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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Humorless Twaddle

I have a sore throat. Whence it came is a mystery.

The electricity on the block has shut off three times in the last 48 hours, though no tornadoes or fried squirrels are in evidence. Have decided to leave clock blinking like an emergency sign until power system stabilizes.

Georgetown's student information system has declared me "inactive," and so forbids me to register and threatens to delete my email. Plaintive notes have been dispatched to relevant authorities. And the History Department didn't give me financial aid for fall, which is stressful, to say the least.

I have returned to eBay after months' hiatus (single purchase thereon this year was an assortment of Russian medical books relevant to my dissertation and not to be found in any American library) not to buy, but to sell. Am divesting myself of unneeded worldly goods in an effort to raise capital for necessities.

Gallery tent sale on Saturday was 11.5 hours of sitting and one sale (a medium-priced necklace). Postcard invitation to aforementioned sale addressed to me was recovered from apartment side yard and delivered by the NPV on Sunday afternoon with the remark, "Let me know if you are missing any bills..."

Began reading Le Carre's Smiley's People on Saturday afternoon. Will probably finish it next Saturday at the second (and last, for me) day of the same tent sale. Tomorrow I meet with the client who commissioned wedding jewelry (which I finished Saturday morning) and then go to the post office with my visa application materials.

I really wanted to see Star Trek in IMAX, but cash and companions for such are nil.

Have not gotten far writing the Great American Novel, but hopes are higher than ever.

Am deeply grateful for Susan, who listened to my grousing on her birthday (today). She's a sweetie. We had curried tofu and English peas for supper and watched Enchanted April after dessert.

More evidence that DC is a totally messed up place: was passed by an official car on the way to campus today. It was emblazoned "DC Public Library Police." And no, they aren't responsible for the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Details, Details

It's 4 AM. I've stayed up to this unholy hour reading two novels. I've not stayed up this late doing something so constructive and instructive in a while, nor had I read as much recreational literature in the past 6 years as I have in the past three weeks. It's been great! Although I have to be up in less than 4 hours to take Mr. B to his doctor's appointment...

I bought my plane tickets for Russia. I leave June 27, am supposed to return August 1. The visa application will be submitted in the next day or so.

The next two days will be spent at the Library of Congress, where I've got a good deal of preliminary research to do prior to my Aeroflot departure (round trip to St. Pete $850, including tax).

Friday, May 15, 2009

Points of Attraction and Distraction

I’m not alone in liking pointy guys. In fact, American culture at large right now seems to be mad about pointy people. Or rather, human-like beings with pointy teeth, pointy ears, pointy eyebrows…from TrueBlood to Star Trek to Twilight, popular books and movies are about creatures with superhuman characteristics, who are sharp—of mind, reflexes and incisors.

I think there is something viscerally attractive to most people about beauty coupled with danger. We admire wolves, sharks, lions—wild, untamed things that sometimes suffer us to approach, but could turn violent in a split second and rip us to pieces. Even domesticated things like kittens and roses have claws and thorns, obstacles to be navigated when enjoying their pleasurable company.

But the surge of popularity that vampires in particular are enjoying right now in the United States amazes me. I liked Robin McKinley’s Sunshine (2003), as like her first book, Beauty (1979), the heroine was not a pushover, even when faced with danger and seemingly insurmountable odds—but I didn’t realize that in depicting “girl saving remorseful vampire” she was part of a trend (or at the forefront of one). But then, I never watched Buffy, though I did know it was airing. Now, the film version of the second installment of the 4-part Twilight Saga (to call it a “saga” sounds a wee bit pretentious to me, as it’s hardly Tolstoy or Galsworthy) is in production, and HBO is advertising its second season of TrueBlood.

The latter show is based on a seemingly endless series (eight books in all, so far) of pulp novels awash in sex and more sex, and a touch of Southern culture, authored by Charlaine Harris. The tales are set in Louisiana and reading them is like watching drunk revelers at a Mardi Gras parade on a continuous loop, with a little rape and murder thrown in. I read the fifth adventure of Sookie Stackhouse and company, and The Historian it ain’t. Believe me, a little witchcraft and drug-dealing is sweet grandmotherly stuff in Harris’ world. And yet, it all seems incredibly banal after 50 or so pages. Ho, hum—so who is Sookie remembering having slept with now? And what were the details of the latest gruesome murder? And with how many people (both male and female) did that nice guy have sex—in public—upon becoming chief werewolf? And what thinly-veiled satire of religious conservatives can be squeezed in between orgy scenes and characterizations of various interpersonal disloyalties? In both its printed and broadcast incarnations, TrueBlood quickly moves from titillating to frustrating—even the “better” characters have little to recommend them, and most are downright despicable.

To bring old Lev Nikolaevich back in to the discussion (and so to flatly contradict his assertion at the beginning of Anna Karenina, if in fact he didn’t contradict it himself), all unhappy people, families and others, really do seem to lead the same dreary, repetitive lives—I realize again, it’s the happy who have exceptional stories that are worth telling. Initially, TrueBlood offers an interesting premise—that bloodsuckers have come out of the closet (Harris frankly uses it as a metaphor for gay rights, constantly linking the two in character dialogue) and are accepted by the openminded (and thrill-seekers), and rejected by the uptight and illegitimately self-righteous. Sookie, a human who can hear the thoughts of all but the vampires, is a virgin at the beginning of the stories. But she quickly gives herself, body and blood, to an undead lover, and the tales devolve into a deadening morass of the details of tortured people’s lives. It’s worse than the traditional soap opera or soft-porn schlock that Lifetime Network and grocery stores sell by the hours and tons to lonely middle-aged women and mush-minded teenage girls, because it purports to be sophisticated—HBO has done a fine job with the production values in the television series, and the books are currently ranked 26th overall on Amazon.com, with excellent reviews. Harris really does a nice job of bringing in specific characterizations of Southern life, from politicians to rednecks to ancestry-obsessed little old ladies, and depicting the blurring racial lines that are modern-day Dixie. Still, when it comes down to it, this is truly post-modern Southern Gothic, and contains nothing redemptive or really enlightening.

Stephanie Meyer’s books’ shortcomings are not so egregious, though a person who considers them dispassionately might find them silly: the ultimate happiness is seen as eternal youth in tandem with regular rounds of discretely-depicted ecstatic intercourse (between a married Bella and Edward, as you’d expect from a Mormon author—and, exceptionally for a teen book, the sex actually results in a baby). Even this ideal, for all its romantic appeal, is quite shallow and unsatisfying. If one is almost twice the age of the attractive eternally-young couple, and a life-long celibate to boot, one sees more clearly that this end is empty (which is not of course to say that I wouldn’t still love to get married and enjoy my husband’s company well into old age). We all are getting older, and even the best sex doesn’t last that long—is this all that is to delight and define us?

We as a culture are desperately devouring stories of eternal life that offer beauty and bliss, and with these benefits the hazard of total obliteration (killed vampires turn into smoke or boiling blood), but which avoid that uncomfortable God-figure which could mar our daydreams (admittedly, Meyer does hazard a vague deism, where it is posited that people as well as vampires are given “points” for trying to be good—and the self-reformation efforts her good bloodthirsty characters exhibit is certainly admirable, and far more compelling a plot device than the licentiousness of Harris’ folks). While reversing the traditional vampire role from villain to hero, and excising the traditional means of dispatching them (crosses haven’t any effect in either Meyer’s or Harris’ narratives), the tales still incorporate the ancient religious connotations of getting everlasting life through drinking another’s blood. But is this all that is possible for the genre?

Couldn’t there be a well-told tale involving a pointy person as the hero or heroine which has more to say about the reality of life and death, good and evil, salvation and damnation than these? I wonder, too: Is this vampire-mania just the latest symptom of the cultural taboo that has developed against recognizing human death and questioning the fate of the soul when the body has ceased to live?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Socializing and Visiting Former Socialist Country

Yesterday I was Little Miss Social.

At 11 AM, I met with a girl who wants me to make jewelry for her wedding—not for the bridesmaids, this time, but for her, the bride. She brought her wedding dress and shoes along so that I could match pearls and discuss accessory styles. I have 10 days to come up with something fabulous. I’m excited about this!

At 1 PM, Mr. B got me to drive him in his big blue new truck (which his doctor and the State of Virginia have forbidden him to drive himself for six months, much to his irritation) to a nearby barbeque place, where we both got pulled pork sandwiches. Tasty!

At 4 PM, I went over to my friend Ira’s house to the GU Russian History graduate students’ first pel’meni-making party. Ira had made the dough, and cooked up onions and cabbage, and the rest of us helped slice up cucumber and garlic and parsley and cilantro. Ira and her fiancĂ© kept pressing various Russian and Georgian appetizers on us all during the preparation time. Mena (the newest Russianist, whose great idea the party was) and I rolled the dough almost paper-thin and cut it into circles using a flour-powdered wine glass. Then all eight of us tried our hands at mixing the garden ingredients with raw beef and chicken, and sealing up little wads of this concoction in neat dough-pockets. Then we boiled them for 8-10 minutes, until the stuffing was cooked.

At 7 PM, I rushed home, my hot pel’meni in a plastic cup, to meet my Scrabble buddies, one of whom is moving to Seattle in a little over a week. This was the final match, and we had dinner beforehand—Afghani takeaway, which was delicious, and my pel’meni, which was complimented extravagantly. I don’t know how I managed to eat anything, considering I’d been noshing nonstop since noon. All the caloric overload must have shorted out my brain, though, because I barely broke 100 for my final score, and only avoided finishing butt-last by being playing out first to end the game. Then we had chocolate cake.

My friends left around 10 PM, and I immediately settled down on the couch to finish a free-lance chemistry project that I’d been working on forever. It was done a little after 2 AM.

I’ve been really flat (and feeling fat) today, as you’d expect from overeating and my introverted nature—I love people and socializing, but too little time alone (and too little exercise) wears me out. Still, I had a good day—another bride (Paxifist’s sister in Ohio) emailed me to say that the butterfly-themed bridesmaids’ jewelry I’d sent her was perfect, and she’d dispatch a check my way soon; I went to and from the library for my advisor, leaving him a whole stack of books to consult while he is working on his latest book this weekend; and I sent him (and another Russian professor) a list of the contact information needed for admissions-petition letters to the Russian archives I plan on visiting this summer (you can’t just walk in off the street—you have to have official permission, and since a couple of the archives I want to see are run by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, there are even more bureaucratic hoops I need to jump through to get into them). I did not get around to applying for my visa or buying a plane ticket, but I’m hoping to start and finish that job tomorrow. Aeroflot has the cheapest fares I’ve been able to find.

It seems that I’ll be living in a kommunalka (communal apartment) in St. Petersburg this summer. The other Irina emailed me two evenings ago to say that a guy in her church was willing to sublet his room for a month.

Here is her description of the premises:

It is on Old Nevsky, near Moskovskiy railroad station and Ploshchad Vosstaniya metro station. The building is a typical St.Petersburg apartment house built at the end of the 19th century. [The] apartment is on the 5th floor, which is the last one, the windows look to the courtyard of this quadrangle building, and all surrounding buildings are not taller than this one, so the rooms are light.

The building has only been renovated externally, inside it looks old and scuffed. But both the stairwell (there is a code lock on it) and the apartment itself are quite clean.

The apartment consists of a corridor, three isolated rooms on the left side of the corridor, a toilet, a bathroom and a kitchen at the end of it.

There are four women Christians living in two rooms – a mother with a daughter in one of them, and two Christian girls in another. The room that is rented out is 17 square meters. There is a sofa, a desk, a wardrobe, a bookshelf and a small cabinet in it. The walls of the room are scuffed up to the wall plaster, but the plaster is of a light color, so, at least to a Russian eye, it is not so shocking, as it is clear that the apartment just needs renovation. The walls in the toilet and the bathroom are in the same condition, but all sanitary ware is clean.

There are two refrigerators in the kitchen, and the lodgers arrange among themselves how exactly to share them. There is also a washing machine, a kitchen table and a kitchen cabinet.


Frankly, it sounds comfortable (a washing-machine! the folks I stayed with in 1995 had a washing machine…which could wash about 2 pairs of jeans at a time, and had—no kidding—a hand-cranked ringer on top, so you could squeeze out some of the water in your wet clothes before hanging them to dry on the line set up in your hall or kitchen), and the apartment-mates congenial. Walls, schmalls. I’ll bet the stove even works, which it didn’t in that house I used to share in Arlington.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Theological Headbanging

Regrettably, the theological headbanging that has occupied me this evening is not the fun, Calvinist heavy-metal music kind, but rather of the sort that invariably occurs whenever I get buttonholed by Silverman. I'm in the department late, doing some research and other necessary bits of academic drudgery, and he comes in, to tell me that he'd been to church this morning. His wife likes him to go three times a year--Christmas Eve, Easter and Mother's Day. He's Jewish (but roasts a pig every year for the Georgetown Medieval Society), she's Lutheran, but of Catholic background.

So, he tells me about the morning's sermon, which was delivered by the better half of the church's pastoral husband-and-wife team, about prayer. Prayer being different things for different people, depending on modern personality typing, she contended.

And by the way, on his own time Silverman's been reading Numbers, he says.

"All of it is good to know," I say.

"No it isn't," he responds. "A lot of it is crap."

OK. "Why Numbers?" I ask.

Numbers rather than Deuteronomy, he tells me, because the former was focused on by rabbinical scholars in the post-temple period.

He says studying the ritual was important. He then volunteers that it's one of the most complete set of sacrificial and priestly regulations extant for the time period, and is interesting how it relates to pagan ritual at the same time period. Because the Israelites were polytheists in the beginning.

I grant him this--the Old Testament is replete with references to Hebraic indulgence in polytheism, from Asherah pole worship to the Baals.

He has something more specific in mind--that when Judaism was being developed, God was not The Only God, but the god of the Jews, different and superior to all the other gods of other tribes and nations, but still one of many.

Uh, the Ten Commandments?

"You shall have no other gods before Me!" he quotes, triumphantly. I remark that I can see that the syncretists of the time might well have made the same argument. But in Kings and Chronicles, it is the rulers who destroyed and disrupted the worship of additional gods who are held up for esteem.

He claims the Levites were consolidating their socio-political power and with it the doctrine of monotheism, so of course their records would reflect this.

"Most Judaic scholars agree the Old Testament is polytheistic itself. The writers were." He then puts in.

Huh? "No, it isn't," I contradict.

"You'd better not argue that historically--you have an agenda!" he remarks, walking off.

Sheesh. That line from The Princess Bride started running through my head: "Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

"Of course I have an agenda," I say to his retreating back. "Everybody does." If they'd only admit it to themselves. This does not preclude honestly assessing facts. In fact, I contend that my "agenda" as Silverman terms it, is actually derived from and in agreement with goading, persistent facts--facts against which he is resolutely kicking with all his subconcious might.

Nonetheless, I like Silverman, despite the frustration that always follows these conversations. His area of expertise is the medieval Russian Orthodox church, and his knowledge of their theology and liturgy is exceptional. He's fascinated by the nuts and bolts of religious dogma, but he refuses to acknowledge the possibility of the supernatural, though he's spent his career studying people who invoked belief in it to comment upon and change the behavior of themselves and others. For him, there is no Deus ex machina, only the machina.

I did tell him (early in the conversation, when he expressed amazement that the Lutheran minister had expressed regret that in the Protestant/Catholic schism the ancient forms of prayer had been lost--he said he'd never heard member of the Protestant clergy make such an admission about results of the division from the Roman church) that he ought to come to my church, but he responded, "I hate church." In so many ways, we are at an impasse.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Star Trek

Was AWESOME. I may break down and see it a couple more times in the theater before I save up the money to buy it on DVD.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Tired and Sore

I haven't been sleeping well lately. In fact, last night I didn't sleep at all. I stayed up until Susan awoke to go to work. I was fixing a necklace (I spit upon the grave of the idiot who developed the design--all tiny knots. The thread kept breaking, too--I'd get through most of the piece, painstakingly securing the stones between knots, and then the stupid rayon would get rubbed through by the edge of a sharp crystal and I'd have to patch up the problem)and then I played solitaire (now disabled on my computer--I can't figure out how to delete it from the system, as I have done on all previous computers of mine, but I did disable it a few minutes ago, in a locking-the-stable-after-the-horse-has-left-the-barn sort of gesture). It was OCD central. I could keep doing the same motions for hours, like one of Henry Ford's early assembly line workers. I'm numb to time when these episodes hit--two nights ago, the activity that kept me awake until past 3 AM was writing a children's story. So, the task at hand doesn't have to be useless--but the key is avoiding getting sucked into a mindless, unproductive pursuit at the outset (I'm trying to make a point of focusing on the many productive things waiting to be started--my dissertation, for example). I usually forget to eat when I'm on one of these mental binges. This morning, I realized I was hungry around 5AM, ten hours after my previous meal. I don't think I'd moved even to go to the bathroom. Let's just say that I have no business ever visiting Las Vegas, or trading my own stocks online. The classic gambler personality is well developed in me--I always think I can get one more thing done before I stop whatever it is I'm doing. Sitting at a slot machine, I'd gamble away everything I owned in a single 36-hour burst of mania. I told Susan that she was to make sure I was in bed by 10 this evening. I'm starting to feel wacky.

I'm also sore. I got a typhoid and a tetanus shot yesterday, after I'd had blood drawn for my Russian visa HIV test. My left arm aches from the injections, though I made a special point of exercising it afterwards.

I'm going to take some pain killer and get a couple of hours of shut-eye. Then I'll finish a Chemistry job I'm doing for my friend Paul. I'd told him the project would be finished tonight, but now I'm not so sure. Why oh why could THAT have been the object of my obsession last night?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Flowers and Memoriam

When we got back from lunch today, Susan unlocked the door and paused in shock on the threshold.

"Somebody's been here!" she exclaimed, and pointed to a vase with ten hothouse roses that was sitting in the middle of our dining table. Two other red roses were lying next to the vase.

"Who could have left them?" I wondered.

We hunted for a note but couldn't find one, and ran through our mental list of people who have our housekey. I thought it was Mr. B, but Susan thought it might be the "boys" (the Wiggle and the NPV) from the building next door (though we'd had lunch with the former and his fiancee, and neither had behaved like a cat that'd eaten a canary, and why they'd give us flowers was a puzzle).

The culprit turned out to be Mr. B, dear fellow that he is. He'd just wanted to say thanks for our help over the last couple of weeks. He looks and feels so much better than he did, though his doctor, invoking the authority of the VA Department of Motor Vehicles, has forbidden him to drive for the next six months.

On a less cheerful note, I see on Drudge that Jack Kemp has died of cancer. He was a good guy, and remarkably kind to me and to my mother when we met him--I guess it's been almost 15 years ago now! He was the first public person I'd observed speaking well and winningly without notes (this was before the age of teleprompters!), not exuding an aura of canned platitudes; the "rambling stories" that George Bush senior reportedly complained about in meetings were to me a hallmark of his reality, so rare in politicians of any era. In fact, I think Kemp was the first person I ever voted for in a presidential primary. Would only there were others like him I could vote for without holding my nose and closing my eyes!

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Death of the Market and another Marketeer

One of the Sunday vendors committed suicide last week. He hanged himself in his bathroom. Another vendor who'd told the guy he'd help with sales stopped by the house to pick up some paintings and was met at the front door by the man's daughter, holding the goodbye note from her father. She'd just found it, and may have been in shock. The two of them broke open the locked bedroom door and found him dead. Steve, the market manager, said the guy's sales had been down, and he thought his wife was having an affair. This is the third death of a vendor in the last six months. One was murdered, one died of a sudden organ malfunction, and then this one.

The market itself is probably shutting down in two weeks. Steve's tendered his resignation as the manager in Arlington, and is quietly opening a new market 20 minutes away, in Fairfax county (he surreptitiously handed me a flyer with the information this morning). I may go to that one. There is no one to take over the Arlington job--the best candidate is loathed by the ineffective and irritating Arlington organization that holds the venue-lease, and I can't imagine their finding anyone else, particularly given the short notice. There's been a lot of bad blood, rumors and hostile emails circulating since they started monkeying about with the management around New Years. The conviviality that reigned--even when Bob Fleischmann, who it turned out was bilking the county out of thousands in booth fees and taxes he collected from us (that's a story, if I ever have time to tell it!), was manager--has largely dissipated, and as my sales have been so-so, the last month or so I'd been thinking about leaving.

I'd been considering reducing my jewelry-vending activity to stores, private shows and commissions only--spending every Saturday at a booth saying the same thing over and over gets old (you can only repeat "Hello! My friend Anita and I make all of these lovely things--feel free to try anything on, and let me know if you have any questions! The silver is sterling silver and the gold is gold-filled..." so many times without going hoarse. And insane. And if I hear a dismissive, "Your stuff is lovely" or "You do beautiful work" from another non-buyer as she leaves the booth, I'll scream!). I do have a great core of loyal customers in Arlington, whom I'll sincerely miss--people who are writing novels, have traveled around the world, speak multiple languages, pursue intriguing hobbies, and who in general love to chat about every topic under the sun--and the Fairfax location will probably not be pedestrian-accessible. Still, given the choice between earning nothing and the lure of possible profit, I'm leaning toward the latter. And I like Steve. He's a stocky middle-aged white-goateed gay guy who sells vintage women's clothes and furniture, and he's always treated me kindly--and he depends on the market for his livelihood, so he'll be working to make the new one a success for all concerned. Much of the reason I'd stuck with the local market all these years was the congenial atmosphere that he'd fostered (he was assistant manager when Bob was in charge), and I suspect that this may be true for the new one he's beginning, particularly as at least some of my fellow vendors are following him to the new location.

We'll see. I'll have to get new business cards. All of the remaining 2500 of the 3000 I bought before Christmas have the Arlington market information on them.