Friday, October 27, 2006

Salads Don't Have to Suck

Lunch was looking bleak. No promising leftovers in the fridge, and despite a personal credo to not worry my system with crap, I was making eyes at my roommate's Hot Pockets.

But I rummaged around a little further and, well. I've just gone and impressed the hell out of myself by concocting the most delicious yuppy salad you ever heard of. Check it out.

It's got locally grown spinach from the farmer's market last weekend, some sliced apples from my apple-picking excursion at the Carter Mountain orchard, some delicious fresh Bulgarian feta that I forgot was living in our fridge, and to top it all off, I emulsified into a vinaigrette some of the fresh sunflower oil I bought on the roadside in eastern Georgia next to the sunflower fields. Rich and nutty and pungent.

I didn't know I had it in me. Suck it, Rachel Ray!

Right on the Kisser

When it comes to greeting friends and acquaintances, I've said my piece on the cheek-kissing vs. hugging debate elsewhere, so there's no need to cover old turf. (In sum: cheek kissing is FAR superior and keeps you from having to choose between impressing your body against a middling acquaintance or coldly shaking hands. Naysayers claim that the kissing is Euro-mimicry of the worst sort, but aren't social hugs so phony, really? I will agree that consciously adopting a kiss-culture in the midst of a dominant hugging norm would mean you are a total tool, so I merely bemoan the status quo and do not prescribe a revolution.) Georgia was a firmly cheek-kissing culture and my social interactions were far better for it.

Returning to hug-centric America has generally been uneventful. I know that folks here hug, so I hug. The social norms are easy to navigate. But what about the friends I made in Georgia that are now here in America with me? Our default social greeting was always the cheek-peck, but here, that seems somehow affected (like all those study-abroad-in-Italy types tossing off ciao well after re-entry). And yet, adjusting agreed-upon interaction after crossing an arbitrary geographical border seems equally silly.

The dilemma has real consequences. Just today, I bumped into a Georgian friend from Georgia. He's been in America about six weeks—long enough to pick up on our habits—and when we met there was simply an awkward bobbing back and forth towards each other...cheek-no!...hug-wait!...and we simply settled for swaying stupidly and exchanging business cards. The real DC hello.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Cold Worriers

Bizarrely, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev was in Midland, TX. I guess the speaking circuit is really taking him to the dustbowl of history.

He's jawing off about the Tortilla Curtain being the new Berlin Wall and how the murder of Anna Politkovskaya is big-B bad for Russian democracy.

Incidentally, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya is all the rage in my political Russian language class these days. We're supposed to discuss Russian news, in Russian, so it's all murders and intrigues and sanktsii against Iran and North Korea.

It's a bit funny, focusing on political vocabulary when my regular speech in Russian has slipped so much. We're all a bunch of ignorant little Brezhnevs now. For example, I am perfectly comfortable telling you that the relations between the two countries are built upon a foundation of mutual cooperation and trust but I can't ever remember how to say "I woke up."

Kick Back and Deliver

So the new gig is this. Mentoring DC public high school kids from the far side of the Anacostia river, trying to give those with college aspirations the extra little oomph they need to make something of themselves. Seems a nice way to escape my recent preoccupations with navel-gazing and antisocial library-dwelling, and T, who has been doing it for years, sings the praises of this program.

Last week I met the other mentors, and we're a fine looking group. We got the skinny on what to expect from our students, and how to handle the inevitable rough spots. Don't expect a Hallmark card, they warned us. The students are in the program because they want to be, but there are broken homes and behavioral problems and some of them have endured abuse and gone numb to violence. You may be, they told us, the first person of your racial or ethnic background that these students have closely interacted with, and it can be challenging to earn their trust.

The organizers emphasized the importance of meeting the parents early. Introduce yourself, let them know who their child will be periodically running off with, explain the program if they're not aware, try to enlist their help in making sure the student shows up and makes an effort. I confess this made me nervous. It can be incredibly sensitive for a middle-class white girl to show up in the home of, say, a single mom working 3 jobs to get by, and explain that she'll be taking over from here. Toes can be stepped on, unintended implications of poor parenting can be transmitted. It seemed important that I find a way to explain my participation in the program (and in her daughter's life) in a humble and non-self-righteous manner.

But finally, last night, after much anticipation, I was to meet the student I'll be working with this year. We all gathered in a large meeting room, where the students clowned around and flirted and glanced at the mentors, wondering the same thing as we were. "Which one is mine?" The organizers started calling names and mentors paired off with their students. Some pairs looked like they could be sisters. Others, like the reluctant gangsta boys paired with eager PWC accountants made you long for a documentary filmmaker to tail them. I was so ready for this. Silently rehearsing my stand-and-deliver speech. My tough-love game face was on. I'm thinking Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Time to make a difference! Somebody needs me to believe in her! To push her onward when all the odds in the world are stacked against her! The chasm between our different worlds shrinking as understanding blossoms!

I was still burping out inspiration when Shanice sat down across from me. An adorable little thing with a quiet laugh and a ladylike air. My project!

"So," says I, indulgently. "Have you tried to think yet about what you might be interested in studying at college?"

She looks at me squarely. "Yes. International Relations."


This was unexpected.

"Wow. That's what I study," says I. She is happily surprised. "Have you thought about any schools yet, or should we start looking at programs?"

"Oh I pretty much have my list down - Cornell, Emory, a few others. I want to leave this area."

Aha. Uselessly, I glance down at the sheet of icebreaker questions handed to us by the organizers.

"And, uh. What activities do you like to do in your spare time?"

"I'm interested in photography. Other than that I just read and write a lot. But if I could, I would just want to travel all the time."

Sweet Jesus on a stick, this girl is like a 17-year-old Southeast quadrant me.

We skipped over the icebreaker questions and got straight into it. Career paths in international affairs, the future prospects of Latin American area studies, the ups and downs of working stateside versus in a field mission. My Michelle Pfeiffer playbook was worthless; this girl is more together than I am.

So I got a delightful young lady who is going to be a piece of cake to work with. I don't know what I can do for Shanice—though she seemed pretty psyched about coming to classes and talks around campus—but as for me, I want to find out how a kid like that comes out of Anacostia with such unblinkered determination. I have got to meet these parents.

White people do the darndest things

If only my friend T had watched The Wire, she would have known better than to follow the address of this establishment and take her visiting father on a traumatic tour through West Baltimore searching for pie. And probably, she would have taken that first modifier more seriously.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Strategic Helplessness and Home Depot

or: Betraying the Sisterhood for a Power Saw

I never worked it enough in bars and clubs for my alleged feminine charms to earn me free booze or underage entry. Batting my eyelashes never got me out of a ticket when caught by the fuzz. In fact, I was starting to think this whole feminine mystique business was all a hoax. That is, all until that hot Texas afternoon when I visited Home Depot in a sundress.

It was a simple errand—needed some nuts and bolts and washers and I knew what size and everything. But after being tailed by an oversolicitous salesboy who slipped the goods into a tiny paper sack and winked that I could just take them "compliments of Home Depot," I started calling them doohickeys double-quick.

That's what I learned. Sweety-pie ignorance can be exchanged for hardware in the exchange market of Home Depot. I managed to cash in a few more times, but my needs there are generally few.
It's a slightly awkward pose, for those ladies of my generation raised to bare our intellects the way our mothers were meant to bare (or burn?) their bras. No excuses these days for playing dumb so boys will think you're cute. But pretending, say, that you don't know a language when you do? Or pretending that you don't know that it was Professor Plum with the lead pipe? Very useful at times.

Well, I fucked up a bike thing.

I borrowed my roommate's bike, see. Rode it over a few blocks, took out the u-lock to fasten it up outside the flophouse, and inadvertantly managed to reset the combination, relock the u-lock, and then spin the dials. Bike was v. v. stuck.

Today was Operation Liberation and it was no easy feat. The internets suggested that hacksaws might work to loose the punier u-locks. But this lock? Laughed at the hacksaw. The internets further suggested (take note, budding criminals) that a good car jack could be inserted into the u-lock, jacked up, and the thing would pop right open. Jesus, I don't know. The damn thing is yuppy proof or something because this was a failure.

So it's back to Home Depot. Did you know they rent power tools? I mean, anything. I saw dudes returning jackhammers and all kinds of crazy things. And they just hand it to you, like here, have a chainsaw. I don't know what I expect exactly, maybe a user's manual? Or a waiting period?

So I'm standing there with all the contractors and day laborers waiting my turn. "Whatchu need, girl?" asks Marvin, the Home Depot clerk. "I don't know!" I chirp happily, smiling with teeth. "Something that cuts metal." "Whatchu cutting?" "My bike lock." I scrunch my face unhappily to show what a silly girl am I, and Marvin snorts in amusement.

Marvin hauls out a power saw with a reciprocal metal blade, reckoning that'll do the trick. He plugs it in to test the power, and as it whirs to life I skitter back noticeably. "Aw, don't tell me you're scared of the saw, girl?" "I am scared!" I allow. I am not sure, but it is possible that nobody has made Marvin feel as biguva man today as I have done so far. I assume that my points are accumulating.

The saw was a disaster, it didn't even make a dent. So it's back to Home Depot and to Marvin. "It didn't work at all," I pout, waving the saw around. Marvin is stumped for a moment but settles on a freaking giant circular concrete saw. "Now this is a little heavy," he warns me. I aim for doe-eyed. "I'll try..."

The concrete saw, I must admit, was not ultimately wielded by yours truly. In fact, yours truly might have been cowering in a stairwell while other parties did the heavy work of showering sparks all down Florida Ave. Incidentally, it is worth noting that in Washington, DC one can free a locked bike with a massive circular saw that sparks up like the fourth-of-july and the cops will not bother you. At least if you are white. I haven't tried it any other way.

So insane overkill in the way of power tools (shock and awe, ya'll) led to the ultimate success of Operation Liberation. This is one lesson you can take from this tale. Here's the other. With mission accomplished, I lugged the saw back to Marvin to settle up my rental fee, smiled sweetly, and I'll be damned if the man didn't knock off half the price.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


Right, so the books. Let's get to it.

1. One book that's changed your life
You sort of want to go back to your first, great childhood book obsessions. Anne of Green Gables, say. Madeleine L'Engle. My brief but pronounced period of paganism after reading the Mists of Avalon at age 11 (I sat in Mass praising the Goddess under my breath). But for satisfying cause-and-effect, I'll name a poem instead of a book, and that's Anna Akhmatova's Requiem. From there it was a straight line to the rest of Russian literature, history, then language, then politics, and next thing I know I've spent a year in Georgia—birthplace of Stalin, destroyer of Akhmatova's family. Well, one doesn't start into Russian with an eye on happy serendipities.

2. One book that you have read more than once
Michael Cunningham "The Hours". Before there was a movie. I was so enraptured by his prose that I picked up a few of his other books, and none of them did a thing for me. But this one slays.

3. One book you would want on a desert island.
Physicians desk reference. Hollowed out. Inside—waterproof matches, iodine tablets, beet seeds, protein bars, NASA blanket and, in case I get bored, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. No, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

[But seriously? Probably some Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One in particular seems appropriate for the circumstances.]

4. One book that made you cry.
Where the Red Fern Grows. A more interesting question would be: what book made you accidentally throw up on yourself? And the answer to that would be Isaac Babel's Collected Stories. I'm not being cutesy or metaphoric. This incident involves a nasty bout of bronchitis and a Goonie's impersonation but we can save that story for another time.

5. One book that made you laugh.
Confederacy of Dunces; it's been said before, but I have to agree.

6. One book you wish had been written.
My former colleague and friend is a Russian emigre and her mother survived the Great Patriotic War, the blockade of Leningrad, and escaped the blockade across the iced-over "road of life" only to learn that she'd lost a brother years before to Stalin's purges. She wrote her memoirs, and my colleague stubbornly and inexplicably denies my constant pleas to translate them into English. I wish she would.

7. One book you wish had never been written.
Oh, The Kite Runner can suck it and so can everybody who recommended that garbage to me.

8. One book you are currently reading.
I assume a copies of my syllabi wouldn't be too revealing. Time permitting, I supplement the grad school reading regimen with a re-read of a collection of Vaclav Havel's essays, "Living in Truth." Started it up again with this torture business looming in my mind.

9. One book you've been meaning to read.
The Adventures of Augie March. Martin Amis calls it the Great American Novel, so one of these days...