Monday, October 27, 2014

Three Cat Day

I got twelve pairs of vintage gloves--all of which fit my small paws--at a garage sale for $15 on Saturday.  I am looking forward to wearing them (perhaps they will keep me from indulging in my  ongoing trichotillomania, which leaves my cuticles raw, and will keep my skin from drying out easily during the winter months, which condition only encourages me to pick at it).  I also met a nice orange tabby, who was overseeing the sale.  It consented to have its head rubbed after it had observed me for a bit.

Saturday afternoon Susanna had invited me to go on a walk with her in Hitchcock Woods, a large swath of undeveloped land in Aiken, SC, restricted to pedestrians and equestrians.  A brown tabby touring the neighboring paddocks presented itself for admiration and affection before we went in among the trees, attention which I was glad to bestow.

The woods were lovely, green (most leaves here haven't turned their autumn colors yet--the exceptions being the gloriously scarlet maples at the entrance to my subdivision), and crisscrossed with hoof-printed paths, and featured the occasional ominous sign tacked to a tree warning of possible quicksand after heavy rain.  Susanna assured us that she'd never encountered quicksand, but I hastened over the "sand river" a bit nervously.  I would love for my mother and I to go there to bike-ride, but the only wheeled contraptions permitted are horse-drawn.

The other lady walking with us shared the recent adventure of her musician son, who is principle trumpet for a large European orchestra. His instrument was stolen weeks ago, and he was eventually contacted by the thieves, who wanted him to pay a hefty ransom for it.  He went to the police, who (after making him go through considerable paperwork) went undercover nearby when he met the extortionists, and he was able to get the trumpet back without losing any money.  Yet, one of the arrested thieves had the crust to call him later to complain about him breaking their deal (to pay up).

At Susanna's house, her lovely Raisa, her all-year-round Halloween cat--lovely thick black coat, black whiskers, black toe pads--was waiting for us to lavish her with praise and strokes.  I told Susanna that her furry companion needed her own personal pumpkin as Raisa purred and preened under my fingertips, then arranged herself artistically on the brick patio in front of us.  If I had access to a kiln, I'd make her a food dish in the shape of a jack-o-lantern, but as it is, she'll have to make do with just the human face-pot I made for her ten years ago as a water bowl.

She's handsome and she knows it. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014


I've accumulated two local ESOL students over the last fortnight: I am tutoring one from Russia (a married woman with children) and one from China (a high school guy).  The former is determined to improve her already considerable language skills, while the latter may require being dragged by his lapels into the broader world of knowledge.  Both are thoroughly nice and extremely intelligent; just their level of motivation is vastly different. The guy is addicted to League of Legends--much to the frustration of the adults in his life (both here and overseas--his guardian led me to believe that his parents threw up their hands and packed him off abroad in hopes of breaking his online gaming habit)--and I've got to come up with a way of engaging him in learning away from the computer.  The woman is actually a medical doctor fluent in three other languages prior to English, and she looks forward to becoming comfortable in the culture, and possibly employed in research in her field, as she and her family are due to stay here for at least five years.  The high school student ultimately needs to pass the TOEFL and get into a decent university (his math and science skills are great).

I was once told that when you are trying to figure out how to teach material to someone, you study more than you did when you were a student yourself, and this has been proven true.  Since these two students are wholly dissimilar in terms of stage of life, interests and social background, not to mention home country and native language, each requires an individually-tailored plan to address his or her needs.  Yesterday, I decided to have Katya read through a selection on the history of Halloween, both to practice her pronunciation and to introduce her to the American holiday.  In preparing for the lesson, I read several articles about how we got our contemporary celebration, and discovered that its current incarnation is only about a century old.  As an historian, it's fascinating to me see how traditions that we take for granted as having been passed down from ancient times are, in fact, of relatively recent genesis.  For example, trick-or-treating as we practice it today was only first mentioned in the 1920s.  And, contrary to popular understanding, Halloween was usually a fairly benign, if not relatively positive holiday in both the old pagan and the Christian traditions--although it marked the remembrance of the dead, there does not seem to have been the level of gruesome terror associated with it that many people now incorporate in their decorations.  As a matter of fact, the theatrical qualities of festooning houses with elements evoking dismembered murder victims is probably more an influence of Hollywood than heritage.

Teaching someone your language can feel like a game of Taboo, where you have to describe an object or concept without using particular off-limits words, since you realize they don't know the "clarifying" words either.  And there are so many basic concepts that one language takes for granted as universal than in fact are not.  For example: the case of the color red.  To some it symbolizes blood, to others Communism, and to others, (particularly in Asian countries) good luck.  The American good luck color, by way of contrast, is green (thanks to our Catholic Irish influences and the general hue of our currency).  I suspect the phrase "capitalist running dogs" is somehow a grave insult in Mandarin, but to us it's a funny image, not a hurtful one.  Neither of my students knows much about American history (world history is not a subject on which they are tested in China, I was told today), and though I do know a pretty fair amount about Russian history, I can't say the same for that of places further southeast.  At any rate, I am going to try to "elicit" (a good TESOL instructional term) as much language from my students as possible while teaching them about the United States and general English vocabulary.

My friend June and I hope to complete our initial applications to work as ESOL instructors abroad by the end of this week (we've been saying this for more than a month now, but by golly...).  My international teaching CV has to be topped with a head shot, and list my age, number of dependents, and marital status--all data technically illegal to ask for here in the US, but essential to any attempt at finding employment overseas.  I hope 40 is considered a lucky age number in some places!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Grandmommy's (& Bob's) Birthday

Grandmommy's 92nd birthday was today.  We ate well, and there was the traditional picture with the ice-cream cake...

And then things got a little frisky after we'd had dessert...

...thanks to my uncle's dirt bike.

Then, my tall cousin, his wife, my uncle and I managed to get down some of that cluster of pears that was hanging out of my reach...

...many were the size of an infant's head!

Bountiful fruit!

We are so blessed in my family to have Grandmommy and my medical brother Bob, who shares her birthday.  Many more happy, healthy years to them!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Poison & Acid

I hate roaches. Hate, hate, hate roaches!!  Spiders, I can see the point of, even if we aren't on the most cordial terms.  But what is the purpose of a roach?  They skitter around in the dark spreading filth.  I swear, they appeared after the Fall. They also tend to move indoors in the fall as the weather cools, and so I have had the unpleasant experience of finding two in my house over the last 48 hours. Both I slew with copious amounts of bug spray.  I have anointed all the thresholds and the overhangs beneath the kitchen and bathroom cabinets with insecticide, so the first and last born of this nasty and speedy brown beetle, together with their brethren, will not be permitted to thrive.  Ick.

Praise God I didn't put my metal testing kit in the same drawer with my diamond tester. Acid and expensive electronics don't mix well.  I would have been sick if something had happened to my Presidium III. As it was, one of the acid bottles somehow leaked slightly, the gas rusting the blade of my Olfa cutter and destroying an entire spool of elastic beading cord.  The testing kit is now in the garage, where I should have left it to begin with.  There, the only casualty to gas may be the occasional roach, and I'd welcome that. It makes my spine tingle to see them dashing for cover when I open the door and turn on the light (happily, I've never seen more than a couple at a time, but that's two too many for me!).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ides Of October

It's been a fortnight since this blog officially crossed the decade threshold with an average of about 115 posts per year.  Right now, according to Google, my readership is majority American and Ukrainian, with a smattering of visitors from Europe and the Far East.  Thanks to all who read and cordially comment!

For all the panic-stricken press the Ebola patients in Texas have received, everyone here in the US should be grateful that there was but a single original case, and that the subsequent infections have been as quickly treated and as closely scrutinized as they are.  Frankly, a deliberate multi-point biohazardous threat agent attack by an enemy (such as that imagined by the late Tom Clancy in his 1997 novel Executive Orders) would have caught the US healthcare system with its knickers round its knees. The lack of clear nursing care protocols, the fact that the CDC initially instructed those potentially affected to "get in touch with a local healthcare provider" rather than setting up a national hotline to triage cases without risking further exposure of the general population (they may have done this by now--a person possibly leaking deadly viruses shouldn't be shunted to the nearest urgent care or emergency room!), and the now-public knowledge that there are only four civilian hospitals with appropriately isolated wards (I visited one when I was in the BTAEID program at Georgetown--it was tiny and pitiful, as was the cramped space on a nearby military base which had actually been used to quarantine the occasional bacteria-exposed researcher) in the entire country suitable to treat the sick is all evidence that despite some twenty years of public speculation, the US has done a poor job of preparing for the next potential pandemic.  The relatively slow and contained onset of this particular outbreak on American soil is a blessing--the disease can be monitored in a controlled environment, and whatever initial conditions led to the unfortunate nurses' infections can be avoided henceforth.

Back in the old days of slow land and sea-travel, countries could attempt to stop diseases at their borders through the use of quarantines. Often, quarantines were places where those who had escaped exposure at their origin point or en route could fall victim to various germs within hailing distance of their destinations, but this also was a relatively acceptable method of slowing transmission geographically.  At least among legal immigrants. Then, as now, illegal border-crossing was rampant.  Furthermore, fears about disease were often used to discriminate against particular ethnic groups.  I have read hysterical pleas for all human migration from West Africa to be curtailed, but not only is this impossible, it is impractical, and potentially cruel, as it condemns the healthy who are not trained to deal with biological contamination to continued contact with the sick.  Sending in American military supplies to the workers trying to treat the ill and stop further infections is one of the wiser decisions our government has made in a while.

AIDS has a 100% mortality rate. Ebola has a 50% rate.  Both are horrible odds, and neither is a comfortable way to die.  Thankfully, HIV can be slowed in its tracks thanks to various drug "cocktails", and mortality postponed for years for the infected.  Ebola has a much faster gestation, and so there is not the time for intervention that is available to most HIV positive patients. However, HIV can be spread among people who are asymptomatic, whereas Ebola has been found only transmissible when the virus has replicated sufficiently to cause symptoms.  The relatively short period between exposure and symptom-development for Ebola is thus also as much a blessing as a curse--past three weeks from exposure, there is no need to worry about having the illness.

Given that Americans are generally well-nourished and basically well-physicked (if not well-insured), I do not think an epidemic of anything besides paranoia is much likely here.  Poor Africa, on the other hand, is a continent long hostage to high HIV rates, and should the Ebola virus enter such unfortunate populations, the death toll could reach medieval European bubonic plague levels.  And given that worldwide travel in hours, rather than weeks or months, is normal these days, trying to shut down the outbreak in and around its point of origin is the best course, rather than waiting fearfully for it to spread internationally.  Would that deliberate human meanness were so easily addressed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dancing In The Rain

I brought the rain back with me from Virginia, where my fraternity brothers (and two spouses) and I spent a sodden weekend in a thankfully large rental house (the mainly male herd of children was mostly relegated to the basement, while the adults hung out upstairs).

Many girls have sorority sisters, but my only (non-genetic) "Greek" association in college was with a co-educational service fraternity. Most of my friends were members, and with them I am still very close, so every year we "brothers" get together near our alma mater in the Shenandoah Valley for a long weekend. I am afraid that the last couple of years the primary financial burden of this gathering has rested on the shoulders of the more moneyed siblings, but all of us dream about being able someday to afford a "family compound" where we could stay permanently.  So, over champagne and chocolate, we spent hours reading local property listings to each other, searching for "must haves" like turrets, brick, views of the mountains, historical connections, large verandas, and so forth.  Some of the real estate copywriters had clearly been drinking in proximity of a thesaurus--to us, only severe drunkenness could explain the description of one rather pretty house as "Distinctive Victorian architecture in the heart of Downtown Lexington with bold contours and striking detail on a grandiose scale."  Oy.

I didn't return from the Blue Ridge with any items I might "flip" to pay for the trip.  Two years ago, I found a fabulous vase which I was able to turn into a lamp base and sell for three times my investment. This year's visit to the local antique mall after church was basically my gathering evidence that there is a lot of junk in the world, and some people are deluded that it is worth large sums of money.  

Today I had a job interview for what may be a full time teaching gig at a local private school. I am supposed to sit in on several classes Thursday to get a feel for the work.  I liked what I saw during the English class I observed today.  I would have Chinese and Korean exchange students!

This evening, on the invitation of a church friend, I went to a dance-exercise class at the downtown public library. This may seem a rather odd venue for sweating people to twist and step pounds away to the thump of loud music, but the new library building is so large that it has plenty of sound-proofed space for fitness classes. I was so glad there was a water fountain close by! I was ringing wet with sweat in just minutes. I hope these weekly sessions improve my lousy coordination and reduce my Rubenesque figure to the point where I can again get my jeans zipped...

Tomorrow is my first formal tutoring session with an independent ESOL student.  I hope I can be useful to her!

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Illustrations For Preceding Posts

The best selfies are with Grandmommy!

This is "leftovers" at Grandmommy's house.

Pinecone cob, denuded by squirrels. They made the yard look like it was covered with discarded barbecue chicken legs.

Dessert al fresco.

An unreachable cluster of pears--each pear in the bunch is larger than my fist.

And lest it be thought I was exaggerating the abundance of scuppernongs/muscadines...

Sweet freckled fruit.

Grandmommy snacks on scuppernongs.
Grandmommy has a vendetta against mushrooms in her yard, but when my mother and I went on a walk down by the Savannah River several weeks ago, we came across a thick shroomy thicket in the woods that we left undisturbed.  Sometimes even my old iPhone can capture fungi--

--and get some good snaps of the flora, too.

Preparatory to my most recent legume-heavy meal over at John and my mother's...our aperitif was in the form of our own individual bottles of Beano.

Well, now I have to hit the bottle of zinc tablets--I feel a cold coming on and I'm supposed to hang out with friends in Virginia this weekend!

Smoldering Ears, Simmering Pears

Nate's ears must have been burning--just hours after I'd explained to some curious younger friends about my past living situations in DC, this nice former housemate of mine messaged me to ask if I'd serve as a sort of character reference for him for potential female renters of the basement apartment in the house he now owns (clearly, infectious disease research pays better than history). I assured him that I'd vouch for his upstanding character.  He's still playing rugby, and is working at a DC-area university, determined that his students will actually absorb some ability to made reasonable deductions based on principles taught, not merely parrot rote answers.  The quality--or at least the independent thinking abilities--of the undergraduates is getting his knickers in a twist.  It was good to hear from him after some seven years' silence. Apparently his rugby team, in concert with the Australian Embassy, is holding some sort of social evening soon to raise awareness of prostate cancer, and he urged me to attend if I were in the area at the time.  He said there would be a lot of large muscular men with Aussie accents there.  Tempting...but I truly have no idea what I would say to other guests at such an event...

I gave away only four pears out of the five gallons I picked Saturday, so this evening I got out my rotary hand-cranked apple-peeler/corer and dispatched the remainder in about an hour, putting the naked spirals in my huge copper pot and cooking them down to sauce.  I sampled a spoonful and it's yummy without any sugar added.  I'm hoping a bit more of the water (I didn't add any--the fruit was moist enough to boil in its own juices) will evaporate before I freeze the sauce in small packs.

My arms are sore from digging a six cubic foot trench in my back yard yesterday.  I ended up having to use a hatchet on the hard clay when my shovel was only able to shift small pieces below the thin layer of plant-worthy soil.  It took hours.  But when I was finally satisfied (and too tired to keep chipping downward), I filled the trench with potting soil, sand and manure, and put in three blueberry bushes (two that had not yet fully drowned, and a replacement for the one that had).  Then I spent hours straightening the garage.  And then I wrote out price-tickets for a third of the jewelry still cluttering up my living room floor.  So, I am actually getting tasks accomplished!

I got a note early this afternoon from a person trying to arrange ESOL tutoring for a recently-arrived Russian speaker, a gig which I would love to get!  My friend June and I are formulating our individual lesson plans for the overseas teaching application we've been working on.  I'm brainstorming about American holidays, and what sorts of associated traditions we have, and how to explain these to foreigners. Would Korean elementary school students like to make hand turkeys to illustrate Thanksgiving? Or maybe they could paste together paper masks for Halloween?  Or should I sing Christmas carols--thereby damaging their delicate ears?  I need to be able to engage the younger set in thinking about special annual events, and the food, themed decorations and activities that go with them.

Suggestions and descriptions from other Americans about what holidays mean the most to you and why are very welcome!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

At Grandmommy's & Days Before

Grandmommy and I went out to the side yard this afternoon rake up "that ol' squirrel mess" as she called it. The squirrels are eating their way through the ripe pinecones, skinning off the wooden petals of each cone in their quest for seeds, and dropping the chips and the cone cobs around the trees.  Each tree's cones seem to be ripening at a slightly different time, as the fluffy-tailed blighters have left a mess around each thick trunk successively. Grandmommy said she picked up 42 cone-cobs beneath one tree one day.  Those squirrels are packing on the pounds for a long, cold winter.

It was a beautiful day, breezy and cool, and before raking we had lunch on the screened in porch. Grandmommy left all the doors in the house open to the fresh air.  Anyone who sneers at the consumption of leftovers has not had Grandmommy leftovers--vegetables, sweet potato soufflĂ©, potatoes, barbecue--all absolutely delicious. As I inhaled forkful after forkful at the porch table, looking out at the green lawn, the sun-dappled leaves, the confederate rosebush with its pink and white blossoms, listening to the swish of the wind through the treetops, I couldn't help but revel in quiet joy.  A foretaste of heaven, really.

Grandmommy is moving a little slower, and she's more cautious about maintaining her balance, but she still can best me raking and at most other work. I wish I were as productive as she is.  The cone-petals rattled like seer's bones as we brushed them into piles and lifted them into the wheelbarrow to take to the roadside, an incongruous death sound on such a clear and life-filled day. And the pecan trees are clouded with caterpillar webs, an early and unwelcome Halloween look.  Grandmommy said that Granddaddy used to back up his truck under the trees, set up a tall ladder in the back and climb up to cut out the webs, but none of us are as brave or as foolhardy to do this these days.

After a break for pie, teacakes and Scrabble (I won the first game, she the second), we went down into the backyard to pick up the falls from the Kiefer pear.  And though my uncle thought he'd gotten all the fruit within reach still on the tree, I pulled off pears enough to pack a five-gallon bucket.  There were limbs just a few feet higher that were loaded like bunches of grapes with huge golden fruit (each bigger than my fist), but they remained tantalizingly out of reach.

People often can't comprehend how Edenic Grandmommy and Granddaddy's back yard is until they visit--the sheer abundance of edibles from spring to fall is difficult to imagine. The scuppernong vines are also loaded.  Grandmommy said the other day she stood there and ate fifty purples and then fifty green-gold ones to see which she preferred, couldn't decide, and ate ten more of each.  The ground is thick with scuppernongs that have gotten too ripe and fallen, and scores of ants and yellow-vested black bees are busy devouring them. I'd love to have scuppernong honey!

The anticipation of an interview—no matter how trivial the job—leaves me sleepless and jittery, filled with nervous energy.  Wednesday night, I was up until 4 AM, and back awake at seven Thursday morning.  Fumbled my way into the kitchen for breakfast and poked through the pantry, hoping a fresh plate of scrambled eggs and crisp bacon would be sitting on a shelf, but eventually ended up fishing out a bag of desiccated store-brand “steam in a bag” veggies from the back of my refrigerator and eating them raw.

“Baby” carrots, hah!  These were not tender orange nubbins, tumbled to smooth cabochons, but clearly mutton dressed as lamb—the tough hearts of ancient sticks, their bark roughly whittled away by irritable men with pocketknives.  They resembled primitive railroad spikes (the taste wasn't dissimilar). I felt braced and ready to forge ahead, like a locomotive.  A handful of candy corn and a can of reconstituted tomato juice completed my morning repast.

I actually have both eggs and turkey bacon in my fridge, but preparing them would have required getting out a skillet and five minutes of cooking.

I was up to the wee hours Wednesday constructing a personal statement between 500 and 800 words about why I wanted to teach English to speakers of other languages overseas, what my teaching philosophy was, and how I handled cultural differences.  The next stage of this particular application for international employment is to compose a comprehensive lesson plan.  So far, only one of the four people I emailed asking for recommendation letters has responded.  I think I must live near a digital black hole, into which all internet correspondence to or from me is sucked away, because not only do I seldom get any acknowledgement of my numerous employment applications, conventional interpersonal emails go unanswered.

Back in the analog world of my yard, for months I have been waging war against the elephant ears my mother had planted in the bed beneath the bathroom windows.  The initial plants had metastasized from the original location, depositing pointy root-pods hither and thither, and I've been yanking out young plants and the alien tubers until I am exasperated. I want to have fruit-bearing plants like a miniature version of Grandmommy's yard, not a thicket of huge inedible tropical weeds!

I found out why one of my in-ground blueberry bushes died (the two in the patio pots are thriving)--two inches below the surface of the soil in my blueberry patch is solid red Georgia clay, something I couldn't see when I was planting by candlelight. Clay does not "perk", and so the poor blueberries have basically been sitting in stagnant water all summer. I'm going to have to dig up the whole bed, add mulch and sand, and re-plant the survivors, plus the replacement Grandmommy has promised me from the "outliers" in her back yard.

Not a peep from any of the interviews from last week and this. I need sleep.