Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New Academic Year

The first day of the semester. The faculty Xerox machine is gummed up, but thank goodness we have a backup in the rear of the department. I am single-handedly managing the front desk and thus far today have trained in all three of the new Student Assistants (yes, it was an Oskar Schindler moment: "but they're all so qualified!"--I hired all three of the undergraduates who applied, and I think they'll all be good fits). I'm a wee bit hoarse--being relentlessly vivacious and charming is exhausting.

My mentor had initially agreed to read the Two Motherlands manuscript, but he just about keeled over (definitely not the reaction I'd wanted--he needs to survive at least until I've defended my dissertation) when he saw the print-out of the first nine chapters. In double-spaced Times New Roman with 1 1/2" margins (for notes), the English translation alone is 600 pages (including endnotes for foreign readers) and the Russian original (which I'd figured he'd want to glance at) is another 500 pages. Really, enough to quell the faint-hearted.

So he said he couldn't do it. He was sorry, but he didn't have time. Perhaps he felt guilty because I'd agreed to be his grant assistant, though... So when I asked for $20 an hour for that effort, he emailed to say that he was upping it to $25. And he said he'd read one chapter of my choosing from the manuscript. The grant work's only about four hours a week, but $100 over and above my front desk work salary is nice.

I bought some more metal-working tools. I'd borrowed a disc-cutting set from Anita (while she has been in Armenia; incidentally, my friend Ira got back safely from Georgia, and thanked me for putting them in touch--she said a lot of foreigners ended up getting out through Armenia and Azerbaijan, but she was eventually able to leave via a Georgian airport), and figured out to use it on the sheet copper and brass I'd bought, and decided to buy my own cutting set. It's actually a lot like one of those FisherPrice "tool bench" toys, where you hammer pegs through one side of a footed "board" and then turn it over and hammer them back the other way, only here you end up with neat little metal discs in the process, which you can use as necklace, bracelet or earring components. It's a great stress-reliever, too--taking a heavy hammer to a steel peg and beating the heck out of it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Post-Olympics Reflection on Athletic Humiliation Past

I attended ninth grade at a northeast Georgia parochial school that at the time was short on money for nonessential items, including physical education equipment. The coach for our class of thirty boys and girls was still determined, however, to teach us the basic rules of all major American sports. We had balls and orange traffic cones, so we played soccer, baseball and football outdoors, and then moved indoors for volleyball. Then it was time for gymnastics, a sport that proved disastrous for me.

Coach had managed to acquire a springboard—it was ancient, but still serviceable. All we needed, then, was something to vault. Coach found a piano case, as a wooden crate about three and a half feet high and some four feet wide. Its flat top was about a foot deep, and its sides sloped to form a base about two feet deep. I’m still not quite sure what part of a piano fit into it. Coach draped it with a vinyl tumbling mat, and spread two similar mats, one on top of the other, on one side. He put the springboard on the other.

We were each to run, jump on the springboard—which was about four feet from the piano case—and sail gracefully over the case to the other side, landing on the mats. We could touch the piano case with our hands, or simply leap over it in a single bound.

We lined up. The first few folks (mostly boys) made the vault easily. The only problem was that the stacked mats kept sliding away from the case when people landed on them. A boy named Roger, who already had his turn, sat down to hold the mats in place. Then, it was my turn. I took off my glasses and squinted at the springboard. “OK, KYP,” I told myself, “You can do this.” I sprinted up to the board, and leaped.


One hundred twelve pounds of airborne adolescent hit the front of the piano case. Actually, I was high enough that my legs alone took the initial impact. The rest of my body, unobstructed, continued over. My torso did a one hundred eighty degree turn and my pelvis and stomach hit the backside of the case, while my chest and face smashed into the landing mats. My sweatpants-clad legs flipped up and stuck straight up in the air. I made a perfect letter “J.”

For a second, there was dead silence. Roger sat in shock, staring at me.
“Are you OK?” he blurted. The expression on his face said, “That has got to hurt!”
I rolled out of my alphabetically inverted position and curled on the mat. I ached all over. Tearful myopia meant I could see my other classmates only indistinctly, but I could tell that some were literally doubled over, and I could hear unchecked laughter rebounding off the gym rafters.

My pride—and my back—were badly bruised. Both recovered, eventually. Roger remembers this event to this day. Whether it played a role in his ultimate decision to become a chiropractor is a matter for others to determine.

Monday, August 18, 2008

At Sea

The train trip to Rhode Island I read Marguerite of Navarre’s sixteenth-century Heptameron, which has an illicit sexual liaison as the subject of almost every story. The author was inspired by Boccaccio, whose Decameron I have long enjoyed, but to me she did a much better job of developing the characters of those people who are purported to have been telling the tales than in writing the tales themselves. In the tales, almost every woman is extraordinarily beautiful, and all the men are dashingly handsome, and either one or both are thoroughly unfaithful to the other. It’s really incredibly obnoxious.

Today, on the trip back from Providence, I worked on the transcription of my Granddaddy’s taped World War II memoirs. A couple of years ago, my dear South Carolina friend Susanna had typed up the first three of the seven tapes (purely out of the goodness of her heart! It’s a huge job.). I had hoped to have the whole project done by his 90th birthday, but maybe it’ll be completed in time for his 92nd.

Again, the train was packed, and given that we weren’t getting on at the origin as we had been coming up, Bob, my mother and I were forced to sit separately until we got down to New York. Which was good for my concentration on the transcription, but bad for my equilibrium, as the seat to which I was relegated was not properly affixed to the floor, and rocked dramatically with every movement of the train. And on Tape #5, which is the present focus of my labors, Granddaddy repeatedly stresses the fact that the sea was rough. I felt queasy for that half of the trip.

Once paused in New York, we were able to switch up seats to the same row, and I got through the first half of the tape without any further vertigo issues.

My mother is now abed (this was hers and my father's 60th birthday, and I totally forgot about it until Susan mentioned it in the car when she picked us up at Union Station), and my brother is at his hotel. Susan and I are finishing up watching Mostly Martha. German-Italian romance over food. Yum!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

County Fair

My brother is in the shower upstairs, my sister and her husband are settling little Brad down for the night (Rita is already asleep in her room) and my mother is zonked on the couch, 9 PM as usual being way past her regular bedtime. And I am sitting on a partially-deflated exercise ball in front of the computer in the half-basement, the regular chair having been carried upstairs to the kitchen table to support the unaccustomed number of adult diners.

My Navy brother, my mom and I rode the train up here to Rhode Island yesterday and are returning to DC tomorrow. We thought it was going to be Brad's christening weekend (that, however, got bumped to Sept. 21, when none of us can come), and as Bob is to be his godfather, it was decided that it would be a good thing if he actually laid eyes on the child before the ceremony.

My sister and her family usually go to the Saturday evening service at their African synod Anglican church, to allow for the fact that Brad's naptime is in the middle of Sunday morning. We kind of loused up their evening due to Amtrak delays (some bridge issue left us sitting at a station in Connecticut for twenty minutes after we were already 40 minutes behind schedule). My sister picked us up at the station and we got home to find both children in the backyard with their daddy and the family rabbit, which has a semi-unpronounceable Austrian name which my sister bestowed on it as a joke and Rita took for gospel.

So, around noon today, after feeding the children and Fahrenheit, the seven of us packed into two cars and drove down to Richmond, RI, to the final day of the four-day fair. The last half-hour of the trip was frustrated by miles of similarly-destined drivers on two-lane country roads and my poor 6-month-old nephew bawling disconsolately in the back seat for milk which my sister couldn't give him until we finally parked in a grassy field in a spot vacated by an earlier fairgoer. After Brad nursed and was wound into a carry-sling, he brightened up and smiled benignly.

The fair was a classic conglomeration of frightening portable carnival rides and overweight tattooed kitsch vendors and then really interesting sheds full of well-groomed farm animals, slowly-wilting prize produce and bygone-era tools. And, of course, there were contests of load-pulling, lawnmower-racing and pie-eating. And of course, little spots of unintentional humor: a couple of ambulance service-sponsored booths selling high-fat snacks; the handlettered sign on the pig shed, where some twenty pretty porkers were lying in blissful repose: "These pigs will be auctioned at the end of the fair. To fill your freezer, call..."; and the recruitment poster: "Have you considered becoming a BEEKEEPER? Ask for details!"

My little niece loved it. Ignoring the "Do not pet the animals" signs, she charged in to pet first the bunnies (caged just outside the pig shed), then the goats (again, in contravention of the signs, a girl was holding her show goat so children could pat it), to bury her small hands in the fleece of a patient sheep, and finally to rub the head and neck of a calf. She was also rather taken with the sight of the Ferris wheel, but we decided to forgo riding that rather rickety-looking contraption.

Then we came home and collapsed. I retired to the futon downstairs, and Bob flaked out on the floor. I know the baby napped, because his little head drooped as we were finishing up at the fair and he slept most of the way home. But I don't think either his big sister or his parents got a wink of rest. How they keep going, I don't know. I plan to sleep at least part of the way home on the train tomorrow, and I expect my companions will do the same.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sophia and the Good Shepherd

Frequently—I might even say invariably—when I’ve come to a point where fervent emotion combines with intellectual stress, and have given vent to these pent-up frustrations, either in person or on this blog, or both, I will shortly thereafter be presented with with a serious, directly-applicable spiritual concept imparted in a passage, in a sermon, or in a curious juxtaposition of re-emergent Scripture memory with a secular image. I have seen that God uses these moments to teach me, but I wish I didn’t have to get so worked up and in a pickle prior to being in a teachable frame of mind and condition of heart.

That said (and with the side note that I detect and predict that my male Christian friends are/will be avoiding speaking to me—probably for weeks—because of my fairly moderate outburst in the penultimate post), I’ll summarize what I hope will not be merely transitory lesson.

In Chapter 13 of Two Motherlands, the main male character mentions that September 30 is approaching, that date being the Orthodox name day for “Vera [Faith], Nadezhda [Hope], and Lyubov [Love] and their mother Sophia [Wisdom].” The Orthodox notion of Sophia as a “feminine” characteristic of the Eternal God is preserved most dramatically in the name of the now-mosque in Istanbul, the former cathedral Hagia Sophia of the Byzantine Orthodox state.

This last Sunday morning, the sermon at McLean Pres. was on John 10, commonly referred to in New Testament shorthand as the “Good Shepherd” passage, and not infrequently the source of slightly saccharine stories about Jesus’ care for us good, fluffy, impossibly clean-smelling and obedient little human-sheep. Thankfully, the pastor did not succumb to these maudlin sentimentalities, but contrasted the bad shepherd (also mentioned in the chapter) with Jesus’ example, citing the multiple Old-Testament prophetic criticisms of such useless flock-tenders, and emphasizing (at least to my bell-deafened ears…more on that later*) the fact that the misleading shepherd “calls out,” and that believers hear both his dangerous voice, promising them good things but unable to provide them, and that of the Good, Provident Shepherd, and they must ignore the one and run to the other.

It was a familiar theme…where had I heard it before? Ah! Proverbs 9. The Woman Wisdom and the Woman Folly—both call out to those who lack judgment (sheep!), promising good things, but in one’s house is the lovely door to heaven and at the other is the ugly hatch to death. Sophia calls out, and those who love wisdom, and long to leave their simple ways, heed her voice, while Folly promises all play and no work to those heedless of eternity.

It made me think: sometimes thwarted long-time expectations are harder to release in submission to God’s Sophia than sharp temptations are to resist. But just because expectations are heavily ingrained doesn't mean I have to be in thrall to them.

By God’s grace, I’ll (eventually) learn to turn a deaf ear to the seductive words of Folly (or the habits which can be used foolishly) and realize that Wisdom is better, her food more robust, and hard though her lessons may be, the result is a Companionship far better than those which may not be in His will for my life (though I do hope they eventually will be!). Of course, I’m hard-headed, so it may take a long while, and a lot of repetition, before this actually sinks in much.

*Susan and I went walking Saturday afternoon, after my misery-filled post (yes, folks, I was crying in my room!), and discovered that the Netherlands carillon near the Iwo Jima Memorial was hosting a concert, and open for (free!) tours. So we climbed up into the tower and watched the master ringer as he thumped away with his hands and feet at the levers that jerked the bell-clapper-cables, and we were chimed into semi-deafness by the proximity of the 100 bells throbbing through the metal of the platform beneath us and immediately over our heads. It was great!

Georgia On My Mind

Just when I start feeling really sorry for myself, something happens to remind me that others have it far worse than I!

I just got an email from my Georgetown graduate student colleague and friend, Ira, who is from Kazakhstan but who is visiting friends/family in Georgia. The former Soviet Georgia. The one the Russians invaded last Friday while the international community's attention was distracted by the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies.

So she's stuck in a war zone until further notice. Please pray for her safety.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Mixed Emotions

The weather is superb--so nice we have the apartment windows open. I, however, feel like I have a personal raincloud hanging over my head. I'm pretty down in the dumps. Part of it is that I finished the book translation (at least the first draft thereof) on Thursday. The other is that I just feel so darn *old* lately, and I want to be cuddling my own children and curled up against my own husband instead of sitting silently at a less-than-bustling market a-Saturdays without any company and watching hand-holding couples stroll by with their babies.

It was a sprint to finish the manuscript--I worked eight hours fairly flat-out the day before yesterday, correcting common syntaxical errors, pinpointing passages that hadn't been fine-tuned and combing through the tangles. Irina was pleased. She emailed me yesterday at 3 AM (her time) with the final version of Chapters 1-9. Judging from the hour, and the fact that she said her head felt fuzzy, I expect she's getting as excited about getting it in shape to go to the editorial board, too. But there is still no word on what the publishing grant status is of the Russian manuscript, and I admit to being bummed about this--there is such a brilliant possibility of success for the English translation but that is mainly contingent upon the Russian version's publication.

Perhaps there is something thoroughly off-putting about my character. I sat at the market today reading Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks, an historical novel which is Germanically laden with old maids of various distinguishing repulsive characteristics. This choice of literature did not contribute to my general happiness. I wish one of my Christian male friends would think I was good marriage material--for himself, not just hypothetically! Being told "KYP, you would/will make a wonderful wife" by men I admire, but who are uninterested or otherwise committed, is very little comfort. Much like the endless compliments I receive about my jewelry--it's the sales that matter, not the verbal blandishments.

Hopefully, this mood will pass. I'm am lonely, despite Susan's return. Spending 2-3 hours in the Library of Congress yesterday pouring over the card catalogue (yes, thank God, they still have the paper version, which they stopped updating in 1980--particularly for Russian sources, the hardcopy is better than the digital, since the cards have Cyrillic wording, and not the hard-to-search transliteration) and only getting through 2/3 of what is just one of several drawers on the subject of Public Health did not help much. I need a hug. It would be nice for it to be in the arms of my (non-existent) sweetie.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


I just mailed Chapter 13 off to Russia! I finished Chapter 12 of Two Motherlands two days ago and dispatched it, and this morning I signed off on alterations to Chapters 9 and 10, and this afternoon agreed to one last tweak to Chapter 8 (thereby declaring it in its final, ready-to-be-sent-to-the-editorial-board form).

Only Chapter 14 (much of it translated) and the two-page epilogue (ditto) remain.

And four professors have told me they are interested in my $25-an-hour slide-scanning service.

And my advisor has not only reiterated that he will read the whole of my Two Motherlands translation, but also has offered me a job as an independent grant-research assistant. How much this last pays, I'm not sure, but I think it'll be a help in my doing my own dissertation research--the more archives and archival sources with which I'm in contact, the more likely it is that I'll come across valuable information. And it can't hurt my resume to be the research assistant of one of the Grand Old Men of those who teach, research and write about Russian History.