Thursday, September 25, 2008

Plucky Wee Lass

Despite complications having a PICC line put in yesterday (primarily because she’s on blood thinners to help dissolve the blood clot in her central sinus vein, which drains the blood from the brain—it’s a big problem if that sucker clogs up), Rita has been maintaining her usual sweetness and perceptiveness. Yesterday morning, when her fever peaked at 105, she was sitting up in bed watching "Dora the Explorer" and singing along. When they sedated her later, telling her they were going “to take a picture” (an x-ray), the last word she managed before slipping into unconsciousness was a weak, “Cheese!” And when one of those intolerably jovial pediatric physicians left her room after talking to her worried parents, she turned to them and announced, matter-of-factly, “He wasn’t funny.” She’ll be in intensive care at least another week. She’s a very sick little individual. Please pray that the blood clot dissolves and they don’t have to remove it surgically (a very risky procedure).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


My sweet little niece is very ill. They took her to the hospital yesterday, and the doctors said then she'd have to stay for at least a week--she has a blood clot in her sinuses, an ear infection (one of her eardrums has already burst) and possibly bronchitis or pneumonia. This morning she looked worse: a high fever, and streptococcus bacteria in her blood. She is only three years old, and small for her age--a week ago, she only weighed 26 lbs. Please pray for her. My mother is flying up to Rhode Island this morning to be with my sister and her family. We are all extremely concerned.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Pho, Pho Better Thing

Susan and I have been on a major pho kick lately--twice this last week. It's a Vietnamese rice-noodle soup, served almost at boiling temperature with pieces of freshly sliced flank rapidly cooking in the broth. On the side bean sprouts, sliced green chilies, mint leaves and lime wedges are provided for seasoning, along with a bottle of viscous puce hot sauce. I generally eat my pho without any of the additives, while Susan stirs in chilies and a swirl of sauce. It's wonderfully filling without being fattening.

There are two places we like for this soup. One is a communist-style dining room where the soup is the only thing on the menu. The chopsticks and the traditional Asian spoons are plastic (no forks or any Western impliments are offered), the tables are communal, and the one waiter is a disgruntled-looking middle-aged man who pushes a metal cart around the room and sullenly sets soup in front of the patrons when he's not busing tables. But the soup is delicious, and it's cheap. Cash only, though.

The other pho place is a proper sit-down restaurant with an entire wall-full of framed 8x10 color photographs of high-ranking American military officers, each personally inscribed to the owner. There's one picture of him with John McCain. But the largest picture is of him with Bill Clinton--this one faces the front door, and is the first thing that greets the eyes when you enter, besides the obligatory large bronze Buddha. They take credit cards, and are open much later than the communist place, which closes at 8. The service is good, there are forks (although I still prefer to hazard with chopsticks) and the atmosphere is conducive to conversation. Susan and I took our friend Kate, who works for a broadcaster in Prague, there for a late supper the other evening. It was packed at almost 9 PM--on a weeknight. We had to wait for a table. With tip, the meal was only about $12 per person, which in DC is phenomenal. Pricier than the communist place, but hardly exploiting the dining-out worker.

This morning, when the Georgetown University server temporarily went down and we were forced to find some other way of filling the time, one of the professors in my department who served as the chair for a time (well before mine) came up to the front desk and shared with me one of the "dirty little secrets" of academic hiring. It seems that there is a three-tier system for history doctoral programs, and where you get your degree truly does determine--with almost iron certainty--where you have opportunity to gain employment. And it's a really incestuous system. There are eight schools in the top tier--the four "old Ivies" (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton) and four younger, well-respected schools (University of Chicago, Stanford, University of California-Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins) and about ten in the second. Georgetown is in the second tier, along with University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, three Ivies (Cornell, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania) and handful of other schools.

If you are a graduate of the top tier, the professor told me, "you are almost guaranteed to be in the top five" for any major university history department's job search. If you are in the second, "you will probably be in the top twenty." But, for instance, if you graduated from the University of Maryland [his choice for an example--this school is ranked by US News and World Report in the top 25 nationwide for history graduate programs] with a history Ph.D., you don't have the proverbial snowball's chance of teaching at the top tier. The rare exceptions are for peculiar specializations, but those are exceptional indeed. With a conventional university doctoral degree, "You will probably end up teaching at a small college in South Dakota." "Can you imagine what would happen to most history programs if this got out?" he remarked, closing the this year's edition of the AHA Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations and Historians, which he had been citing for emphasis, running his finger down the lists of faculty at the best-known schools, where each professor's name flanked by the name of his or her alma mater.

I was again reminded of the traji-comic sign held by a job-seeker at the last AHA annual convention: "Will teach American History for food." It'd better be pho.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

One of the Reasons...

...yesterday was such a blissful relief after a decidedly tough week, despite high humidity at the market and low sales, was that I didn't hear anyone--not a blessed soul--mention politics. I am so very sick of hearing people go on and on about the evils of Sarah Palin and the messianic qualities of Obama. It's like a choking miasma that permeates all of Washington these days. And (having had an unpleasant confrontation with a member of the John Birch Society some ten years ago) I have now realized that the "far right" has no monopoly on crazy conspiracy theories--the lunatic fringe on the left (which category encompasses so many of the intellectuals in this town) is equally convinced that a Republican victory in November will lead to the end of civilization as we know it, from the shuttering of the Library of Congress to the mandatory teaching of Creationism in schools.

Both as a Christian and an anti-conspiracy-theorist, I had a particularly uncomfortable week. First of all, Monday or Tuesday, Silverman went stomping around the department loudly declaiming, "I don't believe it! I just don't believe it!" Coming around behind my desk, he continued this vocal agnosticism. I deliberately ignored him. Having failed to goad indirectly me into responding to him, he addressed me personally, telling me that he didn't believe that the smallest Palin child was the Republican VP nominee's own. I said (as there was nothing else to say) that I believed he was. Then, Silverman launched into commentary on my unwillingness to investigate and know "the truth." (Oh no, I don't suppose it was because I had actual WORK to do at the front desk!) I said, shortly, "Look, Prof. Silverman, I don't feel like discussing politics with you right now." Whereupon he stomped off muttering audibly about me, my stubbornness, close-mindedness, etc. And, of course, he mentioned this exchange to me, several times, in a passive-aggressive mode, in further conversations during the week.

Good grief, what is the woman supposed to have done? Craigs-Listed a request for a disabled child? Stolen him? And at a time when she was already governor of Alaska, with no notion that she'd ever be in the running for Vice President. Good grief. And how, even if this were true, would the cause of revealing this peculiar subterfuge to the public be served by my discussing it during working hours at the department?

Then, Thursday, the department hosted our "welcome-back" party. The graduate essay competition prize-winner was announced. The winning paper was on American evangelicals' gradual turn against Naziism in the 1930s, from initially approving the "law and order" stance of Hitler to quickly associating him with the Anti-Christ and his murder of Jews, and Christian dissidents, with the terrors of the Apocalypse. The author of this paper was particularly praised for his respectful treatment of his sources in light of the fact that most scholars would consider them (Book of Revelation situations associated with Nazi atrocities) to be "bizarre." All the assembly tittered. ("Those Christian fundamentalists, how can they believe this stuff!")

Friday, I was at the Library of Congress, meeting with a couple of librarians there about my dissertation research topic and the feasibility thereof. One of the men with whom I chatted was a Russianist, the head of the newly-relocated European Reading Room (yes, they did downsize and move it after all), who invited me to tea, an end-of-week tradition for ERR denizens. A Russian sweet was being provided by a couple of other Georgetown Russianists who'd just gotten back from Moscow.

The first half-hour or so of the tea (in a conference room amidst a double-decker construction of office cubicles) was thoroughly pleasant. All but one of the scholars who'd gathered were Russian specialists, and so conversations went on half in English and half in Russian. I talked about my book-translation with an independent scholar who, it turned out, was reviewing a new British-published book that incorporated at least part of the material I'd hoped to approach for my dissertation. Unfortunate to hear that someone had at least partly "done" the subject, but useful to my investigation.

Then, somehow, the talk at the table turned to politics. One of the more outlandish pronunciations was about Palin's purported enforcement of Creationism in science classes. Instead of being silent as usual, I countered with the information that I'd looked on CNN and found this wasn't true--she only endorsed the co-teaching of alternatives to evolution. Shock across the table. "It's the same thing!" ejaculated the independent scholar, with the two other graduate students chiming in. "Well, I don't think including it is a problem; evolution has its problems, too," I responded mildly. You would have thought I'd stated that the pope was Satan's mouthpiece at a meeting of the College of Cardinals. An almost hysterical religious fervor was present in the voice and manner of the independent scholar as he dismissed my words, my person, and my intellectual capability in a sneering gesture, "Well, I can see there's no use discussing this with you!"

I changed the subject, but the damage was done--I was obviously an idiot who'd been allowed into the gathering by mistake, no further coherent conversation was possible with me.

Gosh, I was so hurt. As all people do, I hate being thought an idiot. It hurts even more when I know I was one of the few, if not the only one in the whole room, who actually has had scientific training. True, it was but a few classes, but if the Biohazards program taught me anything, it is how comparatively little science truly does know about biological processes that it CAN observe. And so to theorize about the processes that are not observed is an exercise in untestable hypothesis. What galled me even further was that I was surrounded by historians, people who themselves cannot agree on what happened at moments thirty years ago, much less "millions and billions" of years ago. Real history research is painstaking and the best of its results is entitled "A History," with the understanding that some major piece of evidence may come to light that will nuance, or even--in some rare cases--entirely rearrange our understanding of the recounted events.

The brightest people are those who, with their knowledge, get understanding--fundamental to that understanding is the appreciation of the vastness of one's ignorance, and the ignorance of humanity in general. To me, it is the height of presumption to insist on a scientific dogma that is--unlike the "Law" of gravity--neither observable, reproducible, nor in fact directly relevant to daily life. Or, I should say, its only relevance seems to have been to devalue the humanity of those who are weak and imperfect, and to give an inflated sense of self-importance to people who believe their own intellectual gifts make them better than their fellows.

I prayed a good deal Friday afternoon. It is so often not comfortable doing the godly thing. Those New Testament verses about how God has used the weak and the foolish to shame the worldly-wise came to mind. I am so tempted so frequently to take the easy way out, not to bring down on myself ridicule from my peers. I hope that God will give me grace to know when to speak up, grace to bear up when my faith, and the logic that issues therefrom, is maligned. That I would be meek, but not weak. And, in so doing, that I--as a Christian feminist--wouldn't let condescending atheist men walk over me just because I'm a "religious" girl! I may not be capable of snappy conversational rejoinders, but my brain works just fine, thank you, and acknowledging the possibility of the supernatural, particularly a deeply logical, if un-fully-knowable, Supernatural is in no way antithetical to superior scholarship.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Better Day(s)

I am delighted to report that Wednesday was considerably better than Tuesday. I was not subjected to political rants, and I started my required new-employee-of-Georgetown [somehow, now I'm "official", whereas for the last three years I've fallen under some sort of student dispensation] harassment training--not how to, but how not to--wherein I discovered that I can request such discussions to be conducted out of my hearing, lest they disturb my work.

Not that I'll be rude about it. I think something along the lines of a gracious smile and a kindly-voiced "I'm so sorry, I'm trying to complete this task, and could you talk elsewhere--I'm getting distracted!" will work wonders and keep everybody happy.

The harassment training is all on-line, and takes about two hours to complete. Thankfully, one can log on and do a bit, and then log off, and you don't have to start over and over again. It's very professional, with clear policies and practical situational examples (in video), but deliberately redundant, and thus could be tiresome if I weren't permitted to do individual sections at a time, when the activity at the front desk is low. My student assistants have found the whole process hilarious--they peek over my shoulder and make snide comments.

Wednesday and Thursday were 13-hour days for me: eight hours at the office and then 5 at the library, doing more slide-scanning. Wednesday, Paul picked me up at the university at just past 10--he was leaving off his housekeys and a great high-speed Internet cell-phone-tower enabled laptop with me and Susan prior to rushing off to England for two weeks, and I decided to ask for chauffeur service--which meant I got home precisely on time to watch the Sarah Palin speech at the RNC from start to finish. I thought she acquitted herself admirably, and the repeated shots of her small daughter wetting down her baby brother's hair with a licked palm were priceless. Then, to "decompress", I watched Nim's Island, a children's movie Susan and I had borrowed from the video store. It was pleasant, but I was up until 2 AM. So Thursday I was tired from start to finish. The NPV retrieved me at 10:45, just after I'd burned the second of two jpg-full CDs for the professor and packed them and all the pagefuls of slides into her department mailbox. After a nice chat, he left, and I was showered and in bed by midnight, but not before I'd taken the unusual step of dialing 911 for the first time in my life.

When I emerged from the shower, I heard a shrill noise. "Hmm, that sounds like an alarm," I thought, disoriented by fatigue. It went on and on, as I slowly dressed for bed. Finally, I put on slippers and went to the front door, to find the deafening shrill coming from upstairs. I didn't see or smell smoke. But one does not take midnight apartment building fire alarms lightly. So I called emergency and explained to the sleepy, bored-sounding fellow on duty what was going on. Of course, the minute I dialed, the alarm shut off. But I didn't want to hang up without explanation--I could just see the cavalry roaring up, lights flashing, as a precautionary measure. So all was well. After I talked to the 911 guy and had re-cradled the phone, I heard thumping from upstairs, cheerful voices, and few re-setting alarm beeps. I suspect it was the neighbors smoking pot again.

I went to bed and slept like the dead.

Tonight is our apartment complex's official celebration of Peach Week, hosted by a Mormon friend in the building next door. I don't think peach flambe is on the menu, given that it requires alcohol. Further fire alarms might result, anyway.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

One Post Short of the Damned

This is my 665th post. The next one will probably be dull and conventional. Today has been stressful and hectic. I have a feeling I will be asking Susan to pat my head gently while I curl up on the couch or the rug in a fetal position once I'm home.

I HATE when intellectually arrogant people, who are so willing to excuse their own imperfections, stand around the front of the department making fun of the weaknesses of conservatives. My stomach twists, I can't get work done, and I long to run out into the hall and scream. It's so unpardonably proud, this liberal opining. And exponentially more obnoxious when it involves several gay male professors who are bad-mouthing a female Republican, or her pregnant teenage daughter. I've no great emotional involvement in the candidate in question--although she sounds pretty solid, from what I've read of her--but to have such practicioners of unproductive, narcissistic sex make fun of those who have--for whatever reason--engaged in the productive variety makes me angry.

Instead of shrieking, "Shut up!" I turned the audio up slightly on my headphones--and the reassuring sound of my Granddaddy's (younger) voice drowned out the chauvinistic pontificating. I try to use all my minutes at work, and those that are not filled with phone-answering, photo-copying, and bureacracy-nativigating, besides the regular tasks of directing departmental visitors to the appropriate destinations and molifying frustrated or frantic professors, I've been continuing to transcribe the fifth of seven tapes of my sweet Granddaddy's memoirs. The potential tedium of "downtime" at work is thus broken, and progress is made on a project far more emotionally and intellectually satisfying. It keeps me from wasting time surfing the Internet, too.

Lastly, I was prevented from pounding my fist, Khrushchev-style, on my desk by the fact that I had pounded my left hand with a hammer yesterday while metal-smithing. I was outside, cheerfully punching out circles of 16-gauge copper and brass sheet when my aim shifted, and I brought the hammer down with a mighty blow on the thumbside flesh near the knuckle, breaking the skin and making a huge and painful knuckle-to-palm bruise, but thankfully breaking no bones. Susan brought me an ice pack and an large glass of hard cider and sat nearby and read me the last several chapters of Forster's A Room With a View. I think it was during "Lying to George" that I managed to mash the outside of the same hand with the hammer; although not impressed with the same enthusiasm that I had the first, the pinch was still severe enough to make me yelp inarticulate all-consonant vulgarities (Srnwd! Qptb! Lrgh!) and punch the hammer uselessly into the dirt.

Home calls.