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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yard Animals, Arkansas-Style

We saw a fair amount of wildlife on our Arkansas adventure, but it was mostly dead. Armadillos, opossums, squirrels, a hawk and several deer all counted among the roadkill. Several miles out of Murfreesboro, after we’d passed a farm raising longhorns and llamas, I noticed a cluster of vultures dining on a dead deer, hunched over the body, scooping up beakfuls of entrails. This was not itself exceptional, but the location of the carcass was unusual—it was in someone’s side yard, not fifty feet from their mobile home. The wind must’ve been blowing in the opposite direction. Steadily. For days.

One does not presumably invite deer to give up the ghost in one's yard, but there are people who deliberately install animal-shaped decorations which are equally repulsive. Just outside of Murfreesboro, I observed two concrete lions perched on short brick posts on either side of an unpaved driveway. Their posture was that of painstakingly-conditioned housecats sheepishly relieving themselves in a human toilet, clinging to the curve of their seats in an uncomfortable squat. The intention of the property owners was probably to convey a more regal image. In my opinion, a couple of razorback statues would have been more impressive.

My Arkansas Adventure, Part II

Our host—the owner of the B&B where we spent three nights and the associated restaurant—was a country Methodist version of the old English pubkeeper depicted in Elizabethan plays. He had a Fu-Manchu mustache fronting his bullet-shaped bald head, which erupted directly from his beefy shoulders, the rolls of flesh receding towards the summit. His great belly did not shake like Saint Nick’s, but moved as a piece with him, like a pregnant woman’s. But he was jolly and welcoming, greeting his regulars by name when he emerged, sweating, redder than usual, from his post in the kitchen. Clearly, beneath his great jovial exterior was the brain of a sharp businessman.

His wife was slighter, also friendly, with an intellectual neatness that had been clear from the design of the bed and breakfast website. On our first evening at her home, she told me a bit about growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which during the 1950s still held some of its Prohibition-era glory. There were gangsters, gambling, and leggy girls crowding a Gilded-Age style bathhouses, while monied men and women from the east and west coasts visited, “taking the waters.” She recalled the shining, polished wood of the bar in an exclusive restaurant where she was taken as a girl by the nurses in her orthodontist’s office—doctor’s visits that earned her a day off from school (those were “different times” she said) and a peek into a vanishing world of luxury. Arkansas became more conservative in the 1960s, gambling was outlawed, and the lure of the spas dwindled accordingly.

There are still “dry” counties in Arkansas. Murfreesboro is in one of them. Our hostess told me about some former visitors to the B&B—a quartet of women who “were like Southern belles, except they were from California”—who’d made their own arrangements accordingly. Three were in their sixties, and the other was one’s octogenarian mother, and the four of them had blueberry martinis every night, based at least in part on the vodka one had brought in her suitcase. Still, they ran out of booze half way through their stay, and cheerfully dispatched their hosts’ willing daughter and her fiancĂ© to find more. They lasted for less than a day diamond-digging, and in true belle fashion, appealed to the hostess: “Can you find us some boys to dig for us?” (She works at the local high school, and quickly found a couple of willing teenagers for hire.) For the rest of their stay, the women (one of whom had sold a successful software business, only to start another wildly profitable venture) sat in the shade overlooking the field, fanned themselves, sipped their drinks, and watched their young proxies perspire in the heat. They declared it was a great deal of fun. I asked our hostess how frequently she herself had been to the diamond crater, and she said only twice in her life. I think she’s doing better to profit from the tourist trade than to seek illusive wealth directly in the dirt.

In the popular imagination, diamonds are commonly associated with royalty, movie stars, and business moguls. In contrast, Murfreesboro (like other diamond-mining communities past and present) is notable for its general poverty. There’s a painful juxtaposition of the name and shape of diamonds with small businesses and rundown shacks, a few pitiful enterprises like the one old camp trailer parked in a residential front yard with the sign “New Orleans style snow balls” painted on it, a hopeful purveyer of deep-fried sweets sitting inside. It’s a small town (a little over 1700 people), with a tiny jail and a huge cemetery, not worth visiting for the architecture, but curiously attractive to me because of the people—those who live there, and those who visit.

Saturday, while I was deepening my personal pit, Zana went over to try another method of diamond-detection. She struck up conversations with several other mineral-hunters at the wash stations where they attempted to sluice sticky, viscous mud from the rocks they were sorting in series of screen-bottomed boxes. One fellow lived an hour or so away from the park, and was so regular a visitor (several days each week—he claimed he’d spent 7 days there in the last fortnight, and lost a pound during each visit) that to store his equipment, he had rented one of the little cages made of 2x4s and chicken wire that were set up on the edges of the field. On Saturday alone, he’d excavated a pit to the depth of 6 feet (dug where nobody had dug before, or at least where they hadn’t in a long time) and filled 98 large buckets with dirt, which he was taking home to sift more thoroughly, planning to return for more before finishing at the end of May (when the heat became unbearable). He’d found a one-carat diamond once, and this had fed the mania. Another man Zana chatted up told her he’d come “many” times and never found a diamond. Yet he kept coming.

There were the die-hards, and then there were the dilettante tourists, come like us for the singularity of the experience. On Friday, besides cars bearing license plates from Texas, Michigan, Louisiana and Oklahoma, two school buses were in the parking lot—the elementary school students were on a field trip, bleeding off their energy playing in the dirt, and then screaming and squirting one another with water at the deck where they were supposed to rinse mud off shoes and tools.

Both days we were there, most kids seemed thrilled to have a chance to fool around with shovels and sieves, and the adults with them were generally relaxed, some even tossing little bits of dirt at each other and giggling, like one husband and wife sitting several rows away where Zana and I had established ourselves on Saturday, their four equally cheerful offspring content with small plastic shovels and pails. There were a few exceptions. On the other side of us on Saturday was another family of six. The coverall-clad man looked to be in his mid-thirties to early 40s, and the woman I initially took to be his daughter. “Get your damn shovel and dig in the damn dirt,” he instructed his pre-adolescent offspring. That pretty much set the tone for the day. The kids were cheeky and dirty-mouthed, and the parents seemed to have the idea that the effort was work, not play, for all concerned. It was depressing to pay attention to them, so I didn’t.

Sunday morning, when we arrived at the restaurant for breakfast, we saw a group of motorcycles parked in front. Leaning up against the outside of the restaurant, one leg bent back against the wall, the other boot on the ground, like one of those lounging cowboy silhouettes cut out of black painted plywood, was a man who could have been anywhere from 35 to 65 years old. His face was sun-reddened, wind-whipped, the skin a texture similar to his charcoal leather jacket and chaps, the sort of face shared by bull-riders, firemen and construction workers, rosy and chapped, with paler creases under the chin and behind the jaw, where the elements hadn’t penetrated.

He was smoking an ash-heavy cigarette, the picture of the tough, rude biker outlaw of imagination. But in his left arm, he cradled a slim laptop, on which he was typing with his free hand.

After a few minutes, he closed his computer, slid it into a case on the back of his motorcycle, and finished suiting up for the road—earbuds, a ninja-like neoprene facemask, then a helmet. Before he straddled his bike and roared off, he fiddled briefly with a tiny blue ipod clipped to the left breast pocket of his chain-tracked jacket (how could he hear anything over the roar of his bike, I can’t imagine). I’d love to know his story. Or would he be writing his own?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

My Arkansas Adventure, Part I

What did you do on your last vacation? You may have gone to the beach, to the mountains, or even abroad to some exotic locale. I went to rural Arkansas, to the southwest corner of the state, where I dug a hole in a muddy field. And it was curiously relaxing. The hole was three feet deep, and I acquired a matching set of blisters on my hands from the pick and shovel, but I enjoyed myself, though nothing emerged from the hole except for a pile of grey and yellow dirt and occasional quartz chips.

My pessimistic friend was right: one seldom prospers through artisanal mining. I found no carbon-constructed diamonds in Arkansas, though Zana and I searched steadily for a total of 13 hours over a two-day period (the first day, I did find a large kite-shaped piece of flat quartz, which I figured was some sort of celestial joke, as technically I did thereby find a diamond). I did get a good deal of arm exercise, making up for at least some of the time I lost what with being in the car and toiling under the sun.

The people here in Murfreesboro are salt of the earth, “just plain folks” as Southerners say with approbation. People leave their house doors unlocked, and garden furniture and other items that would be chained in DC sits about untethered. The countryside is lovely (green leafy trees in abundance, rolling pastureland, and no bugs as yet) and we couldn’t have ordered better weather—it’s been sunny and pleasant since we arrived. The B&B where we are staying is blissfully quiet, and we have a large bathroom and comfortable queen bed, where we can clean up and collapse, respectively, after fooling around in the dirt all day. To me, there are few pleasures that compare to working hard outside, getting all sweaty and grimy, and then coming in to wash up and chill for hours before bedtime. The only better thing is when one has something better than a hole to show for one’s efforts.

The husband and wife who own the B&B (the only one in the tiny town, where there is a single decent motel) also own the single home-cooking style restaurant, where we take breakfast. He’s an enthusiastic Razorbacks fan, to put it mildly. The whole restaurant—the dining area seats about 30 (to get to it you have to run a short gauntlet of money-mooching attractions, the souvenir table full of t-shirts and China-made dustcatchers on the right, and the line of kiosk-style video games and cheap prize-dispensing machines on the left)—is decked out in red tusked pig regalia (license plates, t-shirts, framed newspaper articles, flags, etc.) and what little space remains on the vertical surfaces is graffitied with Sharpie signatures (Sharpies provided with your meal, so you can decorate the walls). And there are a few signs of support for the local high school's "Rattlers," the nasty-looking snake looking ready to take down the nearby charging boar should it come too close.

Both at the restaurant and at the diamond mine I was struck by the girth of the locals. People in Arkansas, and who visit Arkansas, are mostly fat. Few and far between were those people who couldn’t stand to lose forty or fifty pounds. Mostly lower middle-class, if appearance is any guide--frumpy casual, the women with stringy or bleached hair and much makeup, lumbering up to place their round elbows on the table, the men worn and wearing baseball caps and jeans, sunburnt meaty arms inked with tattoos and much-loved baseball caps on their heads indoors. Lots of good old boys and good old girls, ruddy and round, sitting down to eat greasy meals—lots of fried food on the menu, and starches in abundance. Sweet, sweet people, the ones I talked to, but busily committing suicide by fork at every mealtime.

I am looking forward to having a nice fresh salad when I get back home!

I won’t be getting much leaf salad in Russia, I expect.

Oh, yeah…I may not have found any diamonds, but I did get an email from the GU History Department graduate coordinator two nights ago saying that I’d been awarded the maximum amount available from a departmental grant to go to survey relevant archives in St. Petersburg and Moscow this summer. I’m excited, but also nervous! It’s been six years since I’ve been to Russia, and I hope that my language skills come up to par quickly. I’ve got to get a visa and a plane ticket, and arrange housing in the two cities…

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

SNAFU Snags the Prize

I went to trivia at a local bar Monday night, as I have every so often the last two months on the initial invitation and occasional insistence of Carrie, the missions coordinator at church. My team won. We are called SNAFU, which is not the oddest name among the quartets who assemble each week to mutter guesses to four rounds' worth of questions over heavy beer and through thick cigarette smoke. I come home smelling like an ash tray. Even soap wasn't enough to rid my hair of the stench this last time. But it was fun. We won a $35 gift certificate for food and drink. I think I'll have a celebratory margarita next time, provided I'm still on the boys' team (three of them, one of me--they won this game because I knew 8 out of 10 female authors, which was the theme of the 2nd round)--they'll pay, unless the girls show up and kidnap me for the women's team, which was missing this week.

Zana and I are heading to Arkansas, leaving tonight for Atlanta and continuing the rest of the way tomorrow. We've decided to eschew old-fashioned gold-digging for the eccentricity of state park diamond-digging, at least for the upcoming weekend. Hopefully we'll find some huge shiny rocks which can be traded for stacks of cash, but I'm not banking on it (several of my male friends have already made snippy remarks about the statistical wastefulness of artisanal mining, thank you!). The weather should be spectacular, whether we find treasure or not--when I got home to Augusta at 1 this afternoon, Mums and I decided to go on a 7 mile walk, it was so sunny and breezy out. I'm a little pink from not wearing sunscreen (I brought plenty for the diamond field), but I needed the vitamins. And the color--I'm so pale I look like a vampire from one of Stephenie Meyer's novels, except I'm definitely not glittery in the sunlight.

Yes, shameful or no, I've succumbed to reading Meyer for the first time, beginning just three weeks ago. I was rather chagrined that she came up with the vampires among us idea around the same time I did, and with many of the same characteristics that I imputed to the NPV (I prefer mine Presbyterian, though), and furthermore, that she turned this notion into a publishable, and profitable, story. The four-volume Twilight Saga is the ultimate in adolescent wish-fulfillment, and in truth I'm rather enamored of it, which says something about my own emotional maturity-level, I suppose. Of course, even as I read, I've been dissecting the themes, charting the character-development, and analyzing what appeals to readers, identifying what archetypes are adapted and twisted to fit into the tale, how Meyer's probable religious mythology has influenced her personal creations (she graduated from Brigham Young, and so may be assumed to be Mormon, and I couldn't help but notice certain elements in common with that metanarrative, and coincidentally with the autobiography of John Fitzgerald, whose Papa Married a Mormon also reinforces the desperation of [real-life] soul mates to be bound together for eternity), and where the tale-telling falls short of greatness. And what moral and cultural standards does she assume exist among the girls who are gobbling up the Bella Swan/Edward Cullen romance?

I was pleased how well Meyer captured the intensity of wholehearted first love--and mildly amused (fifteen years after the fact) how well the vampirism/human interaction challenge stood in for Pharisaical moral restraint on the part of one of the potential lovers (creating characters that a reader can identify with personally is a feat, in my opinion). Like the film adaptation of the first of the Inkspell series, I found the Twilight movie fell pretty short of the literary mark. The Edward character was shallower, the interaction between Bella and her father petulant, rather than sincere. There was little emotional buildup--the tension that pulsed beneath the surface of the novel was absent, and the director and scriptwriter clearly preferred eye-catching special effects over carefully-paced dialogue. Robert Pattison is eye-candy, certainly, but not what I would have drawn had I been story-boarding.

All this literary observation makes me wonder, not for the first time, whether I might be able to write successful fiction after all. I had reluctantly, but absolutely, determined that mine was a purely academic gift, that factual narrative was my specific calling, and I have tried on this blog to make the best of this--all the details being as accurate as I can render them, while at the same time taking liberties with labels for people, and peeking in on events from unusual perspectives when I can muster the energy for the mental calisthenics involved. But might there not be a story I could tell, about a shy girl who arrives at college, where she meets an older guy at a party, and how her fascination grows as their relationship deepens, and how he begins to torture her psychologically, and it is only when she goes abroad to Russia that she starts to wake up to the danger? Or would that be boring? I need a viable plot!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Stents, Shments

My dissertation committee is assembled, at least virtually. Besides my technologically-challenged mentor, there are four people who have agreed via email to serve, including a professor at American University and the infectious disease expert I mentioned in the previous post. One of the reasons that I decided to go with five people instead of the more conventional four (only three are absolutely required) is that if my 76-year-old hard-drinking and heavy-smoking committee chair drops dead in the middle of the project, I'll have a backup ready to step in to his shoes.

On a happier note, my 72-year-old resident manager's surgery went well today, though he's still in the ICU (he looks way better than most of the other patients there). He didn't have to have the stents (I apologize to everyone but my sister for my earlier lousy spelling, because it meant that she actually left a comment on the post--ending a long period of uncharacteristic silence) put in, as they did an angioplasty instead. Tomorrow, he's supposed to get some improvements on his pacemaker. They hope he'll be home Saturday. So does he. So do we.

Dissertation Committee and Other Details

I've got three people onboard for my dissertation committee already, and two more whom I've emailed with requests to serve, but haven't yet gotten an affirmative answer. One fellow, an infectious disease and bio-defense specialist from whom I took a class while I was in the Biohazards program (he was at one time the Chief of Infectious Disease at the Washington Hospital Center), I am keen to have join the group--if you are a layperson writing about military-medical issues, particularly battlefield cases that included all sorts of nasty bacteria, you ought to have at least one expert physician offering you guidance.

I'm giving myself until Monday to have the final dissertation proposal into the graduate school. Between now and then I need to create a snappy title for the thing. And liberal arts essays always have colons in their titles. For instance (these are real--I pulled them off a database), just last year there were "Shitting medals": L. I. Brezhnev, the Great Patriotic War, and the failure of the personality cult, 1965--1982 [UNC Chapel Hill], and The Red Stuff: A history of the public and material culture of early human spaceflight in the U.S.S.R. [GWU]. My sardonic side really wants to submit the following: "A Bellyful of Shrapnel:" and leave it at that.

Tackniess aside, I'd like the title to be pithy, succinct. None of this Reporting from the frontlines of the First Cold War: American diplomatic despatches about the internal conditions in the Soviet Union, 1917--1933 [UMD College Park, 2007], which, while accurate, is way too long, and doesn't really pique a browser's interest, though I am sure that the despatches had their fascinating moments, as that was the era before American diplomacy became dull and formulaic.

I turned in an application on Tuesday for a grant to visit Russian archives this summer. The awards should be made soon.

Susan and I are fixing to walk over to the Arlington Hospital to visit Mr. B, who should have had some stints put in this morning, provided he was finally stable enough to survive the procedure. His surgery was postponed from earlier this week since his heart rhythm got so crazy (up to 300 beats a minute at one point) that he was transferred to the ICU on Monday, and has been there since. His voice sounded strong on the phone last night, though, so we're hopeful. I gave the cat a can of food for lunch and then a postprandial bellyrub in the sun.

God is good!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

ER Visit and Call from Guam

I’d been in the emergency room (or rather, the third in a series of holding pens in the emergency admissions area of Arlington Hospital) for almost three hours last night when my brother called from Guam.

Midori, Susan and I had driven in from our week-long Southern odyssey around 6 PM. Our dear resident manager greeted us as we got out of the car and double-checked that he could get a ride to church with us this morning (we’ve been inviting him every so often for months, and he’d finally decided to come for Easter)—he said he’d already laid out his suit and polished his shoes. About an hour and a half later, when Susan and I had finished dinner and were just starting to watch a movie with Ella, a neighbor from up the street, he came knocking at the door of our apartment. He said he’d just had another fainting spell (he’s 71, and not in the best of health, with congestive heart failure, diabetes—the works), and was wondering what he should do. We unanimously recommended going to the emergency room. Immediately.

I drove him. Susan stayed home with Ella—there was no sense in all of us going, and I have the most experience communicating with medical personnel. I took a book with me. Having engrossing reading proved a wise decision. In my limited experience accompanying friends and relatives to the hospital, I have observed that ERs never remotely resemble those portrayed in television dramas. There are dull waiting areas populated by worried companions and listless or crying patients, ugly curtained triage bays where nurses attempt to ascertain the seriousness of the physical complaint, and individual rooms where those who cannot be quickly patched up and sent home are taken to be hooked up to the obligatory basic cardiopulmonary monitoring devices until the doctor on call can stop by and make recommendations about what tests are needed to provide a diagnosis. All of this inevitably takes hours and hours. It’s fantastically boring.

At least the staff was nice. And Mr. B’s sister-in-law (his late wife’s sister) showed up after about 2 hours, and between the two of us, his paperwork was completed expeditiously and the doctor got an accurate medical history. Turns out, he hadn’t told her about a couple of his fainting spells, but she’d noticed some symptoms that I hadn’t.

We’d settled in to kill time until the medical folks got around to deciding whether to admit him (we women were both sure they were going to, but Mr. B was still hoping he’d get to go home) when an unfamiliar number popped up on my cellphone, and I stepped outside to see who it was. The man on the other end had to identify himself: “This is your brother.” Well, I hadn’t gotten to talk to him in months, and it was truly a long-distance call. When he told me he was in Guam, I couldn’t help but guffaw.

Bob’s got another two months to go on a six-month deployment and they are back in Guam for probably the fifth time so far. Bob hates Guam. He says if you are not into strip clubs, there’s nothing to do onshore. At least immediately off-shore there is the beauty of tropical fish—Bob scuba dives, and he said the fish are plentiful, huge ones swimming right next to the dock. So, in the water, it’s paradise. On the land, it’s hell. After his first visit to the island, he grumped to my mom that if he ever got stationed there, he’d shoot himself. After he did a lot of diving. He sounded somewhat resigned about the latest stopover—it’s right in time for him to complete and submit his federal income taxes. Such is the exciting, adventure-filled life of an American Naval Officer.

Susan and I are in charge of feeding Mr. B’s cat until he gets home from the hospital. The cat watched him get into my car last night, and when I returned home without him, it met me at the top of the steps from the parking lot and meowed heartbreakingly, obviously wondering what I’d done with its preferred person. Hopefully, fuzzy beast and human will be reunited in just a few days--Susan and I stopped at the hospital after church today, and Mr. B told us that the cardiologist thinks this problem is tied to a glitch in his pacemaker.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Last Night in the South

Tomorrow morning, early, we start our return journey to DC.

The night right now is less tranquil than usual at my parents' house--music is blaring from the mansion down the road, where one of the large Masters-related afterparties has been going strong for more than 5 hours. Just as the first invitational held at Augusta National some seventy years ago was punctuated by beverage breaks, today the spectators wouldn't consider the experience complete if they weren't to indulge in massive amounts of food and drink, much corporately-supplied, despite the well-publicized effects on the event of the national economic downturn.

My mother went to Publix yesterday, and the man at the checkout counter told her that a woman had just come in and spent $700 on beer and wine, chips and dip, and rounded out her purchases with a couple of bottles of tablet antacids and pain-relievers. Nothing like being prepared for the desired and for the inevitable.

Susan's and Midori's company has been a delight--the former's judgment of character has proven spot-on, as the latter has been a sterling travel-companion, pleasant, acquiescent, gracious and responsive to all the ideas we've discussed, and the curious and fascinating assortment of friends, relatives and strangers we've encountered on our whirlwind tour through the American South. I didn't actually meet Midori (a Japanese au pair who has been attending our church) until fifteen minutes before the three of us piled our luggage and ourselves into Susan's car and left Arlington for North Carolina by way of a detour through the pink profusion that was the peak-level cherry blossoms around the Potomac tidal basin. It wasn't a quick drive-by--hundreds of other drivers had the same thought as we, apparently, and so did thousands of pedestrians, but it was worth it, as Midori was able to put her head and shoulders through the open sunroof and get some good photos while we were stuck, immobilized in traffic.

Saturday (after we finally got out of DC), we drove to Mebane, NC, to dine with Amy and Don and Paxifist and her husband and three little boys. We stopped by Duke University on the way, as I wanted to show my companions the chapel and a bit of the older campus around it, including the plaque in the center that bears the original purpose-statement of the institution (unapologetically Christian, and therefore long-abandoned). We went to Church of the Good Shepherd (PCA) in Durham the next day for Palm Sunday services, and then lunched with my friends again (with the addition of the gregarious Jonathan, who kept us highly entertained with his description of a Duke football game).

We drove down to Charleston, SC, that afternoon. Valerie and Jake, two long-time friends of my friend Paul, had agreed, due to his timely intercession, to host us three--although we'd never met--for two nights. Beyond this obvious awesomeness (how many people just accept three strangers as houseguests after random phonecalls from old college buddies?), they were personally intriguing. Both were MKs (Missionary Kids)--she from India, he from Peru--and made us feel immediately at home, from sharing stories of their international families to information about local Charleston attractions. Valerie fed us a great dal and rice combination (and let me finish her in-process jigsaw puzzle) and talked about the upcoming Ukrainian Easter egg making project she was overseeing for her church. She speaks Hindi, too. Her husband discussed how he met Paul at boarding school when they were teenagers, and how he and his classmates were amazed by the other's dedication to soccer.

Monday we three girls headed downtown. We found a centrally-located parking garage, and went in search of coffee, since Susan was desperate--Valerie and Jake had only decaf on hand. We went on a tour of the Old Customs Exchange building and its basement, where I encountered a fellow Russianist (soon to start an MA at UNC-Chapel Hill, another reenactor told me), watched the jerky calisthenics of 1970s-era anamotronic tableaux, and breathed in the moist air of the brick "dungeon" where patriots were interned during the American Revolution under the careful eyes of Hessian mercenary guards.

Back out in the sunshine, we strolled to the Battery, where a lufting banner had caught my eye as we'd driven around the tip of the peninsula--"Historic House Tour Tickets." In the open doorway underneath the sagging signage, a table had been set up, on which was a laptop computer and a sheaf of brochures advertising the special event to benefit the Historical Preservation Society: a tour of nine private dwellings and a church in the district south of Broad Street. The tickets were expensive, but since we'd spent nothing on lodging, we decided to spring for it. Garish orange admissions-bracelets in hand (or on arm), we went walking in the Battery Park, and then over to a past pleasure of mine for lunch: Slightly North of Broad (SNOB for short). Good food--Midori loved their cornbread--and superb service. Our sweet tea and water glasses were never allowed to become less than 3/4 full, as constantly-circling waiters slipped unnoticeably from table to table, topping off tumblers and whisking plates to and from the kitchen. And the atmosphere was so pleasant--even unto the ladies room, where autographed copies of the dustjackets from the works of famous local authors (Pat Conroy included) were framed on the walls.

After lunch we walked to the famous open-air market, where stalls sell everything from sunglasses to shawls, spice mixes to sterling silver. The particular items I wanted to show my friends were the fragrant seagrass baskets, which are woven from locally-gathered materials by the nibble-fingered descendants of slaves once sold in another infamous market a few blocks away. The baskets were far beyond compare and also high in price--I am glad I acquired the one I own a decade ago, as I certainly could not afford one now!

On the wall at the Charleston visitor's center, a phrase in five languages welcomed us to the city: English, Spanish, French, Japanese, and Russian. We were amused by the fact that all five were accessible among our trio--Midori reads her native Japanese and English, and has studied French, Susan and I have English--and she reads French and has studied Spanish, and I read Russian and have studied French.

We started the special house tour at 6 PM, beginning with the Scots Presbyterian Church. Photographs were not permitted indoors (or in the private gardens of the houses we saw), but I took a couple of snaps of a tombstone in the churchyard. In part, the inscription read, "in memory of Courtney Smith King M.D. born in Charleston, S.C. May 20, 1831 and died in Kertch, Russia, on the 19th March 1855 of malignant typhus fever while serving in the Russian Imperial Medical Staff during the war between Russia and the allied powers." Neat, eh? Not that the poor guy died, of course, and so young, but that he died of a nasty infectious disease in Russian military medical service in wartime (the Crimean War, for those of you who didn't recognize the date) on the other side of the globe, though being essentially a neighbor to me, place-of-birth-wise.

The rest of the tour was delightful, except for the increasing cold--we none of us were dressed for chilly weather, and winter had effectively returned to the south. Standing outside in the dusk and then dark, waiting to be admitted to the various dwellings which had been placed on the tour, grew steadily more uncomfortable. But it was worth it. At nine, we went off in search of dinner, and we found it diagonally across East Bay Street from SNOB--the Magnolia Restaurant. It was expensive, and at first we were hesitant about entering--we were all in tennis shoes, and it was the sort of place with white linen tablecloths and waitstaff in butcher half-aprons--but a drunk businessman leered at us and assured us that we would be welcome. And the hostess did not even bat an eye at our tourist duds. I was unimpressed by the atmosphere--the surroundings echoed sound, and the lighting, while not romantically dark, was frustratingly dim, which meant that one could not easily either see or hear one's associates. But when Susan and I took our first forkfuls of our entrees, we realized that both visual and auditory stimuli--the superfluity of the one, the dearth of the other--were irrelevant. I don't know when I have tasted more delicious food. It was heavenly-- a symphony of texture and flavor that silenced conversation as we diners savored each delicious morsel, our expressions radiating bliss. If happiness were to exist in edible form, it was incarnated on our plates Monday evening. And there was enough for leftovers for lunch the next day.

Tuesday we went to Magnolia Plantation. The weather was clear as crystal, but icy except in direct sunlight, access to which the ancient live oaks and lush flowering shrubbery of the plantation offer little. We were only slightly more comfortable walking through the Audubon Swamp, as the wind cut through our thin jackets and pants, robbing us of the comfort that the solar radiation should have supplied. We did see several alligators, a clutch of yellow-bellied sliders, and the nesting areas of scores of great egrets, whose white feathery bodies resting on their nests reminded me of nothing so much as a caterpillar infestation in a pecan tree.

After consuming our leftovers, we drove out of the Charleston area to the only commercial tea farm on the North American continent. We did the brief factory tour and then continued on to Beaufort, SC, where our bed and breakfast awaited. Again, it was a pity the weather was so chilly, because we would have loved walking along the bay shore under the Spanish moss-hung trees and taking tea out on the balcony of our suite, but such was not to be. We did have a true gourmet French breakfast before we departed for Savannah Wednesday morning--the owners of the B&B are a former film director and his actress wife, and his continental origin informed the menu.

In Savannah, we saw my dear friend Dolly, whose baby was born last week. I got to hold him--at ten pounds, he was a hefty newborn--and visit with her and her mother for an hour or two. It was good to see one another in person after five or six years--we've been pretty faithful with quarterly telephone conversations, but in-person contact is hard to beat. Afterwards, Midori, Susan and I drove out to Tybee Island and walked on the beach for 45 minutes. Susan loved Tybee, particularly as we three had driven to Hilton Head for dinner Tuesday night, and found it relentlessly commercialized and expertly coiffed, all chockablock with expensive homes and costly hotels, the beach almost impossible to access by casual visitors. Tybee was different, slow-paced, friendly--and the sun was finally warming things up a little, whereas the almost-full moon over Hilton Head had seemed to draw all the heat from the earth and make the wind whip along ever more briskly. At Tybee, we just parked at a handy meter, shoved in three quarters, walked across the road and we were at the shore, sand under our feet and the taste of salt on our lips.

We drove to my grandparents' house in Dublin, GA, for supper. I'd been worried how Granddaddy would interact with Midori, as he'd spent so long fighting the Japanese in the Pacific during some of the most exhilarating and terrifying years of his life (and he did mention this during the meal), but while we were getting a mini quilt show from Grandmommy (her recent creations) he told her that he would "shake the hand of any [Japanese WWII veteran]" he met now. Wow. Granddaddy is not one to make polite remarks, or sugar-coat things for social interaction's sake. Both Susan and Midori mentioned several times how impressed they were by him and by Grandmommy--and by her cooking. Midori had second helpings at dinner, and must have put away a quarter of the apple cobbler that Grandmommy had concocted for dessert--and she's a small girl.

After dinner--I having assured Granddaddy that we had plenty of gas and that the oil in the car had been checked--we drove to Augusta. My parents were both still up, although it was a good two hours past my mother's regular bedtime. I was glad they were--it made us all feel much more "at home."

Today we've done relatively little. Mums took the three of us to the gym and we all worked out for two hours. I took the other two down town for a little less than two hours to show them my old church and the riverwalk. Artists Row was pretty much closed when we reconnoitered Broad Street after 5 PM, and I admit to feeling a bit frustrated with my hometown for not being better cleaned up--although downtown is gradually being redeveloped, there are sections of boarded-up windows, crumbling facades, and ugly decay. It's got so much potential, and I hate to see it appear badly before company. I also realized it would be extremely difficult for me to return--I've become used to the opportunities for cultural enrichment and hedonistic entertainment that the DC area offers, from the multiple art museums and musical venues to the weekly trivia competitions at smoky watering holes. And where would I ever work in Augusta? There aren't a whole lot of openings for Russianists thereabouts.

We were going to drive all the way back to DC tomorrow, but none of us relished the idea of spending a whole day in the car. So, Susan suggested that we visit a great-aunt of hers in Lynchburg, VA. We plan to avoid I-95 entirely, going up I-77 from Columbia, SC, through Charlotte, NC, and then continuing via secondary roads into the Blue Ridge mountain foothills. Saturday morning, provided our tentative schedule holds, we'll visit my alma mater in a nearby small town, and then continue up the western side of the state until we reach I-66, which will take us home.

This has certainly been a whirlwind tour!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Totally Awesome (Bounce, Bounce, Bounce)!

My advisor has approved my dissertation proposal. Better, he wrote "Great" on the top in blue ink, underlined the word and put an exclamation point behind it! I feel like I'm back in kindergarten and have just gotten a gold star. I've been bouncing since mid-afternoon, positively giddy with joy. I'm on my way! It's probably a good thing that none of my guy friends have been around, because I'd be kissing and hugging them in a sort of happy wholesale abandonment of discretion! (Hm, that sounds like fun...)

Am just not coherent enough (for all the right reasons!) at present to write a beautifully-worded blogpost, but at the same time I am full of creative energy, wanting to capture this fleeting feeling of delight in some permanent form. Maybe I'll have some chocolate--the fat cells will stay on my hips for months. ("Poo!" Susan says--she's been reading over my shoulder as I type.)