Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Paterbulence, Key to Gravity, and Cellular Centrifugality

Me: Dad, if you can turn that down and still hear it, would you please turn it down—if you can’t, nevermind.
Dad: [brusquely turns TV off]
Me: You didn’t have to turn it off.
Dad: Well, if I can’t hear it, there’s no point in having it on, and I can’t hear it with the volume down.
Me: I said not to turn it down if you couldn’t hear it.
[tense pause]
Dad: I didn’t think you’d mind the volume; you had it up the other night during Mystery.
Me: What are you talking about? What does that have to do with anything? You didn’t ask me to turn it down the other night. I don’t see what that has to do with anything.
Dad: I’m just saying, I didn’t complain about the volume during Mystery.
Me: I’m not complaining. I thought if you didn’t need the sound up, you might turn it down. If you need it up that loud, fine. It’s not that big of a deal.
Dad: Well, I turned it off; I didn’t make it a big deal. You’re the one that won’t let it go.
Me: [getting up to leave the room] I asked as nicely as I know how.
Dad: [eyes widening] I will NEVER watch TV up here again!

Imagine this conversation repeated in slightly different forms, 7-14 times per week, and you know one small pattern that orders my life. This is the Pattern of TV-induced Paterbulence.

Other patterns involve attraction and repulsion:

1. The Key to Gravity. Certain zones exert an unusual attraction over my keys. The closer I get to the front door of my parents' house, for instance, the stronger the pull of the earth's core on my keys. As soon as I lift my hand to the lock, gravity yanks the keys from my fingers and sucks them to the ground. Some days, on approaching the stoop, I simply throw the keys down first, an offering to physics, just to get the annoyance out of the way. In one notable variation on this pattern, once, as I rose to exit the passenger's seat in a car, my keys flung themselves from my lap directly into the sewer on a street in downtown Providence. The arc was difficult and precise. I could have practiced tossing my keyes toward that opening for weeks without hitting it.

2. Cellular Centrifugality. Whenever the Russian needs his cell phone, it is "at hand." The phone is not literally in his hand or pocket, which is what makes it so weird. But he has the phone "about" him somewhere. I don't know how this works. The phone rings and he brings it forth, somehow, from somewhere, by means of some magic. In contrast, I rarely ever have my cell phone. I almost never hear it when it rings, because the phone is usually far, far away. My cell phone lives a life independent of me in which it explores places I would never guess to look. I recently spent half a day questing after this cell phone. The Russian finally found it nestled in the pocket of a fluffy hot pink bathrobe, stuffed in a plastic tub atop a bunch of other plastic tubs, in a closed up, box-filled room in our disaster-zone, under-renovation house. I remember dragging out the robe that morning (Me, delighted: "Oh! here's my pink, fluffy robe!) and then, bored, shoving it back in the box, but I have no recollection of putting my phone in the pocket. Why would I do that? Most weeks I will lose the phone variously, in chairs, cars, restaurants, and most often and oddly, in my purse. Indeed, when the phone chemotaxies itself away from me by burrowing into the comparatively shallow depths of my purse, I can forget about laying hands on it for some time, even when I can see the phone light and hear the ring. The phone does this, I believe, as a kind of taunt. Getting the blinking phone to the mouth of the purse before a call goes to voicemail is a project by which I have been defeated on numerous occasions.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Essay on Faculty Meetings

When I was a university professor, before I quit to go back to school to become a nurse, I found myself nervous and irritated with pretty much everyone and everything all the time. That may be partially ...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Monday, July 27, 2009


This morning I requested a transfer of funds to PayPal from a checking account that I am planning to close. The account is in a bank in another state five hours away. Using PayPal, I withdrew $60 from the account, which holds $90. I left $30 for unexpected-expected surprise fees that the bank is sure to levy for some thing or other before the account actually closes.

After requesting the PayPal transfer, I reviewed the “My Account” page in PayPal, where, to my dismay, the requested transfer appears not once but twice.

I waited a second. I refreshed the screen. Then, I checked the details.

Net amount: $60.00 USD
Date: Jul. 27, 2009
Time: 07:12:33 PDT

Net amount: $60.00 USD
Date: Jul. 27, 2009
Time: 07:12:34 PDT

No big mystery here. Finger spasm. Static electricity. I am sure there are other possibilities.

The real mystery is why PayPal has absolutely no feature in their program to prevent this from happening. How is it that PayPal’s transfer tool allows the entry of two unique transactions in one second without a security feature to question or confirm the separate entries? What if I had been transferring $2000 instead of $60?

Even more puzzling is why PayPal refuses to reverse the request. After wasting 2 or 3 minutes “chatting” with the virtual chat person “Sara” about absurdly unrelated issues, I called PayPal and spoke with a no more helpful but at least live representative who officiously informed me the deal was a done deal. Period.

Other than death there are no periods. None. Anything “done” can be “undone,” modified, or counteracted. The question is whether or not the company with which you are wrangling has instructed its customer service representatives to help customers resolve problems or to recite policy and procedure to them.

My assumption is that PayPal, like other businesses, wants on some level—at least rhetorically—to make its customers satisfied and happy, to create an experience that will leave their customers inclined to return and recommend the product to others. With that in mind, my advice to PayPal:

• the program needs a feature to prevent simple customer mechanical error from creating duplicate transfer requests,

OR, if that’s too tough for the programmers,

• the customer service people need to be trained/allowed to reverse accidental transfers or to apply a simultaneous credit to the bank account that will, in effect, cancel the order.

After beginning this blog, I was abandoned for 10 minutes on hold waiting to speak with a call-center supervisor. I hung up, calmed down, and called back. I spoke to another representative and then waited 15 minutes on hold to talk to her supervisor. Finally, the supervisor reconfirmed that the PayPal system is so inflexibly designed that nothing can be done to credit or reverse the transaction.

I will now get in my car, drive to a local bank where I have funds, and request an external transfer of $60 to the out-of-state bank. The transfer will cost me $12, which is better than the $30 overdraft fee I may otherwise incur from my bank when PayPal withdraws $120 from my underfunded account. Additionally, the whole fracas, initiated between the 33rd and 34th second in the twelfth minute of the seventh hour of this very morning has since cost me 2 hours and is bound to cost another.

While the spasm or electricity was probably mine, I am disappointed and annoyed that PayPal has done nothing to prevent the duplication from occurring in the first place. Moreover, in none of the conversations I had with PayPal representatives did I hear anything like an acknowledgment of the glitch or any whisper of interest in passing information about the problem along to the web techs. I am not even convinced that any of the customer service reps took the time to understand exactly what happened. I will stop obsessing over this now, but in closing, I wonder how many of the merchants with which PayPal does business also show such scant interest in their customers’ needs.

Monday, May 18, 2009

New dill, new lettuce

My first harvest of the season! So tender, so sweet!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Brain Scrammblage

I think I may need to see a neurologist. I have had two very frightening episodes of mental confusion in the past two days. I always have a sort of normal muddle-headedness and "too-much-on-my-mind" confusion, but this has been different. Yesterday, at the going-away party my supervisor threw for those of us who are leaving the department, I told my friend Melanie that I had had plans to drive with the Russian to deliver a car to a woman in Charleston, South Carolina, this past week. Oleg and I would have left Wednesday and then flown back today (Saturday). Melanie asked why I didn't go, and I couldn't remember--at all. Oleg went, but on Tuesday I decided to stay. That's all I could remember. I even lost a non-refundable plane ticket back from Charleston, so it wasn't as if I'd decided to not go to the post office or to not do laundry. Still, I could not remember WHY I decided not to go.

After Melanie asked the question, I paused for a really long time; I was frantically scanning, trying to recall what I had been thinking on Tuesday, what I told Oleg, but it was GONE--I had NO idea, I was completely blank. I idiotically said, "I don't remember." I was embarrassed. Then, this morning, it hit me that I didn't go because my department chair emailed Monday to say that she was planning our going-away party for Friday: if I had gone to SC, I would not have been able to attend the going-away party--the party that I was AT when Melanie asked me why I wasn't in Charleston.

Worse, today, I actually got LOST returning from a grocery store located a quarter mile from our house. This is a small, small town. I was not trying a new route--there is no other route--but merely driving the same four roads that I have travelled, how many? 6,000 times or something. Suddenly I didn't know where I was or where I was supposed to go next. I couldn't tell if I was on my own street or north of my house, or whether I had passed the alley or not yet reached it. The houses seemed familiar, which is good, since I drive that stretch of street EVERY DAY on the way to campus, but still I had no idea where I was in relation to my own house--I saw bunch of things that I "knew" but none of them made sense in relation to each other--I couldn't map anything. It took me another block and a couple turns to figure out that I had been one block past and one up from where I live. This is like walking out of your bathroom and realizing you don't remember how to get to your bedroom.

Before I figured out where I was, I got so scared my hands went numb. I thought, what do I do? should I pull over and wait a few minutes or just keep driving until something makes sense? I was ONE block from my f'ing house. I felt nauseated. Panic attack? stroke? brain tumor? residual effects of alien abduction? onset of acute stupidity? overdramatization of normal reaction to stress?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Patriotism in the Age of Torture

Nothing has made me more wary of blind patriotism in the past several years than the debate over torture--especially the absurd justification of using torture to elicit information from suspected terrorists by the CIA and their contractors. The argument seems designed to answer concerns of utility and efficacy: torture efficiently protects thousands of US citizens at the cost of maltreating one evil anti-American.

The suggestion that torture is somehow warranted because it is efficacious bothers me enormously.

I doubt if fanatics ever consider themselves fanatical. I think of this when footage of Dick Cheney appears in the news. The notion that the US government's mission to protect America puts its actions outside or above the standards of international human rights is a fanatical idea. Why, I wonder, are sociopathic acts committed on behalf of my country more acceptable than similar acts committed on behalf of another country/people/belief system? The acts themselves are unconscionable: who's who seems secondary. Indeed, the implications of a reasoning that deems human rights violations okay if they save American lives seems as dangerous to US citizens as any nightmare a terrorist might dream up. What do we have left that is worth protecting if our own actions gut the country of any principles worthy of our allegiance?

The safest thing ethically, it seems to me, is to be absolutely vigilant about avoiding and vigorous in condemning human rights violations altogether--by anyone, for any purpose. The torture of the very worst human being alive, even one with the very greatest potential to do the world harm, is still torture of a human being; admitting torture at all seems to preclude the notion that we are inherently of value--outside the determination of any group or government that might hold some humans to be more valuable than others. A slippery slope?

So, I was thinking about torture because I am interested in Obama's decision to oppose the release of thousands of "new" images portraying the torture of prisoners who are suspected of terrorist activity. The NYT reported Obama's revised stance on the release of the photographs this morning, and the article included a weighing-in by the ACLU:

"Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., said the decision to fight the release of the photos was a mistake. He said officials had described them as 'worse than Abu Ghraib' and said their volume, more than 2,000 images, showed that 'it is no longer tenable to blame abuse on a few bad apples. These were policies set at the highest level'" (

For my part, I would assiduously avoid seeing these pictures and am willing to trust that they are full of horror. I wonder, though, does the world, the public, everyone have a "right" to see the images? American citizens surely have the right "to see" that their governnment systematically ("policies set at the highest level") employs practices that it exists to protect US citizens from, no?

At the same time, should the people who were first tortured now also be porned nightly on Fox News for three weeks until viewers, with questionable reasons for wanting to see the images to begin with, lose interest?

To the extent that the individuals tortured are guilty of harming or plotting to harm other people--US or not--certainly, they deserve to be tried in fair courts, and, if found guilty, to be sentenced with the punishment that law has assigned for the crimes. But the bad acts and intentions of terrorists cannot--at least as I see things--alleviate the duty of the US to account for its own inhumane practices.

Maybe the question should be whether the images of torture ought to be promptly handed over to an international human rights commission. Let the US atone for acts unworthy of a "world leader" and in that way, perhaps, regain some basis for pride among those of its citizens who need more than a big-screen TV in every livingroom to feel good about being American.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Classroom Miscellany

I have three more classes before my teaching career comes to a close. Here are some random things I have seen in classrooms during my relatively short teaching career of 15 years, including 10 years of graduate teaching (KU, Brown, Wesleyan, USD):

1. I once had a police officer deliver a subpoena to a student during class. It was an Honors class.

2. In my first large lecture course (67 students), in the second week of classes, I almost blacked out while lecturing. I just kept talking slower and slower, trying to read my notes through the little bright flashing lights and the tunnel through which I could see. Finally, a student in the first row jumped up and made me sit down; then I started sweating profusely.

3. One of my students wrote an entire in-class essay, two single-spaced pages, on how much he dreaded my class and expected soon to see my "rising star" fall hard.

4. A world-class ballerina attending college under a pseudonym cried in my office because she could not understand an essay on Lacan's mirror stage.

5. One semester I failed a quarter of the students in an American Literature survey course.

6. A student in an upper-level course for majors confessed to the class that he had to close the door to his bedroom in the fraternity house one evening because he found himself moved to tears while reading Maria Cummins's 1855 novel The Lamplighter for our class.

7. I rarely showed films in class, but I once showed a movie without first double checking the running time; I started the film in the second half of one class meeting; the movie extended over the next two meetings and into a third.

8. I have apprehended eight plagiarized papers.

9. In one particularly likeable class, there were a couple of young women in the front row who routinely sat with their arms around each other, heads on one another's shoulders, or legs intertwined, and another student who wore a bathrobe to class once a week because he was in an unstructured-dance club that met and cavorted about the green in various stages of undress just before class.

10. I once realized about ten minutes into a lecture that my pants were unzipped so I made a big production of being about to sneeze, excused myself, and ran out of the room. But then I was afraid that the class would know I was just pretending to sneeze, so I darted into the bathroom adjacent to the classroom and noisily pulled a bunch of toilet paper off the roll, which I knew they could hear and which I thought would lend verisimilitude to the phony sneezing. When I got back and started to talk again, I realized that I'd been so concerned about concealing the sneeze that I'd completely forgotten to zip up my pants, so I thought, what the hell, and just reached down and zipped them. But then, it occurred to me that the class might now think my sneeze had been so powerful that it had forced the zipper down on my pants. For some reason, this was intolerable, so I confessed the whole scenario. They looked at me as if I were insane.

And a sort of general note: students have a weird notion either that they are invisible or that the person yawping in front of them is utterly unconscious of what goes on three feet in front of her. As a result, they make faces, roll their eyes dramatically, yawn, pick their noses, scratch themselves and, my favorite, glare at other students. The dangerous thing is that while the professor can see what the students do, it's not always so easy to interpret.

Which reminds me of my own days as a student and two classes in particular, one when I was a sophomore at GWU and another when I was a grad student at Brown. In both, I somehow ended up having to sit next to a person who drove me absolutely bonkers. I recall being consumed with hot, irrational, screaming-inside, almost uncontainable hatred. In both cases, my feelings were prompted by the other person's habit of picking at himself (both were male): picking at his eyes, his ears, his scalp, different parts of his face, his neck. These guys' fingers were so busy excavating their own disgusting surfaces I don't know how they ever took notes. My repulsion grew and grew: I was like a character in a Poe story. I remember in both instances finding some relief in putting my hand up around my face on that side to shield myself from awareness of the movements. I wonder now if my professors saw any of this playing out and whether they knew I was reacting to the person next to me and found it amusing, or thought I was unaccountably appalled by their lectures and found it depressing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Easter Beer and Pizza

I went to church with my family on Easter. As I've said before on this blog, I was raised in the Methodist church, but I don't follow a religion anymore. Now that my brother's kids are at the age when the devil or wolves or something might get 'em there seems to be a new movement amongst us to go to church services, at least on major holidays.

Surprisingly, this Easter, even my dad went. My dad has been adamantly atheist since the IRS audited him 25 years ago and forced him into bankruptcy. He seemed unaccountably good-spirited about the prospect of attending church this year, although I did have to persuade him to change his clothes: he originally came downstairs dressed in charcoal gray and black. During the service, I kept looking to see if he was asleep or verging on a fit of some kind, but my mom's head was in the way.

Let me say, things have changed since I was a wee thing dolled up in Easter finery those bright Sunday mornings in spring. For one, few people in attendance were dolled up in anything approaching finery. Also, the Easter service, at least this year, at least in this church, was not held on Easter Sunday but on Saturday afternoon. There was no liturgy to speak of, and we met not in the church, in the nave, but in another room altogether, a carpeted gymnasium with a big stage and a screen. There was a band with a full brass section. People were dancing and clapping. I even saw some hand-raising. There was a video running above the stage. We saw a short film, a passion play produced like an MTV video. The service ended with a short clip from Desperate Housewives and a "tune in next time" joke.

I guess all of that was okay. People appeared to be engaged, energized, full of zip. I guess they thought about rebirth and redemption. The sermon was certainly forgettable--something very short and vague about the variations among the Gospels. I missed singing the Gloria-in-excelsius-deo song. I wondered, too, about communion. Truth be told, I like my church services one of two ways: either teach me something--give me a spiritual or ethical problem to chew on--or shut up and let me meditate (or sulk). In terms of organized Protestantism, that leaves me with the Unitarians or Quakers, I guess. I don't even mind hearing some politics, lamentation, or jeremiad--convict me, give me some thing to stew over. But this . . . variety show . . . too much song and dance. I was ready to go after 8.5 minutes. It didn't help that my niece and nephews, whom I love dearly, sat quietly for 8.5 minutes and then turned into tiny, well-dressed infidels intent on stressing me out. They discovered that they could stick their magic markers together into long, shaky poles which they then waved about dangerously near the heads of the two elder ladies in front of us, or they whacked the poles against the chairs so that the pens rolled into the aisle or under the seats. If you tried to dismantle the markers during construction, the child--whichever one was at hand--would utter a high-pitched sound of displeasure that seemed more disruptive than the potential disaster of poking the old ladies in the hair.

By the end, everyone else looked relaxed and happy, indeed, rejuvenated. My dad seemed in good spirits (which makes some sense: he dislikes the kind of church I prefer). The elderly ladies left without injury. The children recovered from whatever small traumas they sustained in having me growl and glare at them. In contrast, I had a raging headache which did not go away, even during Easter beer and pizza. Tune in next time when I will offer another long-winded, unenlightened and unenlightening account of my religous experiences: Easter service at the Syrian Eastern Orthodox church in Sioux City, Iowa, 2006.

Monday, April 20, 2009

On Becoming Aunt Nellie

The Russian has gone to Russia. He's looking for a way to become a billionaire--possibly, by manufacturing American barbeque sauce for Muscovites. I miss him, his funny ways, his Russian pride, his chefly way with steak and salmon, his kisses and hugs, the way he calls me, "Squooooorrrell." But I also find myself settling easily into a solitary life. It is familiar and quiet. I find myself becoming increasingly . . . mincing. I recline in my chair, looking around in calm satisfaction: every surface is sparkling clean, and each thing in its place. I eat neat, small, nutritionally balanced meals and wash all but the dishes I'm using before I even sit down. When I go to bed, everything is put away. Even the quilts on my bed lie over me square and flat and folded just so. I move from wakefulness to sleep as I move through the house, leaving no trace, no mess. In this, I can feel my great-great-Aunt Nellie growing under my skin, filling out my life like a balloon slowly inflating within a container.

When my dad was eleven, his mother Dorothy Emma died of Hodgkins Disease. Family photos show her in the year of her death to have had a pale, slightly bloated face, dark rings under sad brown eyes, a tired-looking smile. Dorothy Emma had an aunt, her mother's sister, named Nellie, and Nellie was married to a man named Howard. They never had children. Nellie worked for Ma Bell as a phone operator, a pretty good job for a young woman from the 1920s-70s. Howard was a security officer, although I don't know what he secured, a bank maybe. After my grandmother died, my grandfather, himself a police detective, began to drink heavily and was unable to care for my dad, so my dad was sent temporarily to live with his great-aunt Nellie and his great-uncle Howard.

I don't know much about these two. Here's what I do know: Howard was from the east but his family had something to do with the Native American Indian reservations in Oklahoma. Possibly, his mother or father taught at reservation or Indian boarding schools (we have pictures of assembled classes). When Aunt Nellie died, to everyone's great surprise, she left a hundred thousand dollars to Haskell Indian College, presumably at Howard's request (he was already dead). I have pictures of Howard posing for the camera in his security guard uniforms, or in overalls working in their small garden. My dad remembers Howard as a strong but gentle man, who paid some much-needed attention to a little boy, took time to show him how to do things. Unaccountably, I also have a picture of Howard standing with what appears to be a KKK rally a ways in the background; it is not clear whether he is attending or posing in front of the event. Howard died before I came along, so I never got to pose the question. But I do remember Aunt Nellie.

Aunt Nellie came to live with us in 1981, when I was 11, and she stayed for two years before she passed away. She was in her mid-seventies. The two years she spent in our house must have been a sort of hell for her, with my brother and I bounding around upstairs most of the day, although I would imagine life was better with us than it would have been in a nursing home. The downstairs in our split-level house was finished, had its own bathroom, good natural light, a fireplace, and my parents had had it renovated to form two rooms out of a single big one. When Nellie didn't want to eat upstairs--as was the case most breakfasts and lunches--my mom fixed her meals and took them downstairs on a tray. I cannot say for sure, but it seems like Nellie ate dinner with us most nights. I distinctly remember her smell, not a bad smell, just sort of papery and musty. Her mouth must have been dry, since when she spoke her spittle clicked and clacked like rustling celophane in her mouth. Her nose dripped, so she carried a pressed handkerchief with which she frequently dabbed the tip of her nose.

At dinner, Aunt Nellie liked to have a piece of meat, a soft vegetable, some bread, and always, a nice piece of fruit. Everything she ate, she cut into tiny, neat squares. Once my parents went out, leaving us in Nellie's care for the evening. She fixed hamburgers for dinner on the stove, cooking them in our smallest saucepan: two-inch-diameter hamburgers, one for each of us. The story is a legend in our family.

Now, the family teases me. They say I remind them of Aunt Nellie, especially when I eat. We are enjoying Easter dinner, for example, and I utter some cranky thing about the nuisance of birds and flowers and nature in general, mainly because I am allergic, or I cut my ham into perfect tiny cubes, because I enjoy the way ham slices so neatly under a sharp knife. Sure enough, out comes mom with, "Now, who does that remind you of!" And everyone else chirrups inanely, "Aunt Nellie!"

And, no wonder I am becoming Aunt Nellie. I must have stared like a little monkey at the poor woman throughout dinner, every night for two years. I inhaled her every move. I don't remember finding her especially delightful or repulsive, merely fascinating--precise and defined. Just as a child learns a language, soaking up the sounds and structure, so I soaked up the gestures, the small proprieties and inclinations of Aunt Nellie. And did so in concentrated doses. I had no other opportunity to observe her than at the table. Aunt Nellie had then, as I do now, limited patience for people under 18; she wasn't inviting me downstairs for tea and needlepoint in the afternoons. Even so, my memory was profoundly impressed by the tidy shape of her movements and the tight compass of her expression.

I feel my life at times developing along these lines of inference. And, they are only inference, since I have no idea what Nellie was in herself, to herself, with Howard, or even as a foster mother to my dad. Nor do my parents know any more than I. My dad was a child when he went to Golden City to live with Nellie and Howard, and he remembers only feeling safe and loved in their home. Besides, he only stayed for a year before returning to my grandfather's house. As adults in the early 1980s, my parents were struggling--not terribly successfully--to make ends meet and didn't spend much time with Nellie. I hope that she was not miserable or too lonely with us. She left no letters, no journals, no revealing manuscript memoir. What I am to know of her, it seems, I will have to remember and learn from myself as I get older.

I do have her books. Her legacy to us--to me, in effect--was a library of 200 or so volumes, including a slew of second-rate religious novels (Miss Mitford, Miss Read) as well as the much more congenial Little House on the Prairie series; Alcott's Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys; The Five Peppers, The Five Peppers Midway, and The Five Peppers Grown Up; a nice boxed Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass set; the collected works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the collected papers of Abraham Lincoln, and so on. Nothing particularly surprising, no James Joyce or Anais Nin tucked away to raise eyebrows. A copy of the Grimms Brothers is as racy as things get (that is pretty racy). Over the years, Aunt Nellie clipped articles from various newspapers about the books and their authors, folded them neatly, and enclosed them in the front covers. I read all of these--books and notices--consumed them. They had the flavor of Aunt Nellie.

Some nights, of late, with no Russian to watch basketball on tv in the evening, I pause in my reading to luxuriate in the quiet. The light from my lamp glows yellow on the furniture, the wood dustless, the sofa pillows angled in greeting. Things are in their places. My tea is steamy. I am waiting for my Russian to return, with or without his fortune. I am at peace, happy to be alone while I am waiting. But I am glad that it will end soon. What's that? I feel a tickle, a bit of moisture on the end of my nose. As I move to dab my nose, I bump the tea cup off the table with my elbow. Hot tea splashes against the chair, engulfs my slipper; broken bits of cup go bouncing along, falling into the ornamental grating on the floor. I jump to my feet, hurl my book at the wall, roar, "FUCKING HELL!!" and know with some certainty that whatever the future holds I am not Nellie yet.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Yesterday, my therapist, whom I hired in October because I was thinking again about driving into on-coming traffic, canceled my appointment for this morning. I was out of town during the semester break, so I haven't seen her since early December. The receptionist who called to do the canceling, asked me if I would like to reschedule, and after I said yes, she told me that there were no openings for next week because the Dr. had had to reschedule so many other appointments, so, would I like to schedule for the week after?

I know about transference, yet I haven't been able to shake the feeling of rejection all day. Why does it seem like I am the last in line? The whole thing is stupid and selfish, since I'm sure whatever led to the therapist's need to cancel and reschedule all these appointments is not good. Still.

I told the receptionist, nevermind, I will have to check my calendar and get back to her. The receptionist sounded taken aback. I thought--stupidly--Ha! that will show her.

Then, I had to call and verify receipt of a replacement debit card, since a couple of my credit/debit accounts were closed as a result of a recent security hoo-ha that apparently affected half the world. This turned out to be a far more frustrating experience than I think it ought to have been. After I called and entered my pin number as instructed on the new card, a phone recording told me that the pin number I entered was incorrect. I tried re-entering five more times (even though the recording said I'd be allowed only three total). When it became clear that my pin number was no longer my pin number, I called the woman at the bank, the one who sent the letter apprising me of the security event and the impending arrival of my new card. This person told me I had to select a new pin number, and then she asked me to tell her the number. I said, it's not very secure if you know what it is. And she said, in a comforting-slash-irritated tone, that once she entered it into the computer, it would be gone. I thought, how reassuring.

I used to believe that I might have OCD because I would call and check my bank and credit account balances by telephone--sometimes 2-3 times a day. I would feel anxious until I had established exactly how much money was in (or not in) each. I would add and re-add or just gaze intently at the spreadsheet I created to keep track of savings. God forbid anything weird should happen. When I had a payment arrive late at Citibank in 1998 or something, I nearly lost my mind. I cried until they waived the fee and a supervisor promised not to report me.

Worse, in 2002, a bankruptcy suddenly appeared on my credit report because a bank that loaned me money to pay tuition one semester in college got a co-signer on my account mixed up with someone else. I wasn't even the one involved in the mix up, and I eventually cleared up the mistake, but it took months, and in the meantime, I could hardly eat.

In 2003, when I lived for 9 months in Connecticut, that icon of corporate compassion Blockbuster reported me to a credit agency because I turned in a movie late and then did not pay a $13.00 late fee. I didn't even know I owed a fee! The day I received the credit agency letter was a day the manager of the Blockbuster in Middletown will not soon forget! I rolled into the store, yelled at the people waiting in line, yelled at the clerk behind the counter, yelled at the manager, cried, started hyperventilating. It was horrid. Most recently, someone (I suspect a restaurant worker at O'Hare Airport) sold, sent, or took one of my card numbers to Mexico and managed to charge over $3,000 on my account in a couple days. None of these experiences has had serious repercussions; they've mainly just been hassles. But the level of anxiety--exhorbitant.

These days, I check all my accounts 2-3 times a week and wonder if such impulses may be a fairly reasonable response to new cultural realities. We scatter ourselves across the Web in a million different ways, make facets of ourselves available and, I suppose, vulnerable. And not just our money.

Earlier this week I posted a list of 10 things other people will wish they didn't know about me. This is one of a series of such all-about-me lists that make the rounds on Facebook and email. I have received and forwarded a number of these over the past several years. They are fun to fill out, because, I suppose, like a blog, such exercises ask that we talk about the one thing we know best, ourselves, and because they imply an audience--readers who, because they've chosen to "play," thereby indicate an interest in knowing us and in having us know them. Just passing along one of these lists is risky, though. Beyond the vulnerability I hint at above, the chance, that is, that what I write might be used to my detriment--professionally or personally--there is another risk.

The lists are inherently juvenile--as is Facebook, as is blogging--in their self-centered "look at me-ness." Those who "play" sort of implicitly agree to suspend that judgment about themselves and each other (or conceal it from themselves by calling what they do "networking"). Anyway, the risk is that the recipient of an invitation to share such a list will meet the invitation with a sneer and a groan that reminds us of what we already know--our lives are depleted and consist of juvenile makings and remakings of ourselves in a public that usually agrees to view such things good naturedly, as ways to connect, to self express--like wearing a silly hat or piercing a nipple--but that really knows they are sad and empty. Indeed, at any time, we might be smacked down with a reminder of that fact.

Anyway, to get back to where I started, I deleted my list of 10 Things You'll Wish You Didn't Know About Me not because it made me feel silly but because I began to feel self-conscious about some things I didn't want people to know about me. I've been thinking that I'll probably soon remove the 25 Random Things from Facebook, too. And some fine day, in a fit of self loathing, I'm sure I'll delete all of these posts, and replace them with an image of Anne Bradstreet and have done with it, because too much self-exposure, like too much self-indulgence is a nasty habit, bad for the soul.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Today I took part in a "MLK Day of Service" event in Vermillion. Some students and staff (not including me) on a whim last October submitted a grant proposal to a national organization and were pleased and surprised (and probably sort of scared) when they got the grant some time in late November or December. The grant called for them to gather several hundred volunteers from the university and local schools, from assisted living insititutions, local businesses, nursing homes--you name it--get all these folks together, split them up randomly into groups, and send the groups out to complete a series of pre-arranged but only partially planned projects. One aspect of the project for each group was to perform the service work assigned; another, which had to take place before and during the work, was to find ways to act together in a context of uncertainty--to work with others who are unknown to or unlike us on a project of largely unset limits and goals. Because this was an MLK project, we were told by a speaker at the beginning of the day to congratulate ourselves, since we would, as King instructed, not just talk but do. The emphasis on practice or action seemed to hit the right note on the one hand, but on the other, I found myself missing what I thought I remembered to be King's emphasis on a kind of action-in-reflection. It's been a while since I read any of Dr. King's writing, but my recollection is that he was adamant about principled, contemplated action. Service, that is, should be more than doing. Anyone can talk or think about acting, and most can also act without bothering to understand why--finding motivation instead in earning service points for a fraternity or sorority, buying a line on a resume, finding a chance to unload the kids for the day. None of these is bad, but none really coincides with MLK's depiction of service. I found the opening speaker's talk itself highly reflective, about as rewarding a sermon (which is what it was) as I remember hearing in a long, long time. But he should not have been the only one creatively to contemplate the day's meanings. There should have been focus groups after the "service" to think about how the externalization of love and care happened within the projects. Action informed by a principle of care--"giving," I guess: it seems different from "serving the public" or simply volunteering. Blogging individually misses the communal element. Still, I'm very glad I took part.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

And in the Hour of Death

I can't seem to stop wondering about how I would have reacted if I were part of the water-landing of the US Airways flight last week. When 9/11 occurred, I spent, like many people I'm sure, a great deal of time imagining what my state of mind would be in an unthinkable situation like that aboard the planes. Not just, "would I panic?" or "would I have the wherewithal to calm others?" but, in the minute before hitting the ground, water, building, what would go on in my mind? Similarly, but more frivolously, I have wondered, if I were a victim of a serial killer who tied me to a conveyor belt that fed into a wood grinder, as the belt approached the blade, what would I, what could I be thinking? It's hard to conceive that I would be able to "think about" anything--seems like the run of thoughts would speed up, become frantic. Maybe not, though. Maybe, just before death, thought slows to an excrutiating speed for the dying person, like the experience of time moving into a black hole? (Time? Light? I don't remember what seems to go slowly into black holes.) Or, in a different direction, do some people--would I?--have hopes of a last-minute miracle? If the end indeed is death, how tragic that at just at the final moment, one might be falsely preoccupied or distracted with ideas of commutation. I don't know why, but it seems like a sad waste. Yet, when I fly and the ride gets bumpy, I say Hail Marys. I am not and never have been Catholic, and only a teensy-weensy part of me thinks or hopes that maybe, maybe, maybe there's some spiritual force (not "Mary," surely) heeding the general inclination of my chanting (i.e., if there is going to be pain--physical, mental, moral, spiritual--in my future, please don't let it last for eternity. [I realize this puts me somewhere near the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy and have long been shamefully aware of my own spiritual deficits.]). However, I memorized the Hail Mary for the purpose of airplane turbulence, and I find it comforting, in part, because it prevents me from thinking. I like the idea of purposefully abstaining from thought better than cravenly turning, in the face of death, to Spiderman, to the hope he will suddenly appear to bear the plane away to safety. In 1994, in a hundred-year old fruit cellar on New Jersey St. in Lawrence, KS, I huddled alone in the pitch black on a raised concrete platform surrounded by 2 inches of water as a series of small tornadoes touched down nearby. I recited the alphabet backwards, over and over. That was before my adoption of the Hail-Mary, and I was concertedly refusing to pray. I was not hoping that Alphabet Man would rescue me but trying not to suffer uselessly by panicking, in that case, mainly about having been caught at the center of two rings of hell: one, comprising the slugs that lived in the fruit cellar; and the other, the tornadoes bouncing around in the green air outside. I can't tell if there is more or less of dignity in trying to redirect the mind by giving it busywork. I don't know if that is less craven than redirecting the mind by seeking the assistance of a higher power. I don't know what I would think about death, and I find generally that my mind bends like water around its hard surfaces.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Inside Temp and Outside Temp

Temperature is a relative thing. I am still 97.2 degrees F, but it's beastly cold outdoors (righthand side).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

For Love of Puritans and Dunkin' Donuts

Written Saturday, Bristol, RI

I paid $95 to see a doctor for half a minute this morning in order to get a prescription for antibiotics. It's been 9 hours since I took the initial double dose, and I am still in a world of pain. Indeed, I am running a fever right now. I can feel it--my eyes are glittering and my cheeks bright red. If this were the nineteenth-century, I would be uttering tremendously pious things and would die of consumption in a few pages. Instead, I missed a get-together today with a very dear friend whom I met eight years ago while buying indoor soccer shoes. To console myself, I made the Russian stop at Ocean State Job Lot (which he did not mind, since it is owned by Russians) where I paid 20 cents for a package of three surgical face masks. I've been wearing a mask off and on all day. I'm not sure why this makes me feel better, except that I get gratification from giving other people something to puzzle over. The teacher in me, I suppose. Or the budding exhibitionist. Or maybe I just like feeling woozy from the CO2 overdose, since it seems like I'm sucking in the same damned, hot, moist, oxygen-depleted air over and over.
Today, unlike yesterday, the Russian is in a frugal mood. We've had to talk about the economy before every meal. I don't know what to think about the economy at this point, but I'm not going to eat fast food the entire time I'm in Rhode Island just because I may be starving next year. True, I am unemployed after May, and the Russian is effectively unemployed as well, since Medevyev raised the import tax on automobiles by 30 percent. But I am not afraid. I like an ethic of spareness. In fact, of all that I will miss about my academic life, among the top contenders must be the Puritans. At least once a year, I have had the opportunity to teach Thomas Shepard, Edward Taylor, John Cotton, Jonathan Edwards, and sometimes, if I feel brave and can sneak them in, less well-known separatist figures, to undergrads. There could be nothing more at odds than the instant gratification and pat-me-on-the-head outlook of an American undergraduate and the doubt-piled-on-doubt, the wickedness-piled-on-wickedness of Michael Wigglesworth. I know that I have at least managed to trigger interest and wonder in a few students on this count. Certainly, there was a baroqueness of doctrine and behavior underlying the plain talk of the Puritan New England world. And Wigglesworth must have enjoyed a kind of luxuriousness in the excess of his self-abuse. Still, the stridency of address, the virtue made of suffering and misfortune, and the call to temper all desire is enormously attractive to me. I've always fancied a cloistered life and the Quakers for similar reasons. I guess I've still got Walden on my mind, but even that was just Thoreau's variation on a much older way of living. People should make more of an art out of living--design their lives, live out an aesthetic. I could live a life of spareness if I could make it feel elegant. I might be able to bear suffering if it seemed part design. It wouldn't help the economy much, but it might help me keep my head together. What wicked decadence I am disgorging today. People are out of work and cannot pay their bills. Poverty is not performance art. I saw the other movie by the Super-Size-Me guy. Anyway, to get back to my point: I'm sure I will miss teaching the New England Puritans when I no longer have a job next year and can't pay for my expensive anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. I am always feeling elegantly simple when in the throes of a an anxiety fit.

So, the Russian and I are staying in the home of a good friend of mine, one of the most likeable, inspiring, generous people I know. We can call her "N." N gave me a home when I was in the middle of a crappy divorce, and she made sure I laughed more than I cried during my last summer in Rhode Island. She is now 6-months pregnant, still working full-time, and has welcomed us into her home for 7 days as house guests. Every time I am around her I have this weird compulsion to do nice things for others. That's enough about N. I bring her up to mention some disturbing incidents involving her coffeemaker. She and her husband are not drinking much coffee themselves these days, but she knows the Russian and I like a lot of strong, black coffee in the morning, so she dug up a regular drip coffeemaker for us to use. The first morning I make coffee--something I do every day of my life--I pour in the water, insert a filter, and find that I cannot open the vacuum-pak envelope of coffee. I tug and pull and finally start looking for some kitchen scissors. Failing in that, I tug some more. The coffee finally bursts open, sending a quarter cup of ground coffee into the open utensils drawer (where I had been looking for scissors). There is a lot of ground coffee in all eight compartments of the drawer organizer, most of it in the compartment holding baby spoons. I don't know why N has three dozen baby spoons. She's pregnant with her first, but she has a gazillion, tiny rubberized baby spoons. My first thought is "hand-held vacuum," but I didn't know where to begin looking. Plus, these are baby spoons. I picture three dozen, wired babies sucking on coffee contaminated spoons and acting cranky. They all have my face. I feel ill will toward these babies as I wash the caffeine off each baby spoon with soapy water and dry them one by one with a clean towel. That done, I realize the other compartments are also filled with ground coffee and so I take all the utensils out of all their compartments and rinse out the organizer. I forget in what order I removed the six or seven piles of utensils and so I don't know where each should be returned. I imagine N and her husband wondering, "why are all of our utensils in the wrong places? did Amanda rearrange our utensils drawer? did Amanda clean our kitchen?" I finally resolve to tell N later if I can remember. Then, I get the Russian out of bed and go directly to Dunkin' Donuts. This would not be worth blogging about if it weren't for the next morning, when I fail to push the glass descanter fully beneath the drip basket and then go back upstairs while the coffee brews all over the counter. I return to find half a pot of coffee on the countertop and feel sort of awed by my own stupidity but also lucky the mess is not greater, until I realize that a thin, steady stream is flowing--not dribbling--over the edge of the counter, over the front of the drawer behind which lay the site of the prior day's disaster, and on into the cabinet below. With great foreboding, I open the cabinet door and find this morning's coffee pooled in a pull-out shelf that holds N's large collection of plastic storage containers. Dozens of lids, bowls, and boxes of many colors and sizes sit in a cooling millimeter of coffee. I feel numb, bemused, chastened. I rinse and dry each piece of storageware. While replacing everything--no doubt in the wrong places, I fantasize momentarily that I am suffering uncontrollable urges to clean N's kitchen, and that I have been succumbing, guiltily, secretively, cabinet-by-cabinet, day-by-day, the coffeemaker snafus, merely a ruse. I think, "I have an illness whereby I am driven to go to other people's homes and rearrange their drawers and closets. I cannot help it. I am sick." But then I wonder if the truth may not be worse, that I cannot focus on making a pot of coffee without causing a minor household disaster. Why do I drop and lose things, knock them over, and forget so often. Is this a species of dementia or have I possibly been exposed to an environmental biohazard in South Dakota that has compromised my cognitive abilities? Finally, I get things dried and put away, rouse the Russian and head for Dunkin' Donuts.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Written Tuesday, in Rhode Island: Today, we went to Walden Pond. Oddly--or so it seems to me--(given my eight years studying early American literature in Providence) this is my first visit to Concord or Walden. The day could not have been better; it is cold--40 degrees, maybe--but bright. The pond is frozen to 1-3 inches, and the paths around the pond are alternately damp and squishy or icy and very slick. Despite my shoes, which seemed designed for optimal slippability, and with the assistance of a stick, I did well; the Russian of course navigated himself with great confidence and no wipe-outs that I witnessed. I have read that the pond draws large crowds of swimmers and fishers when the weather is nice. No such crowds today. We had the path to ourselves for the most part, except for the 4 or 5 locals we saw walking for exercise and one couple who, like us, seemed to be there as off-season sightseers. However crowded the park may be during the summer, it seemed beautifully quiet today. The air was crystalline, the small fat birds (wrens?) were hopping around making their short, shrill chirps. We had a bright blue sky, a white wisp of moon all afternoon, and about 6 inches of snow on the ground--against which new green pine needles and the dark ice of the pond itself stand out. The pond showed its ripples through the ice, and wherever the ice had melted around the edges of the pond, we could see quite clearly the round, smooth stones at the bottom. I could easily imagine living in such rooms! I would like to come back some early, early morning in the summer.

The Russian and I share a softness for cold weather activities. Soon after we married, we went ice fishing at Mille Lacs, Minnesota. We scheduled our trip for my school's spring break, and since that was the final week in March, our visit fell just a few days after the day on which ice shacks had to be removed from the lake. Thus, had we come a week earlier, we would have had an entirely different experience. Judging by the left-behind stakes and other detritus of the hard-core ice fishers, the lake had been a veritable fishing city, with streets and neighborhoods. All of that was gone when we arrived. Indeed, other than an old man in a pick-up truck whose ramp we used to drive out onto the ice, we saw only two or three others fishing. Since the Russian had ice-fished in Russia, we had some idea of what we were doing and had come equipped with the short poles with jigglers on the ends, white buckets to sit on, and half-living minnows that the Russian pulled from gelling water and impaled on tiny sharp hooks. I wore special, ice-fishing boots--I could walk to Antartica in those boots--seriously. We wore ski pants and ski jackets. At the time, I had still a Toyota Tercel my parents bought me for college graduation twelve years earlier. I had visions of parking at some tackle shop and walking out onto the ice, our stuff piled up in the big white buckets. But, after haggling with the old guy in the pick up, and without comment, the Russian jumped in the car and drove directly onto the lake, the Tercel's tires crashing through the thin, top layer of ice into the 2-3 inches of water that lay below and nearly sending me through the window. That is, my response to the sound of ice cracking and water splasing beneath the tires was a squeal of panic and a mad rolling down of the passenger's side window (no power windows in the '92 Tercel). The Russian still thinks this is funny, as though rolling down the window would be helpful as the car plunged into near freezing water. As it turns out, the ice was frozen solid down to about 40 inches and only the top-most layers had melted the day before, refreezing thinly overnight. Oh, "ha ha, ha." My revenge was to eschew the Russian's many efforts to get me to sit with him in on a bucket and jiggle a short rod over a hole. Instead, I spent most of the morning hibernating, nestled into my down coat in the front seat of the car, itself sitting lonely on the expanse of frozen lake. When I did join him, I caught three perch right away, all keepers. Later, in the evening hour, when apparently the fish like to bite, I stayed in the hotel room and the Russian went fishing alone. He caught a walleye, which he brought, alive, into the hotel room to show me. Walleyes look angry and have teeth, which seems somehow out of the order of how things ought to work. Fish are soft, fluid, feathery in the water. They have no business having teeth. The thing looked as though it wanted a bite of me; ironically, he ended up the main component of, "oo-ha," a delicious fish soup the Russian whipped up two days later.
Wednesday: Went skiing in a storm at Okemo in Vermont today. Had the worst headache of my entire life.

Thursday: I am sick. My chest is tight and when I cough my whole body hurts but especially my head. I am also dizzy and slightly nauseated. My chest hurts all the way through my back, so that to sit here and type is itself excruciating. I am in a Borders Bookstore in Attleboro, Mass. The Russian is visiting a friend, a Syrian car dealer who helped him (the Russian) get his feet on the ground when he first came to the states. The Syrian is very loud and very fast-talking. I could not bear to see the Syrian today. Later we will go and see some of the Russian's other friends, and I will try to convince them that I am part human and not just a walking pulsation of pain.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Semester / New Hair / New Year

Some things I've been thinking about, mainly while driving back and forth from KC to Vermillion: I'm teaching a graduate seminar on literary Romanticism this spring and am polishing up on European romanticism, something that I've always been sort of fuzzy on. Maybe because I never read Jerome McGann, whose work in the 1980s seems to have prompted some much-needed (if unsuccessful) attempts to define generic boundaries. I am looking forward to teaching the course but am also wary of the way sometimes topics like romanticism can melt into an undifferentiated mass of repetitive questions. More angles can mean greater nuance, but the multiple perspectives can also lead to fatally nebulous "thing" of study. Anyway, that has been my experience in some courses. I don't want to end up with students coyly asking if there is any thing other than romanticism? I hate that. Yet, at this point, I am the one asking exactly such a question. The individual and the all?--romantic. The primitive and the oversoul? The revolutionary, cosmopolitan liberationist; the pastoral and localized; the mad, isolationist? all romantic. Celebration of Hellenism?--part of romanticism. Contemporary Greece? Italy? Turkey? India?--absolutely romantic. The Gothic? romantic. The literature of sensibility? much of it romantic. The course is more specifically on American romanticism which complicates things further, since American romanticism, as I understand it, flowered ten to 20 years after the European movement, in 1840s and 50s but also includes writers who were already publishing at the end of the eighteenth century. "American-Renaissance" writers--Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau--are usually considered part of the romantic movement in American literature, but Charles Brockden Brown makes an appearance as well. Cooper--yes. Irving of the Sleepy Hollow tales? yes. Philip Freneau and John Trumbull are surely romantic nationalists, while William Cullen Bryant is of course described as a romantic in the Wordsworthian sense. But so, too, we might call Walt Whitman, and many would consider Emily Dickinson part of the same tradition albeit for different reasons. Owen Wister? Helen Hunt Jackson? Sure. These are hugely different writers, with different styles, subject emphases, formal repetoires. Romanticism can name a tradition of novel writing that overlaps with both the romances of the Revolutionary years, Hawthorne's novels, and the sentimental fictions of mid-century; it can name the poetry of the conservative fireside poets as well as the some of the reform-minded poetry of the abolitionists as well as the more esoteric verses of the Transcendentalists. People often describe regionalist, reunion novels written after the American Civil War as romantic. Despite the trend toward transatlanticism and perspectives and writers outside the canon, I'd really like to concentrate on the nature writings of Emerson and Thoreau, mainly because I am drawn, have always been drawn, to them. Plus, this may be the last serious literature course I ever teach, and I'd like to be concentrating on what I love, uses of the language that made scholarship in literature an attractive idea to begin with. I've just started reading Stanley Cavell's book on Walden. I'm only a few pages into the introduction; already, though, I have hopes that Cavell's reception of Thoreau is similar to my own. For me, there are intensely powerful moments in Thoreau that have to do with a crescendoeing of words, sounds, and ideas, the kind of thing one finds in the very best poetry, anywhere and always. Most of the famous passages from Walden produce this sense of gathering power, and no matter how one takes Thoreau's meanings, most people recognize where the beauty is, where the weight lies--even when answers to the questions of how and why and even what prove elusive. Thoreau bears reading over and over again because the weight cannot be accounted for. Maybe this is a way of saying that the power of Walden cannot be taken out of Walden but must be sought there, in the words, as in in the woods themselves, over and over, "right fronting and face to face to a fact.

Got my hair cut today. I've been going to the same hair stylist and "spa" for about a year. They have massages and other things that I guess qualify them for spa status. Hot stones and foot-waxing? The stylists are Aveda trained, which, to me, means they massage their clients' heads with oil when they first arrive and then massage their hands while the hair conditions. It's not a big deal, but the head and hand massages are nice. Because the place is about pampering and relaxation, signs request that customers turn off cell phones when they enter. Today, the woman in the chair next to mine had her kids with her, little girls who looked to be about eight and five. Thankfully, the woman's hair was just about done, but nevertheless, the entire time I was away from the station having my own hair washed and conditioned and my head and hands rubbed, the two children were jumping around, sitting and then standing in my chair, staring at the mom, at me, at the receptionist in front. I watched them from beneath my cool, moistened eye cloth during the hand massage, just waiting for one of them to bump into and knock over my tote bag which held my lap top. The older one knew I was staring at her; I willed her to approach so I could growl without anyone else hearing. None of this was remotely relaxing. Children are inherently un-relaxing, and any place with "spa" attached to the name and with any intimation of pampering should be understood--however ironically--to be childfree.

My husband and I spent NYE with some friends from Russia, biologists who are in the US working as researchers for science faculty at the same university where I teach literature. They have two young daughters, and the woman's mother is also here living with them. In Russia, people celebrate the New Year for ten days, much of it spent drinking and eating with friends. Since Christmas plays a fairly minor role in Russia (the Communists were enthusiastic about neither the birth of Jesus or the coming of Santa Claus), New Years acts as a catch-all. When my husband was a boy, his parents, both machinists in a factory in Penza, would, like the other workers receive gifts distributed at their place of work for each of their children. This seems sparse and impersonal next to my childhood memories, my grandma's livingroom floor, two-feet-deep in papered and beribboned boxes, evidence of selections made for each, from each, over the year past. I am taken aback by some things Oleg tells me. He remembers standing in line for bread as a child. I have seen and stayed in the two-room apartment where he and his mother, father, and brother lived for his first 18 years and where his mother still lives. Oleg's Ukrainian grandfather slept over an indoor, woodburning stove. But then, at other times, he'll tell me that he had a Moody Blues album when he was a teenager and he read The Scarlet Letter in school. And I've seen photos of him in a late-70s-era silk shirt with a pointy collar and feathered hair. Anyway, our New Year's Eve, like most gatherings with Russians, took place around a table. Americans stand up, walk around, lurk together in corners, break up into groups. Most Russian gatherings in my experience happen around a table, with people sitting and facing one another. The drinking and eating began at 9:30 with five different salads, including the requisite Olivier salad, which, as I am told, someone is supposed to pass out into before the night ends. Alas, no one did so, although Boris modeled what such an incident might look like (see picture). We ate cured salmon, caviar, sliced salami and sausage, prosciutto, brown bread, vodka, wine. At 10:30, out comes a pork shoulder, roasted with garlic and prunes, and potatoes and sweet potatoes. Everything was lovely. As usual, the discussion was about 70-30 English-Russian, so I enjoyed myself but didn't have to listen to all of the US-bashing. I'm not likely to win any medals for hyper-nationalism, but I get frustrated with the endless kvetching. Especially when it is too free-ranging. We were a mixed group--one American, one Russian, one Uzbekistani, one Tartarean, two mixed Tartarean-and something else. We were two children and six adults: four Muslims, one Eastern Orthodox Christian, and me (a skeptic, lost lamb, and sometimes a Jew-wannabe ). We did not argue about religion and very little about politics, except when I tried to persuade the nine-year-old daughter that the song "I Kissed a Girl" and the concept therein expressed need not be rejected with so much ugly scorn, out of hand, by someone as young as she is. This was an argument the Tartarean, Muslim grandmother was thankfully unable to understand, since she speaks no English. My orthodox husband was surprisingly supportive of my efforts.