Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Suffrage, Sushi and Sleeplessness

I registered to vote in Arlington yesterday. Unlike the DMV, where they required several forms of legal documentation of my identity and citizenship (including my passport) before they’d issue me a license, the Board of Elections didn’t even ask me to show picture ID when I filled out their form! So, driving a car is considered more an issue of national security than voting for government leadership?

I’ve kept unusual hours of late. Staying up until 2 AM is not that odd for me—in fact, it’s pretty standard—but getting up at 6:30 the next morning and heading to school to work on dissertation stuff before the sun has fully risen is scary. Perhaps my subconscious is getting even with me for procrastinating on the project. Or maybe my wakefulness is due to the combination of a pineapple-blueberry cocktail and California rolls at dinner last night (a military officer girlfriend treated me). Either way, I’ve been jolting out of my bed at dawn to open my laptop and stare bleary-eyed at jpeg files of German textbooks. Chapter 1 is due to my advisor by October 15—I should mention that this date has been revised several times, as members of my family keep dying. I’d prefer not to have to ask for another extension!

Of course, besides endowing me with unusual diligence in my studies, insufficient sleep and/or the consumption of great sushi is leading me to contemplate the Great Philosophical Questions: e.g. Is it wrong to pop corn in corn oil? Isn’t this the vegetable equivalent of stewing a calf in its mother’s milk?

Obviously, I need a nap. And some calmingly bland instant oatmeal.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

So Long, Fortune Cookie

When I was little, some three decades ago, all Chinese restaurants in the United States (or all those that I visited) had what I’ll term a “pre-revolutionary” d├ęcor. The places were Orientalists’ dreams, little oases of the mythic, exotic East. Frequently dark, the only illumination came from antique-style palace lanterns: hexagonal light fixtures of carved wood (or wood-simulating resin) in the shape of roaring dragons or elaborate curlicues, set with painted paper or glass panes, and hung with long, red silk tassels. I loved these lanterns, hanging like jewels in an Aladdin’s cave, their tiny glowing pictures of princesses and peasants giving glimpses of imaginary lands.

Tiny paper parasols, and sometimes little plastic monkeys, came in children’s drinks, and my sister and I could play for hours with these miniature toys. There were chopsticks embossed with red characters next to each plate, and from dusty speakers somewhere overhead in the darkness twangy non-octave music. Between that and the padparadsha-colored sweet and sour sauce, I was in heaven. But the best part of the meal was at the end...when we were given our fortune cookies.

I love fortune cookies. I like the way they taste—from childhood I have always thought that they must be the perfect reproduction of the Israelite's heaven-sent manna in the wilderness: “wafers made with honey”—and I love cracking them open and discovering the little slips of paper inside, printed with magical insights.

These paper oracles used to make cheerful prophecies: “You will soon find money,” “You will meet a handsome stranger.” Then, over the years, I noticed that they had morphed into complimentary personal observations: “You are well-liked by many people,” “You are intelligent and witty.”

Coincidentally, around the same time that state lotteries started becoming popular, bakers began utilizing the previously-blank side of the paper by printing strings of lucky numbers on the back of the slips.

More recently, vocabulary words have joined the numbers (reinforcing the fiction of the “education lottery,” maybe), so unlucky readers could “learn Chinese” while they were digesting dessert. (How, from reading poor approximations, one is supposed to learn Chinese—a language where tones are all-important, inflections distinguishing between words that are roughly transcribed the same way in Latin characters—I don’t know).

But these are not the innovations I deplore: just last week, I found that the fortune-cookie manufacturers have now forgone buttering you up before encouraging you to gamble and commit linguistic assassination… My last “fortune” read: “A new wardrobe brings great joy and change to your life.”

Unless this is a Sign From Above informing me that I am grievously out of style and in desperate need of a makeover (I suppose I shouldn’t rule this out completely), this is stark evidence that the fortune cookie, as originated, is dead, and the didactic consumerist cookie has taken its place. I suppose the next one I crack open will tell me that I need to buy a new computer and get my eyebrows waxed.

Alas, like the modern chrome and steel Chinese restaurant, with its abstract murals and sleek fluorescent lighting, there’s a lack of mystique in the modern fortune cookie, a materialism I had thought this confection rose sweetly above.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Led by two police cruisers, the funeral procession pulled slowly out of the United Methodist Church parking lot around 12:15. I drove Grandmommy's car behind the hearse, she in the front passenger seat, my mom and her middle sister in the back. Every single car we passed in either direction pulled over or stopped in respect for the passing dead and mourners, though we were on the main road through the center of town. One guy who was out jogging stopped and sat down, watching. God bless each of those people--it was such a gracious gesture, probably not seen outside small town America.

There were about 150 people at the 11 AM service, a good turn-out for a funeral that was publicized only by word-of-mouth (the Dublin paper didn't publish the obituary until early this afternoon, after the internment). Caregivers from the Benton House (the Alzheimers facility where Granddaddy had stayed just less than two months, entering three weeks after my father's funeral and leaving three weeks ago, when he fractured his hip) came. Grandmommy hugged them all, tearfully repeating how grateful she was for their kindness to her husband.

So many people came who had worked with Granddaddy at the VA (he was one of the head facilities management guys there for some 40 years) or at the construction company where he was an estimator (where he worked for almost a decade after he left the VA and couldn't stand being retired), fellow WWII veterans, members of the UMC Sunday School class, the Men's Prayer Breakfast, the American Legion post where he'd been a member for over 60 years, and members of the Boy Scout troop which he'd led back in the 1950s. Even the funeral director in charge of arrangements had known him for half a century.

The blue felted casket was draped with a large American flag. Granddaddy would have been so proud to see that, and his four grandsons all lined up as pallbearers, one in the uniform of a Navy Lieutenant. Grandmommy, the strongest, Godliest lady I have ever known, was in tears in the other front pew, supported by her three daughters, with us granddaughters with them. For sixty-three years Grandmommy and Granddaddy have been thought of, spoken of, and loved as a single entity, and now they are parted by death.

At the viewing Sunday evening, Granddaddy's old Navy uniform, the red braid and medals little dimmed, were displayed on an easel next to the casket. The flat screen played a DVD of a film a Boston-based interviewer had made of her weekend visit with Grandmommy and Granddaddy about six years ago, getting them to talk about their experiences. So many of the visitors were enthralled by the video that a small crowd ended up standing in a semi-circle, glued to the screen, laughing at the stories. The hard-of-hearing folks also raised the volume to a decidedly unfunereal level, and I had to rush to dampen it when one of the undertakers seemed on the verge of going into shock.

To my eyes, Granddaddy's prepared body did not look much like him. Mums and Grandmommy (Grandmommy and one of my cousins had been holding his hands when he died Friday afternoon) both commented how good he looked, but they had seen him most recently, when he was in distress, the last couple of weeks, when he had lost some forty pounds from his normal weight of 168 (which he maintained from about age 20 until just a few months ago--he could still wear his Navy uniform 70 years after he'd acquired it), and as Mums said, "looked like death." The skin was unnaturally pale, the lips in a grim line his never ever were, his crew-cut hair angled in, and someone had attempted to manicure his work-broken nails. It was a wizened husk, the occupant obviously absent, and (like Daddy's body), cold and hard to the touch.

The music at the funeral was lovely. We sang the Navy hymn, and were played out by the jaunty "Anchors Away." At the cemetery, a naval honor guard was waiting, a woman and one man all in white, with a bugler--his instrument tucked under one arm, standing off to the side. After the pastor's words, the simple notes of Taps were blown while two members of the guard raised and held the flag over the casket. They then carefully folded it, regulation-style (as Granddaddy did every day, and taught all us grandchildren to do), and then the officer at their head knelt and presented the star-spangled triangle to a weeping Grandmommy, with thanks for Granddaddy's service.

Today was the last day that Granddaddy's flag at home will be flown. My brother took it out and raised it to the top of the pole, then lowered it to half mast. A cool Georgia autumn breeze caught it and displayed the colors proudly in the morning light, and it remained on display until nightfall, when I drove away to return to Augusta. Grandmommy called me on my cell phone to make sure I got in safely. "We love you," she said, still speaking for both her and Granddaddy. "I love you," I told her.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


My dear Granddaddy, my mother's father, died yesterday afternoon in Dublin, GA. One of my cousins wrote a lovely, brief tribute to him on her own blog. I don't think I could have said it better, and I don't have such beautiful pictures. I am driving down to GA today. The funeral is scheduled for Monday afternoon. I miss him so much.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Russian Way of Death

Classes at Georgetown began last Wednesday, and I have been assigned to TA the undergraduate early Russian history class, in which there are more students than squirrel-hides in a packet (a standard unit of medieval Russian trade-currency, from which the modern word "sorok"--40--is derived). Electronic devices are verboten in the room, and so the students and I are handwriting our notes, which is a pleasant retro exercise, unencumbered by the distractions of internet chatting or cell phone texting.

Having recently read Mary Roach's entertaining Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (her visit to UT's Body Farm was briefer than that of Patricia Cornwell's fictional investigator, but as piquant in its own observations), and having promised a friend of mine that while he was daily writing 1500 words during the month of September on what could become the next English-language bestseller, I would be penning my dissertation, I was encouraged to investigate Russian funerary and mortuary practices. After all, Pirogov had to have obtained the cadavers he sliced for his anatomical studies from some source, and there was some back-story to his having been embalmed for public display, a curious amalgam of Orthodox religious tradition and secular scientific innovation. I thus have two bags full of books from Lauinger Library on the subject of death and burial, and a scheduled meeting with my adviser on Thursday afternoon. Her brother-in-law died of lymphoma just a few weeks ago (he was in his forties), so her own view of my necrocentric study may be jaundiced.