whom I had done a jewelry repair and who was anxious to get Anita's and my account. After some negotiations, I settled for an 1/8-page ad in the print version of the mag and a web link from their online version. Split two ways, the rate isn't bankrupting, and it's time for a formal marketing effort for the two of us. Time will show if the gamble pays off.

Last night, I continued polishing the first half of the "Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands" manuscript and this morning I got the final Russian version of the last half of the book to cross-check with the versions I've been translating between earlier chapter revision-cycles.

Also today, while at work (besides sifting through Library of Congress catalog information for my dissertation research, handling the office business, and drafting Anita's and my color print ad for the magazine), I decided that I want to take a formal leave of absence in the fall and spring of this coming academic year from the History program. Taking the TAship they want to award me would be a double-edged sword. Although the money would most definitely be welcome, there are several unwelcome ramifications: First, it would mean I'd have to attend at least one undergraduate class in addition to the full load of graduate courses that I'm to be taking in the BTAEID program, and grade papers for that class, and possibly prepare a lecture or two for it. Second, it would mean that I would be "on the clock" as a history student, whittling away the time that I'm allowed for finishing the program, at the same time that it prevents me from devoting the time I have left over from the BTAEID courses to dissertation research and grants writing. I'd much rather disappear from the history program radar for a while and be actually working toward finishing the Ph.D. than physically being there but finding myself too busy with minutia to be mentally active. But here's the rub: my advisor has to approve this course of action, and when I spoke to him today (he was wearing a T-shirt that said, "9 out of 10 men who try Camels [with the Camels cigarettes logo] prefer women") he said he wanted to "talk" about this plan. Dang it, what's to talk about?! For crying out loud, I've got enough things on my plate right now. Hence, the EPB--the "Everybody Pray Bulletin." I could really use grace in the eyes of the powers that be. I swear, I hate jumping through artificial hoops.

And yes, I have to work full days Thursday and Friday. My dear boss, who just had cancer surgery two weeks ago, has been hit by another tragedy--her father-in-law died of a massive heart attack yesterday. He was 63. Totally unexpected. She was convalescing well, but this has devastated their family.

I need to make more jewelry, but when? It would be nice to have several days to do nothing but create, but the last week it's been all that I can do to get enough sleep after I'm worn down by all the demanding tiny tasks that clamor for my attention. I've wanted to write, too--what I've considered good descriptions of various sights, sounds and conversations (from the American diplomats from Nigeria whose children are really into Society for Creative Anachronism who Anita and I met two Saturdays back to the guests at the birthday party Susan and I attended over on Capitol Hill this evening) have flitted through my head, but there's been no more than a moment here and there in which to construct them, and no time at all to type them up. Maybe this weekend will be better! At least we can hope it will be drier!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bunny Baby

Part of the fun of having babies these days is dressing them in adorable little outfits that they will be embarrassed about throughout their teen years. My nephew:

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Small Fry in Yankeeland

I had gotten halfway through a painfully-composed post when my little niece came up, hit a few keys on the keyboard, and obliterated everything. Argh. But what can you do?

I've been up in Rhode Island since early Sunday morning, doing the semi-mommy thing (among my amazing qualities is not the ability for spontaneous lactation, so I had to leave the breastfeeding to my sister)--changing diapers; doing loads of laundry of dozens and dozens of hilariously tiny onesies, pants, footed bunny-suits (one with ears), socks, and so forth; and fixing breakfast and lunch for my niece before and after her daily therapy sessions.

For those who don't know, Rita was diagnosed with autism a while back, and for weeks now she has been getting intensive in-home therapy from a series of relentlessly energetic and unfailingly patient specialists. These lessons are designed to ingrain as habits those actions and reactions that come naturally to most children, from the use of the first-person pronoun (Rita usually states, matter-of-factly, "You want ...", when she wants something, or "Mommy hold you!" when she wants to be held) to ease of conversation (she had gone almost completely silent after building vocabulary early, preferring to point and gesture to indicate desires, rather than speak). Rita is a very bright little individual, so has no difficulty grasping, on an intellectual level at least, the patterns they are outlining for her. But she still doesn't automatically incorporate them into her everyday interactions, preferring to grin impishly and giggle rather than talk to me.

She loves to climb (to insane heights--on the playground Sunday afternoon, she climbed a 15-foot rope spiderweb, designed for children 5-12 years old, to the very top with the fearless assurance of a monkey), to get dirty (when the two of us went into the back yard this afternoon, she dug her hands in the mud, carried around wads of decomposing leaves, and then rolled in the grass, giggling as it tickled her) and to run, all of which I loved to do when I was her age (and love to have the excuse to do now (after all, she had to be kept safe on the spiderweb, so I was forced to climb it, too).

Brad is a pretty sanguine little chap compared to his live-at-full-throttle big sister. He sleeps more than she ever did as a baby, and although he has the same big long-lashed eyes, they seem to regard the world with a more benign expression than his sister's--she who was preternaturally observant from the moment she was born. He slept with his head on my outstretched arm and one tiny hand grasping a strand of my hair this morning while his parents were out with Rita. A precious little fellow, with soft, dark hair, a butterball with baby-jowls.

I'm supposed to train back to DC tomorrow. I've asked my friend Paul to pick me up, so's Susan and I can get in a pre-dark walk (my train is scheduled to get in at 7:30, and if I took the Metro there would be no exercise for me manana), but we'll see whether he's available. Susan took me to the station Saturday night, and I don't want to harass the NPV, especially considering he loathes DC traffic and I stole fully half of the chocolate-chip cookies his cookie-maestra sister made for him Saturday night! They were truly delicious--I ate the last of them on the train here.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The East, the Countries (not!), the Romance, and the Spices

The end of the semester has arrived, and Georgetown students are in the midst of taking exams and submitting final papers, all evidence of what they learned, or didn’t learn, during the spring. One of our professors has offered a course on the Pacific World for years, and about an hour ago she called me to ask a favor—to photocopy one of the end-of-term papers that she’d put out for return to her students. “Given your heritage,” she told me, “You’ll appreciate what she wrote.”

I’ll let the student speak for herself. What follow are the introductory sentences from her paper:

In 1945, the United States' government turned its focus to containing the spread of Communism, using the Pacific as an extension of American defense in preventing the Soviet Union's communist expansion. American strategic interests had a profound impact on the political and economical development of nearly every country in the Pacific region, especially Greece…

Naturally, the professor stopped grading at that point, and gave the girl an “F.” The real kicker is, the reason that she wanted a photocopy of the paper is that the student is protesting the grade to an academic council, and the professor wanted to have a copy for her own amusement and protection.

My little Greek granddaddy is probably spinning in his grave.

Little undergraduate hearts are very tender around this time of year. Two afternoons ago, as I was presiding at the front desk, a limpid-eyed youth with the sort of thick dark curly hair through which girls long to run their fingers approached me with adorable uncertainty. “This is the History Department?” he breathed in heavily accented English which smelled lightly of cigarette smoke. “Shockingly, it is,” I responded. He smiled with sheepish incomprehension. It turned out he didn’t speak English very well, but eventually I pieced together his story. His was a romantic quest—he’d met a girl, a Spanish girl who wore glasses, in one of the classroom buildings across campus. She’d offered him a lighter, and in that moment he had been smitten. He didn’t know how to find her again, but remembered something she’d said about being in a history class, and he’d come to the department in the hope that she would be there. Sadly, she was not. But I thought the notion of his search very sweet. What girl doesn’t want to be so irresistible that a single casual contact is enough to send a nice guy on an odyssey to woo her?

Speaking of odysseys, my sister sent me on an interesting one this week when she emailed me a list of exotic spices she wants me to bring when I overnight train up to Rhode Island Saturday/Sunday. I found the nigella and fenugreek seeds, the fenugreek leaves and one kind of za’atar at a little hole-in-the-wall halal grocery in Ballston. But (despite walking from the Library of Congress in a cold drizzle down to Eastern Market, where you’d think such things would be plentiful) I couldn’t find mastic, mehlab, besar, baharat or ras el hanout. The internet is a wonderful thing. I found all of the remainder stocked online, particularly by a store in Washington state. Did you know you can buy raw frankincense and myrrh, “sustainably harvested” from the Middle East and Africa? I also found that the ras el hanout is a mixture that varies, like the za’atar, from culture to culture in North Africa/the Middle East, so I ended up getting two kinds of both spices. Without the beetles. Apparently the US Congress frowns on including crushed insects as a standard part of spice mixtures—but as one site cheerfully said, they are lobbying for an overturn of this prohibition. I’m really looking forward to eating the (beetle-free) food my sister makes with this wild collection!