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.