Monday, December 5, 2011

All I Need to Know in Life I Learned from Ramen

Not having had time to cook proper meals for the past week or so (I never lived like a college student until I went to grad school), I have been eating a lot of ramen. Call me unsophisticated, but I actually quite like the stuff. I mean, it’s noodles and massive amounts of salt—two of my favorite things! But regardless, feeling philosophical the other day, I realized that ramen offers a whole host of valuable life lessons. For instance...

I only ever use half the packet of seasoning.
*Life lesson: you can, indeed, have too much of a good thing.

Every packet of seasoning comes with a single, tiny piece of dried parsley.
*Life lesson: one green fleck does not a serving of vegetables make.

I can tell when the ramen is perfectly cooked just by the feel of the noodles against the spoon.
*Life lesson: if you do anything often enough, you will become an expert at it (or, I suppose, stop doing it).

Some people like their ramen soupy, some people like it with an egg, some people (like me) like it without any extra water in the bowl.
*Life lesson: to each his own, and each will establish “his own” no matter how few the options might be.

I once left a bowl of cooked ramen on my desk while I had a lengthy conversation with a flatmate. When I returned, it was cold, congealed, and inedible.
*Life lesson: you can mess up anything, no matter how simple.

My ramen package boasts that it contains 0g of trans fat.
*Life lesson: anything (I mean ANYTHING) can be marketed as health food.

Anyway, that’s just a little food for thought (pun fully intended) to get you started thinking about where you’ve gotten your own life lessons. You might be surprised what the mundane and quotidian elements of life have to teach us—I just wrote a whole post about ramen! Anything is possible!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Take a Hike!

Old Rag is something of a legend around here: it’s an 8-mile hike (10 if you count the mile-long walk from the parking lot to the trailhead) up the side of a mountain, right to its rocky bald top, and back down again in a winding loop. I’d heard about it many times from friends and colleagues here, but after living only an hour’s drive away from it for more than five years, I had never hiked it. Until last Sunday.
A dear friend of mine was able to take some time out of her busy schedule to visit town on her way from Florida to DC, and since Old Rag was on her “bucket list” as well as mine, we teamed up and made the hike together. It was perfect weather for it, and the trees were just turning colors. (When I was younger, I always thought it looked like someone had spilled a giant box of Trix cereal all over the hills in the fall. The impression hasn’t changed, though the comparison is a little less apt since Trix went from being round to being fruit-shaped.)

When we checked in with the Park Service folks, they gave us a map and said, “Now, you know about the rock scramble, right?” We did—it’s part of the legend, though I must admit that I had only the vaguest notion of what a rock scramble actually was. The rangers said no more and pointed us on our way.
The first part of the hike was leisurely, through cool, shady woods on a nice, gently sloping path. Then it started to get a little rocky, to the point that we were crawling on our hands and knees up steep stretches of smooth stone. Having gotten past that hurdle with only a bruised knee or so, we said to each other, “Was that the rock scramble?”
It wasn’t. When you hit the rock scramble, you know it. The trail disappears into a mass of Mordor-like standing stones marked only by laconic blue paint swatches (some of which helpfully have an arrow, most of which do not). It really is rightly called a scramble, since one traverses it by slipping and sliding down narrow crevices, scooting on one’s backside down boulders with no footholds, and scrabbling up rock walls like clumsy cat burglars trying to reach the second story. At one point, the steady stream of hikers bottlenecked to a standstill as, one at a time, we all had to find some way of getting ourselves up a six-foot wedge in the rock to where the trail picked up and continued climbing.

I am not six feet tall. Nor is my friend. There was supposed to be a rope anchored into the rock to assist the vertically challenged, but it was broken, and only a frayed stub of purple cord gives witness to the Park Service’s efforts at accommodation. Neither of us would have made it if it hadn’t been for a couple of taller, burlier hikers who were willing to climb up ahead of us and drag us bodily by the arm up to the top of the crevice. Even the tall folks had trouble: one fellow managed by taking something of a running start, pushing off one rock, and catching himself, splay-legged, between the two boulders at a height where he could hoist himself up the rest of the way with his arms. This feat of acrobatics was even more impressive given the fact that he was toting an infant in a papoose on his chest.

It was quite the adventure, really—a harder hike than Mount Esja in Iceland (though we had the distinct advantage this time of not hiking in a gale) and an honest-to-goodness full-body workout. Other folks who are more outdoorsy than me will laugh at how shocked I was to find boulders so inconveniently positioned as to necessitate crawling, jumping, and being boosted by strangers, but for a born-and-bred suburbanite, I think I can claim some credit just for making it to the top! And the view was worth it, let me tell you.

I’d even do the hike again, in fact (as soon as I can once again forget about all those muscles that are currently crying, “Abuse!” every time I move). I enjoyed every minute of the ungainly scrabbling and slipping and gasping for breath—honestly, I did! But next time I’ll bring shoes with better traction, a backpack that’s less likely to get wedged into the narrow places, and a spare camera battery. Oh, and somebody really tall.

Friday, October 14, 2011

And I’d Never Been to Boston in the Fall

I was happily able to take advantage of a timely Fall Break to spend this past weekend in Bean-Town with my sister, who moved there in August to study book-binding! (I know, right? Where did she find this program and how do I get into it?) Homage to Veggie Tales aside, I actually never had been to Boston in the fall before this weekend, and I’m very happy to say that it more than exceeding my expectations.

Let me first say, however, that I don’t very much like trains. My dislike began on an overnight Eurail trip in college, when I was separated from my friends and had to spend a night bunked with three surly 30-somethings, two of whom were men and none of whom spoke English. (Keep in mind this was not only my first time in Europe, it was also my first train ride ever.) They didn’t announce the stations and I was petrified I would miss my stop in Paris and end up in Belgium or Finland.

I figured things had to be better on a train from Virginia to Massachusetts, even though I knew that eleven hours was going to be no picnic. Yet once again, on the ride north they did not announce the stops, and for whatever reason, train stations on the East Coast have little or no (most often no) signage. I only knew when to get off the train because I kept asking other people who looked like they knew what they were doing. No conductors to be seen, of course. By way of being fair to Amtrak, the way back was much better, both because that engineer deigned to announce stops as we pulled up and because I located the Quiet Car: no noisy undergrads drunk at 10 a.m., and no kicking, biting banshees whose poor beleaguered mothers thought were human children.

Boston, on the other hand, was lovely in every way. Perfect, unseasonably warm weather, a commuter-friendly public transportation system, and (best selling point of all) my little sister as hostess and tour guide. We did some of the classic tourist things—lunch in Quincey Market, afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts, an accidental detour through a movie set (oops!), ice cream at J.P. Licks—but we did some less-classic tourist things too.
We spent Sunday at “The King’s Renaissance Faire” (the extra “e” is obligatory, so that you know it’s authentic), which wasn’t quite as good as the one in Maryland but did have the distinct advantage of having a tiger show. (Not a whip-cracking, big cats jumping through flaming hoops sort of show, but a “look at the pretty tiger: reduce, reuse, recycle, and don’t buy furniture made from illegally harvested timber in Southeast Asia” sort of show. How it ended up at a Ren Fest is beyond me, but the spokesman was wearing satyr horns, so that clearly signalled his belonging.) By the way, the joust was completely fixed (a bit of a disappointment after being to jousts where the winner was not determined beforehand to suit a hero/villain storyline), but it ended with a staged beheading, complete with spurting arteries, which was quite exciting.

We also spent Columbus Day at the Arboretum near Jamaica Plain: it has a wonderful view of downtown Boston from the top of one of its hills, and all its plants are labeled: I now know what ash and plane trees look like. That pleases the linguist in me, not the botanist; I don’t care where the ash trees grow or what their life cycle is, but I, like our ancestor the first Gardener, am still in the business of knowing things' names. And besides all the dozens of dogs being walked on the trails (most of whom my sister stopped to pet), the Arboretum offers some lovely shady spots under oak trees just perfect for sitting and reading aloud. We started on The Pickwick Papers and, despite the fact that Dickens can run a sentence to the full length of a paragraph, he makes for excellent recitation. Just try A Christmas Carol this December and you’ll see. It was a perfect way for two bibliophiles to spend an afternoon.
I wish I could have stayed in Boston longer, but duty called, and they haven’t yet invented voicemail for that sort of thing. If they ever do, I’ll be first in line to let duty leave a message: I’ll be in the park reading Dickens with my sister!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Thought about Forgiveness on 9-11

In the lead-up to this 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness, and it strikes me that our language does a great injustice to the concept by giving us only one phrase that we generally use to offer it: “That’s okay.” There are times when it really is “okay”—when someone offends us unintentionally and our indignation dissipates upon realizing that no slight was intended. But in all other cases, when we say, “That’s okay,” we’re lying.

Because it almost never really is “okay.” When a friend speaks cutting, hateful words in a fit of anger, it is not okay. That friend’s apology may soothe our pain, and his genuine contrition may mend our relationship, but that does not make it “okay” to have said those things in the first place. When he realizes that fact as well, that’s when we might reconcile—forgiveness can be one-sided, but reconciliation has to come from both parties. Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, all too rare: it agrees to leave the offense in the past, resolves to move onward, puts estranged travelers back on the road they had been walking together. It is the workings of the divine in man, because we all need forgiveness for something. But even reconciliation does not make it “okay.”

And when a small group of disenfranchised extremists attack unarmed, innocent people out of pure hatred, it will never be “okay.” Ever. But our weak-willed verbal construction of forgiveness makes us feel that forgiving these unimaginably unforgivable people would be a sign of defeat, an invitation for anybody with a grudge to walk all over us because, after all, we’ll forgive them in the end.
That is not what forgiveness means. Forgiving those darkened souls does not mean saying, “That’s okay.” It does not mean, “I condone what you did” or “I will let you go free of the consequences of your actions.” It does not mean, “I will not seek to stop you from hurting anyone ever again.” It means only this: “I do not want your hatred to become mine. You have sought to make me like yourself, and I refuse. I will not allow the venom in you to poison me. I will not take your dark burden onto my shoulders: it is yours alone to bear, and it will drive you into the depths. My hatred is not necessary to bring about your destruction, and I will not lose my soul in an effort to deprive you of yours. You have already lost it.”

For my part, I will live in love, and I will hope and pray that the hearts of our enemies will be turned back and reclaimed for the cause of goodness and peace.

Ellen DeGeneres, after 9-11, said that the terrorists could not take our humor from us, and she made laughter a symbol of our fortitude: the most devastating thing we could do to the extremists was laugh at them. I think the most devastating thing we could do is to forgive them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Merry Old England (and Friendly Old Canada)

Little-known fact about me: I was born in England (though sadly I didn’t stay long enough to pick up the accent), but until two weeks ago I had only been back once, on a day-and-a-half stop in London on my way to Dublin. We were there over a Sunday and, if I remember rightly, practically everything was closed—particularly Westminster Abbey, whose Poets’ Corner was the very attraction I wanted to see. Fortunately, a summer grant from my department allowed me to return on much more agreeable terms in the middle of this month.

The British Library
I must preface this post by saying that I was, in fact, in England for business: the main purpose of my trip was to visit the British Library and the Bodleian to avail myself of the manuscripts they hold and which I have studied in facsimile for the past several years. But what’s business without a little pleasure? And the libraries aren’t open in the evenings, after all.

So my dear friend and I (she also had a travel grant for research) dutifully spent several days up to our elbows in old books. By the way, I was almost prevented from obtaining a British Library reader pass because I didn’t have sufficient proof of residence—future researchers beware: they mean business, and having traveled thousands of miles to visit the library buys you no special treatment! (Infinite thanks to my wonderful family for scrambling to get the documentation sent to me in time.) Perhaps thumbing carefully through dusty old books doesn’t strike the average Joe as a terrific way to spend a day in a foreign country, but if I may speak for myself, I was enthralled. I actually got so distracted by reading annotations that I WASN’T studying, I forgot for several hours what I WAS studying and almost missed lunch to boot. Seeing these manuscripts in the flesh (literally—they’re calf-skin!) after studying them from photographs for so long truly felt like meeting a living person after having corresponded with him for years.

We arrived, I should note, the day after the riots left London and headed to greener pastures in other cities. Another friend of ours came in a day earlier and said she could see the smoke rising from the fires in the northern part of London. Even while we were there, I noticed that every last shop window in the jewelry district was bare of displays—a precautionary measure, no doubt, in case the rioters should start up again closer to the center of town. But the riots didn’t affect our own travel at all, for which we’re very grateful.

When we weren’t in the library, we made the most of being in England. We didn’t do the double-decker bus tour, but short of that we covered practically all the bases. Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum (Sutton Hoo and the Rosetta Stone—what more could you ask from a museum?), the Tate Britain (Millais’ painting of Ophelia hangs directly beneath Waterhouse’s painting of the Lady of Shallot—almost too much beauty for one wall to hold!), and of course Westminster Abbey. It was a zoo at Westminster, by the way; everyone was still crowding in to see the pictures from the royal wedding. How dare they get between me and the tombs of Henry V and Elizabeth I?! And Poets’ Corner, naturally, more than lived up to expectations. I have stood six inches away from the burial place of Chaucer, basking in his glory and wit. It may not have made me smarter, but it sure made me happy.

The British Museum

The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Rosetta Stone - I like the fact that you can see all the tourists' reflections.

The Globe
We also went to two shows at the Globe (a replica of Shakespeare’s playhouse) and one show in a regular theater. If you’re ever in London, go to the Globe! Fork over the five pounds for a groundling ticket, stand in line for an hour, and get a spot standing right up against the stage. You’ll be able to hear everything, you’ll make eye contact with the actors, and you may even get spit on or have props thrown at you. It’s a thrill a minute, being a groundling! And David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing (not at the Globe, though that would have been a thing to see!) are uproariously funny. I’ve come to the conclusion, by the way, that there are about thirty British actors in total, and all of them have been on Doctor Who or Midsummer Murders—playing the seven degrees of separation game in Britain is just too easy!

Sadly, my camera ceased and desisted about halfway through our trip, but at least it survived for what I considered the highlight of our time in England: a day-trip to Oxford. I like London very much, but despite the fact that the Tube outstrips any American subway in speed and reliability, I think I like New York better, as big cities go. It sort of saddens me to see a space-age London built on top of some thousand years of settlement, with so little of that history visible. New York at least openly embraces its lack of ancient heritage. But Oxford, now THERE’S a city! I think I wandered around the whole of the university area without ever closing my mouth, it was so beautiful and so…medieval! To think of all the great minds who have studied and taught there, from medieval geniuses right up to Tolkien, almost floors me. Forget the fact that Harry Potter was filmed there—this was where the greatest English thinkers of the past 800 years have lived and died! I couldn’t believe they let us even walk around without putting cotton booties on. The whole place feels hallowed, even with the hundreds of gaudy tourists poking around and being chased out of private college courtyards.

The tower at the Bodleian Library

The Bridge of Sighs

Oxford from above

Because I had to spend most of the day at the library actually doing work, I didn’t get to see as much of the university area as I would have liked, but a trip to the top of St. Mary’s tower gave me a lovely Quasimodo-like view of the town from above, and I’ll never forget it. Thank goodness it wasn’t raining.

A panorama of the Radcliffe Camera from St. Mary's Tower

It was, really, a very literary trip, even outside the libraries: we ate at the Eagle and Child pub at Oxford (the meeting place of the Inklings) and at the 17th-century pub Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London (a favorite haunt of greats from Samuel Johnson to Dickens to GK Chesterton). And having absorbed performances of Marlowe and Shakespeare, who could possibly say that we didn’t make sufficient educational use of our time after library hours?

When I blogged about Iceland, I spent a lot of time talking about local customs and foods and history—things people don’t tend to know but might find vaguely interesting. But what could I say about English customs, food, or history that most people wouldn’t know better than I do anyway? Nevertheless, here are a couple of thoughts and observations by a tourist in merry old England.

1) Just like in DC or New York, in London practically nobody is an actual born-and-bred local. I heard more languages on the streets of London than I ever did in New York, and it wasn’t just because we were surrounded by tourists—though that was of course a contributing factor.

2) You can probably find rude Brits just like you can find rude anybodys, but I must say the British customs officials and security personnel far outstrip the American variety for courtesy. The guy running the metal detector at Heathrow kept apologizing to me for a short delay while his female counterpart patted down someone who had neglected to take off her watch. In comparison, the way the customs officials in Dulles bark and scold, you feel as though you’re a criminal just for trying to come home. I can hardly believe tourists are brave enough to get into the country at all.

3) Doctor Who is every bit as popular in England as I’d hoped it would be. My friend and I spent our last full morning (after all the library work had been done) at the Doctor Who Experience—something like a museum combined with a theme park, only no roller-coasters. I don’t really know what I expected, but I was absolutely tickled to see all the little British children with their serious and intelligent-sounding accents naming every episode of Doctor Who that they saw in clips. Classical Doctor Who as well, not just the recent revival. One kid was even dressed in costume, and one of the staff (yet more evidence of superior courtesy in England) enthusiastically asked the boy if he was going to be the 53rd Doctor. Probably gave the kid the thrill of his life.

4) My sister is not the only one who immediately said, “Look for platform 9 ¾” when I told her our hotel would be close to King’s Cross Station. The Brits have gamely posted signs all over the station apologizing to Hogwarts students for the construction mess and changing platform numbers.

5) They still call elevators “lifts,” but never once did I hear “bobby,” “tellie,” or “brolly.” I did, however, hear “push chair” and had a debate with my friend over whether it meant a stroller or a wheelchair. It’s a stroller, by the way, which we figured out by shameless eavesdropping on people in the Tube station. Also, a receipt is not called a receipt—the ATM (a.k.a. the “cash machine” in London) offers an “advice slip” or something incomprehensible like that. Tom-AY-to, tom-AH-to. I find if you look confused enough somebody will always translate for you.

The very day after we flew back from London, I drove with my family (or, rather, my family drove me—I’m an inveterate pedestrian, after all) up to Ontario for my eldest cousin’s wedding. The Waterloo/Stratford area (I don’t know how else to describe it, as distances in that area are best given in hours it takes to drive from one place to another) is simply beautiful—so different from the crowds of London! I’d been to visit my Canadian family once when I was in middle school, but I appreciated it better this time. Everything seemed a little smaller, perhaps, but no less stunning. My cousin’s wedding was a lovely backyard event, just the right sort of thing for her and her now-husband. Their reception was at the most picturesque ranch I’ve ever visited, and it was a pleasure meeting all the wonderful people I can now count as (distant) family. If we belonged to any other culture in the world, we would undoubtedly have specific terms for the daughter of the brother of your aunt (the one who’s not a blood relation), but just because we don’t doesn’t mean we can’t treat them as family.

My cousin’s wedding deserves a long and detailed narration, but as she’s a writer herself (the kind people PAY to write, rather than the kind one has to guilt into reading, like myself), I’ll leave that to her and simply conclude by saying I’m back where I started and classes have begun for the fall semester; I’ll be perfectly happy not seeing the inside of a plane or a minivan for a good long time to come, but I’m so glad I was able to jump on the two-for-one travel bandwagon.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Cavaliers join Gryffindor House

Nothing momentous, but I couldn’t resist sharing this tribute to Cav cleverness.

UVA is in the midst of running summer orientation sessions for its incoming first-years, and the welcoming committees have diligently chalked all the sidewalks with directions (Chem Building This Way, Dining Hall Straight Ahead, etc.). However, Potter-mania seems to have worked its way into the mix, resulting in some fun little in-jokes for anybody who hasn’t lived under a rock for the last ten years:

Directions to Gilmer Hall—where apparently the Deathly Hallows have displaced the departments of Biology and Psych.

“Portkey”—because you never know when you’ll need one.

And my favorite, for more than one reason:

“Jaywalkers = Deatheaters.” I particularly like the emoticon-style frowny wizard face below the words, though you can’t see it well in the picture. It looks like this: <|:-< only upright.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but apparently Edgar Allen Poe has, and he’s Team Gryffindor all the way!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hiking and Roller Derbies: How could you go wrong?

A fun post for a change.  This past weekend I had the opportunity to go hiking with my church group and also to go with several of my friends to a roller derby.  The hiking I’ve done before—it was beautiful as always.

The roller derby, now that was something entirely different.

I am hopeless when it comes to sports: people have told me the rules of football at least four separate times and I forget them almost as soon as my very patient teachers stop speaking. I can’t even remember the rules to card games! So it should be no surprise that it took me the first half of the roller derby to get a general grasp on the rules. As far as I understand, the basic idea is that the one girl on each team who’s able to score gets points for lapping as many members of the opposing team as possible, and the opposing team’s one and only goal is to stop her from doing that.

There are rules, and there are helmets and padding involved, but I spent a good deal of time thinking it looked rather like women’s rugby on roller skates. We sat in the “danger seating”—on the floor right around the track, where we could be easily fallen upon, and even though we escaped without injury, our lives flashed before our eyes more than once over the course of the two-hour game.

The best part of the roller derby culture is that each player (and each ref too, actually) has a derby name the way a wrestler has a stage name. They’re all violent and often pun on the girls’ real names or on their profession—the girl whose name was Demolition Plan (and whose number was C4, just for kicks), for example, is an architect. Each name is unique and registered, like the names of racehorses. A lovely way to occupy yourself during a time out, in fact, is to ponder what your own derby name would be if you ever decided to take up the sport.

Not that I plan on doing that any time soon—I’ve seen enough of the inside of ERs for one lifetime, thank you very much. But I wouldn’t pass up the chance to go again! Though next time I might opt to sit in the NON-danger seating.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

In Memoriam

(May 15, 1997 – June 1, 2011)

I didn’t think I’d have occasion to write again so soon—certainly not another post about a loss—but life’s that way sometimes. On Wednesday morning, my family had to make the difficult decision to put my beloved cat to sleep. She was a part of our family from the age of eight weeks to the very last minute of her fourteen years.

Upon the loss of her own cat several years ago, my sister wrote on her blog a very loving tribute to our dear tabby; it seems only fair that I leave Shenanigan with a little send-off as well.

So for those of you who knew of her but who never met my little tuxedo cat with the beauty mark (and that’s most of my friends, as she was a most unsociable feline), here is Shenanigan for you, in a few words.

Shenanigan knew her name. She thought it was “Nanny” because that’s what we settled on as a nickname (I named her on a whim as a high schooler; I take no blame for my fancy). She also responded to “Nanners” (my father’s nickname for her) and, on occasion, “Banana.” I think we only called her by her full name when she was in trouble, in which case she did what most sensible animals would do and hid under something inaccessible.

When we first got her from a shelter in Korea, she was a tiny, black, feral fuzzball who spent the first several days in our home hiding under my dresser and hissing at us as fiercely as a tiny, black, feral fuzzball can hiss. But she never bit, and she never scratched (at least not on purpose). Ever, in her entire life.

We always joked she was part Manx and part Siamese. Manx because her back legs were longer than her front, and Siamese because she was, bar-none, the most talkative cat I have ever encountered. She chirped, she meowed, she mewed, she shouted, she even growled like a dog. And she purred. There’s nothing like a purring cat to make you feel that all is right with the world.

She purred with particular vehemence when she was licking plastic bags. We never knew why she did this. I suppose everybody has their quirks and strange addictions. In fact, she took over an entire drawer in my long-suffering parents’ dresser, which she insisted on keeping well-stocked with plastic bags for her convenience. She would lie in the drawer and lick and purr and chatter at us, and if we neglected to pet her, she would often stop licking, fix us with a yellow-eyed stare, and yell.

She was an enormously picky eater but a pretty good mouser. I still shudder to recall the night when she jumped up in my bed with something slimy in her mouth that fell onto the floor and was not there in the morning when I dared to look for it.

Shenanigan hated strangers, dogs, vacuum cleaners, luggage, her cat carrier, and anybody who sneezed when she couldn’t see them. That often elicited a disapproving growl, which she could execute without actually stopping her purring. The few cat-sitters we imposed upon her never once saw her; our neighbors have joked that we just made her up, for all they’ve seen of her.

When she was very young, though she was never a lap cat, she would sleep draped across my neck—a slight problem given the fact that I am actually allergic to cats. When she got big enough that such a pose would have suffocated me, she took to sleeping in the crook of my knees (heaven forbid I should need to turn over—such things weren’t allowed). When I went to college, she took to sleeping under a tent made of blankets and pillows. If she didn’t get her tent, there was no peace in the house until her wishes were complied with. When it came to knowing exactly what she wanted, she was a very typical cat.

She used to like to climb up the inside of the louver doors on my closet and sit on top of them. She would either call to have me take her down or, if I didn’t move fast enough, she would fling herself all six feet to the floor and land with an adorable “Oof” sound. She never did lose her taste for high places even after we moved houses and lost the louver doors; she would look longingly at our closet shelves until somebody broke down and lifted her up onto one of them, obliging somebody else to take her down again when she got bored. (She was, by this point, beyond the age of six-foot leaps.)

Shenanigan was perhaps less affectionate than she was amusing, less domesticated than she was domineering. She was convinced she was royalty, and she was such a character—one minute every bit as dignified as her tuxedo coat would lead you to expect, the next minute doing something ridiculous like washing her stomach and then forgetting to put her tongue back in her mouth, sitting there with her hind leg sticking up in the air like a flagpole—we were all content to let her have her way. She was an imperious, neurotic, and demanding feline diva…and I will love her and miss her always.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Something tells me it's all happening at the 'Zoo.

There are all sorts of funny things about the world’s biggest conference of medievalists. First of all, the fact that there IS a big conference of medievalists sounds, to anybody who’s not a medievalist, like something of a joke. But, indeed, there are enough of us out there to generate a conference program so big it requires professional binding.

Then there’s the fact that it’s in Kalamazoo. That’s just a funny name, made funnier by people’s habit of calling the conference that takes place there “K’zoo” (pronounced like the musical instrument) or even just “The ‘Zoo.” Hence the tribute to Simon and Garfunkel in my title. And, at its height, with dozens of papers being read at simultaneous panels and thousands of academics blundering around the campus looking for food or just looking lost, it can, certainly, feel a bit like a zoo. There are even geese, ducks, goslings, and nesting swans to make us feel right at home in the menagerie!

Oh, and did I mention that there are mead tastings, broad-sword demonstrations, and a dance at which (I am told) people occasionally dress in costume? I don’t really know what kind of costume this means: the only pictures I’ve seen are of people in eighties-style dance gear, complete with the teased hair. But then, perhaps the picture was taken in the eighties.

One of my fellow medievalists had a student ask him, when he announced he was going to this conference, if he was going to dress up. Took awhile to realize the student didn’t mean a jacket and tie, he was envisioning chainmail and tunics. It is NOT that kind of conference…with the possible but unconfirmed exception of the dance. But given that everything from the Modern Language Association meetings to Comicon are lumped under the heading of “conference,” can an outsider be blamed for making assumptions when he hears that thousands of medievalists are all converging on a small town in Michigan right at the end of the school year?

I gave a paper at the conference this year, a great honor and a great deal of fun, but what was much more noteworthy to my mind (I keep forgetting to tell people how my paper went when they ask me how the conference was) is the sheer Who’s-Who sense you get reading the program. Many of the great names in medievalism make their appearance in Kalamazoo every year, and a grad student can easily get a bit star-struck when she realizes she’s standing in line at the cafeteria with the person who redefined Chaucer studies, or that her paper presentation was attended by a leading voice in Piers Plowman criticism. Small beer to someone not in the field, I suppose, but we all have our celebrity heroes.

By the way, I went to the mead and ale tasting. Mead would be pretty good if it didn’t have all that alcohol in it! (This message brought to you by your friendly neighborhood teetotaler.)

More importantly, I had a chance at this conference to spend time with several fellow medievalists from my own department (a 12-hour drive each way counts, in my book, as social time!), to reconnect with a dear friend from my program in Iceland, and even to run unexpectedly into several of my professors from undergrad! I was stunned that they remembered me. But then, it probably says less about me personally than it does about the oddity of my career choice. How many students does a professor have in one career who go on to become medievalists themselves? I should hope I’d remember my budding medievalists, if I’m ever fortunate enough to be in a position to teach any.

Kalamazoo marked the end of the hectic spring semester. Now it’s on to the summer agenda, which is sadly lacking in beach trips and afternoons spent reading on the Lawn, but which should keep me busy and out of trouble. Next time I have an adventure, I’ll post something, but given that my vision of the next few months looks suspiciously like a library carrel, I can’t guarantee anything of interest until I hit of month of travel in August!

Monday, April 25, 2011

He is Risen, and Others Have Fallen Asleep

Happy Easter, my friends. The tomb is empty.

But no joy in this life is without its shadow. This past Monday, the first day of Holy Week, my college roommate and dear friend, Nammon, passed away at the age of 28.

I don’t usually mention others by name in this blog, or post their pictures, but I hope Nammon wouldn’t mind if I bend my rule this once. She’s actually made an appearance here before, when I wrote about my visit to her in Santa Barbara in March. In our little roommate joke about the Buddhist, the Lutheran, and the Catholic who walked into an In-and-Out, she was the Buddhist.

We knew then, when we visited her, that it would be the last time al three of us were together; Nammon had been fighting cancer for some four years already, and in February she had told us that she was stopping treatment (which had produced no results) in order to “choose to live” for the rest of the time she had. I will always be grateful that the three of us were able to be together again when we could all still fully enjoy it.

Nammon passed away in Santa Barbara on April 18, peacefully from what I hear, spared from the long and slow decline in condition and faculties that we all feared she would suffer toward the end. She left us sooner than we’d expected, in fact. You could never tell Nammon she had to do something a certain way; I think, ultimately, she went when she was ready.

But I don’t want to talk about her passing; I’d rather talk about her life. This collection of memories and trivia is my tribute to one of the best friends I’ve ever had. It’s small, but it’s all I can give her now.

*Nammon loved ice cream. She always used to say that if her PhD in Physics didn’t work out (which, by the way, it did, despite all obstacles), she would open an ice cream stand and probably make more money that way. She also loved Piglet, for reasons that I never really understood.

*We had two running jokes in our room in college, among us three roommates. The first was that if Nammon didn’t want to do work, all she had to do was ask our third roommate (then a Southern Baptist, now a Lutheran) a question about God, and she would be set for a multi-hour conversation that would give her a perfectly good excuse not to do her homework. The other joke was that when I was putting the final touches on my paper, it was time for Nammon to start writing hers. (She was an excellent student, but also a very creative procrastinator.)

*She and I once took fencing together as a P.E. credit. She was much better at it than I was. After each class the two of us would go to Food Court just as it was opening and be the first in line for dinner, which we would eat in the nearly-empty dining hall while we chatted about classes and movies and all the things that friends chat about.

*We also took translation theory together, where we discovered a shared (strong) dislike of anything written by Walter Benjamin. We would sit in our room working on our respective translations (she translating Thai, I translating Spanish), and while I pondered the profound implications of various rhymes for “shore,” she would ask perplexing questions like, “What’s a poetic word for cow?” Apparently Thai has several. English is sorely lacking, we discovered, in poetic words for practically everything.

*Nammon was terrible at answering emails, and she got one of her favorite professors addicted to Diet Coke.

*Her English was almost flawless, though she always pronounced “jealous” as “jeelous,” and the word “caffeine” had three syllables (“cafĂ©-een”). She had a very distinctive way of saying, “Hello?” when she answered the phone, and I hope I shall never forget the way she used to inflect her favorite phrases, “How should *I* know” and “Point taken!” She taught our other roommate to say “hello” and “bathroom” in Thai (the first two words you’d like to know while traveling in a foreign country), but in practicing them, the two always turned into one phrase, so she ended up saying, “Hello, bathroom,” as if she was pleased to meet the lavatory.

*When the three of us first started rooming together, we all had very similar blue jackets, and we joked that we were triplets. Then Nammon went through a very girly phase in which she wore beautiful skirts and heels even in the iffy New Hampshire springtime. The last time I saw her, in California, she was back in the sweatshirts and jeans we all used to wear when I first met her; she’d gone full circle, while I’d never left it. But one of my most vivid memories of Nammon is when she got a new skirt that swished around at the hem when she twisted her hips; Finding Nemo had recently come out in theaters, and she called it her octopus skirt because it reminded her of the baby octopus that was one of Nemo’s friends.

*When someone told her to strike a pose for a picture, Nammon would always puff out her cheeks and stare placidly back at the camera. It was endearing and self-deprecating, and I sorely wish I had a picture of her in that pose.

*She loved teaching. She volunteered with the Thai Scholars Program (the foundation that brought her to the US from Bangkok) for something like 10 years running, helping new generations of exchange students adjust to life in the chilly hills of New Hampshire. They all called her “Pi-Nammon”—something like “Aunt Nammon” from what I can gather. When she taught physics to undergraduates in Santa Barbara, she jumped up and down and bounced back and forth in her enthusiasm.

*Nammon loved her closest friends with a dedication I’ve never seen before. I knew her to pull all-nighters making pop-up cards and hand-knitted scarves for one of her friends, she cherished singing the duets from Moulin Rouge with another, and the only time I saw her deeply upset was when someone she loved inadvertently hurt her feelings. Nammon knew, even before she got sick, that heartache is worse than bodily pain, and I never knew her to inflict it on anyone else.

The strange thing about Nammon’s death is that, after the initial sadness, I started to feel so very alive—as if knowing that she was no longer seeing sunsets and watching spring arrive and eating chocolates made me suddenly appreciate that I was. I hope she wouldn’t be offended that that’s the feeling I take away from her passing. Somehow I think she’d approve; she was a vivacious and spirited woman and even when, as she put it, she and her body were no longer on speaking terms, she faced life—and death—with the resolution and good humor with which she faced everything from physics exams to knitting.

Nammon’s legacy will be the changes she wrought in the hearts of those who loved her. In honor of my dear friend, I will endeavor, as best I can, to live with the gratitude, humility, affection, and joy that she left as an example—and a challenge—for everyone who knew her.

May the One who conquered death find a place in paradise for this beloved young woman, and may He grant consolation to those of us she left behind.

Happy Easter, my friends.

Friday, April 8, 2011

April is the Cruelest Month?

I don’t often have an occasion to quote T.S. Eliot, and if I happen to agree with his assessment of April, it’s for a very different reason than his. This year, for me, April is one of those months which, when you look at your Google calendar, sort of makes you want to cry. Or breathe very quickly into a bag, one of the two.

We started off the month with a bang in the English Department, with a weekend-long grad student conference. It was a wonderful hit, but everybody who was involved in organizing it (of which I was one) needed another weekend to recover from the excitement. It didn’t help that I also went to Cirque du Soleil on Sunday night, which was amazing (a dazzling adaptation of medieval mumming, acrobatics, and grotesquerie!), but see again my comment about the excitement.

Next week I have a dissertation chapter due as well as an important public presentation of my project (the last mandatory event before the dissertation defense, actually—though that’s still a long way off, thank goodness). On the same day as my presentation, I have not one but two choir concerts. That’s in addition to two other singing engagements for church, plus all the dress rehearsals. And then the week after that is Holy Week, which I don’t think I ever considered a time-consuming event—until I joined the church choir. I might as well just bring a sleeping bag and live at the church from Thursday through Sunday, for all the time I’ll spend at home. Gives one a better appreciation for how busy priests and pastors are during the high holidays of the liturgical year.

Not that I’m really complaining; I like being busy, and I certainly brought this all on myself. But if I don’t post on my blog again for, oh, another month or so, let the preceding paragraphs stand as my excuse. Before my enforced hiatus, though, I wanted to post some pictures of the unseasonable snow showers we got a few weeks ago, just when we were thinking it was about to be spring. And here are two fun little “bloopers of the real world” that I’m so fond of. I encountered them just recently, and if the pictures aren’t great quality, it’s because they’re from my phone.

First, a statuette in an antique store labeled “White Horse.” WHAT kind of creature is this exactly? Animal identification failure much?

Second, a lost and found notice in a local high school’s choir classroom. In case you can’t read it, it says: “Found: Black Womens Sock/Hose/Foot Cozy: 3.” (We’ll turn a blind eye to the lack of apostrophe in “Women’s,” since no one is ever sure which side of the s to put it on.) Somebody instead has helpfully added a little comma in between “Black” and “Womens.” I like how the punctuation is supposed to fix this whole strange sentence.

The grammar police seem to have been concerned with political correctness when really they should have been asking themselves the much more important question: under what strange circumstances could one contrive to lose not one or two (which would make some amount of sense) but exactly THREE footies?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Buddhist, a Lutheran, and a Catholic walk into an In-and-Out

No, it’s not a joke, it was my weekend. Last week I was blessed with the opportunity to fly to sunny (well, mostly sunny) California to visit my old college roommates! Our freshman year of college we were hall-mates, but from second year all the way to the day of graduation, we were the unstoppable trio. In fact, it’s been odd NOT being roommates for the past five years since we graduated.

We were, as the lead-in might suggest, just about the most unlikely roommates imaginable—even more so given that the Lutheran started out a Southern Baptist in our college years. One of us is from Bangkok, one is from Oklahoma (and Massachusetts now that she’s married), and one is from…where am I from again? One of us is a scientist, one is a linguist, and one is an English major. One of us is Thai, one is Lenape, and one of us is just about as mongrel Caucasian as you can get. We had practically nothing in common but what we cultivated over our years together. What can we say? Some things just work, and there’s no telling why. So from chick-flick movie nights and ice-skating on Occum Pond to teasing over boys and late-night discussions about God, we were terrific roommates for three years. We were also excellent at procrastinating together, but that’s beside the point.

I can’t say enough about these wonderful girls, and they remain wonderful and amazing women now, who have faced and are facing the kinds of trials we all pray to escape—and they’re doing it with grace and wisdom and extraordinary humor. Their stories are their own to tell, but I’ll just say here that if I can go about my own life with even half the grace, wisdom, and humor that my old roommates show every day, I will be a force to be reckoned with.

I had never been to Santa Barbara before this past weekend, but now that I’ve been, I already miss the West Coast ways! To fly out of dreary, wintery Virginia and land in sunny, flowering Southern California was like fast-forwarding from early March to late May. The whole place looks like a movie set (and in fact, I thought about the opening credits of M*A*S*H every time I looked at the hills), and of course my allergies kicked in right away. I didn’t mind; the flowers were worth it.

We sampled the local fare from Mexican to Spudnuts—and of course the In-and-Out burger joint, which I’ll compare to its East-Coast rival Five Guys as soon as I visit one. We visited Stearn’s Wharf despite the gusting wind (at least it wasn’t snow!), and we drove out on Highway 101 through the Santa Ynez Valley and into wine country. I don’t particularly like wine; I was excited about the horses.

And we visited Solvang, a town that seems to have been built up entirely on the tourist trade, with replicas of Dutch and Danish buildings all housing restaurants and toy stores and hobby shops. There’s a windmill that actually turns and even a replica of the Tower in Copenhagen, though inside it is a pizza place instead of an observatory. What a strange little town to find in the hills of Southern California!

It was a lovely trip that was all too short, but I have to content myself with what it was, because I don’t have much of a prospect for going back in the near future. Still, even though it only lasted a few days, I’ll always treasure my Santa Barbara reunion with the best college roomies ever to grace a dorm!