Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Banner Week

In addition to the inauguration, a new season of Lost premiered. I think my head is going to explode!

Ben. So diabolical. What is his end game?

Love the Hurley and Sayid duo-on-the-run.

Despite Sawyer's buff pecs, I have a crush on geeky physicist Daniel Faraday.

Ana Lucia was back? Sweet!

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Things I realized last week

A while ago, I got an invitation for a Princeton alumni dinner with the dean of the grad school there. I put it aside. Why would I go? I don't like groups of people I don't know, I feel self-conscious about my distinctive lack of a career compared with other PU grads, and I didn't think I had anything to wear.

But, AJ persuaded me that I should go, and that he should come with me (a really good dinner at a nice place downtown, compliments of PU), and so we went. It was a smallish group--there were probably only 12 of us total. We sat at the table the whole time, and there was no formal remarks--or fundraising attempts--from the dean. We were late and sat at the end of the table with the younger crowd who were more recently at PU. In fact, a woman who now works as an environmental chemist at a university here recognized me, though I didn't remember her at all. After realizing that we both have daughters that are 7, she figured out that we had been in a new mom group sponsored through a local hospital for a short time when they were both tiny. I can't believe she figured that out.

All in all, it was a great evening. I loved talking with really smart people who are doing things like building a balloon telescope or teaching at a charter school, and while I didn't make any professional connections, it left me with better feelings towards PU than I have had in a while.

So, as I was thinking about going to the dinner and reflecting on my time at PU, I realized:

1. It's good for me to have some distance from my grad school experience there. I am so full of ambivalence about it, but looking back, there were lots of good things that happened while I was there and I knew a lot of amazing people.

2. I actually like the research I did when I was there. This probably seems like a "no duh" to anybody else, but writing the dissertation was just such a painful process and I often felt so lackluster and inferior there, that it overshadowed the work that I liked.

3. And this is separate but related. The relative peace that I have felt about mothering this past year is very context dependent. MJ is in school most of the day, T has preschool three afternoons a week, Baby Z is still taking two naps a day. During the summer, I very carefully scheduled MJ and T into activities that would give them something else other than just being at home with me. I have time for me--to read and do other things without kids around. Every once in a while, a situation flares up, and all my old feelings return, and I see that I am never going to be that mother who feels totally satisfied in all aspects of myself when staying with my kids and tending to domestic items. And that I'm just fine with that.

Baby Z is almost a year old. I'm going to dust off the vita and see if I can get any nibbles.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

First Family

Does this picture choke anyone else up?

This is taken from a great article in the NYTimes about Michelle and Barack Obama's families.

Here is the first paragraph:

The president’s elderly stepgrandmother brought him an oxtail fly whisk, a mark of power at home in Kenya. Cousins journeyed from the South Carolina town where the first lady’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery, while the rabbi in the family came from the synagogue where he had been commemorating Martin Luther King’s Birthday. The president and first lady’s siblings were there, too, of course: his Indonesian-American half-sister, who brought her Chinese-Canadian husband, and her brother, a black man with a white wife.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I loved the inaugural benediction. I loved the three amens at the end--with a pause for a communal response. I loved watching the faces of President Obama and the others near him in their rousing Amens. It was one of the only times I saw President Obama smile during the proceedings.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand — true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we’ve shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you’re able and you’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.

We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.

Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

Say amen — and amen.

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A Day for the History Books

When T saw all the flags waving on the mall during the lead-up to the inauguration, he ran to the closet and got all our flags and then went crazy with them. He was also excited to learn that the name of President Obama's wife is Michelle.
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Inauguration Day, New Yorker Style

Top: Janurary 26, 2009;
Bottom from left: January 22, 2001; March 4, 1933; January 25, 1993;
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Friday, January 16, 2009

Their Eyes Were Watching God

What an amazing book. We did it for book group this month and I was glad for the chance to read it. I have only read Hurston's Mules and Men and that was in college, a very long time ago.

Just a few thoughts here.
1. I love the name Zora. What a great name. It was really interesting to read about the end of her life, where she fell into relative obscurity, worked as a maid the last 10 years of her life, and then was buried in an unmarked grave. The story of Alice Walker, one of the most influential writers who rediscovered Hurston, trying to find the location where she was buried was great.

2. Hurston's writing is brilliant. She moves between character dialogue in the black vernacular and beautifully written literary descriptions so gracefully, without any hint of perturbance. It occurred to me while reading this that she must have been split between two worlds: that of the writer and academic and that of the poor black woman.

3. I loved the arc of Janie's journey--her voyage to the horizon where heaven meets earth. I thought it was interesting that for Hurston, Janie's self-realization was not at all dependent on her becoming a mother, but centered on finding and loving Tea Cake.

Some of my favorite passages:

After her second husband first beat her, she has a moment of powerful self awareness.

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petal used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.

And the final paragraph of the book:
The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. Commenced to sing, commenced to sob and sigh, singing and sobbing. Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.
What a satisfying conclusion.

This book has inspired me to create an African American reading list in honor of Black History Month. I think I'll read The Souls of Black Folk (I've heard much mention of this in sociological contexts), some Toni Morrison, maybe some more Zora Neale Hurston, and maybe Cane River.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Organization at Home

Last week, I read an article in the Washington Post which suggested that an easy way to start decluttering and organizing at home was to first tackle the linen closet. A confined space which could be cleaned out in a fairly short amount of time? Sign me up.

I have had some struggles with clutter, with things going lost in our house, with crankiness about it all.

Exhibit #1. T's boot went missing. He was supposed to bring winter clothes to preschool to play outside. Much to his dismay, he was forced to wear MJ's old Hello Kitty boots. I was mad. He was mad and upset. "All the kids will laugh at me!"

Exhibit #2. MJ can't find her spelling notebook. She doesn't know where her agenda for school is. I threaten. I scold.

I could go on and on.

So, I decided to do the linen closet. And that I could do all the other non-bedroom closets in the house. A small triumph to boost me up and give me encouragement for other bigger jobs.

As of today, I have completed the linen closet, the front hall closet (that doubles as a pantry), and the laundry room closet. I have one more closet in our upstairs hall to do. I have several bags of stuff to get rid of. And it feels great.

While I am feeling this motivation, I decided to pull out my home organization books that have been gathering dust on my shelves for months and months. I just started one today. I am trying to look past statements like: "The only thing that can stop you is you! There's a u in every excuse."

Wish me luck! I need all the good kharma I can get for this.

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Monday, January 12, 2009


This Christmas, we read our usual amount of books. Babushka by Sandra Ann Horn is one of my favorites. We found it last year, and this year the kids wanted to read it quite a few times.

We have read another couple of versions of this story. Traditionally, the character of Babushka refuses to go with the wise men because she can't leave her household to collect dust and cobwebs in her absence, but then she regrets her decision. So, she wanders after the wise men, but never finds the baby Jesus. Supposedly, she has continued to try to find the baby Jesus, leaving toys for all children because they might be him.

In Horn's version, she does end up finding him and Mary and Joseph, even though she has already given all her presents away. She is still obsessed with cleanliness and order, but is able to look past the general squalor of the stable when she meets baby Jesus.

I love the illustrations in this book. There are a couple of pages where Horn draws a sky full of angels, and I like the idea of the night sky illuminated by the angels that crowd to earth to announce his birth and to catch a glimpse of him.

I also heard a great interview with John Rutter, the director of the Cambridge Singers (a choir whose CDs are required Christmas listening in my house). When pressed for his favorite Christmas carol, he replies In Dulci Jubilo. "The legend goes it was sung by the angels on Christmas Eve and written down by a monk. If ever there was a carol that might have been sung by the angels, that would be it."

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Vintage New Yorker: August 9, 1947

I'm trying to decide what to do with all these delicious New Yorker covers. In the meantime, I think I'll post a smattering here.
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Friday, January 09, 2009

I am Loving Picasa

We recently upgraded our computer and started using Picasa instead of Photoshop for photo organization. Photoshop Elements was clumsy, slow, and it was hard to do even the simplest editing tasks. It always made our computer freeze. So, AJ installed Picasa and it is so much nicer. I just sent this photo directly from Picasa to Blogger. And there is a great feature where I can take stills from video, as this picture from the kids on Christmas morning.

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Baby Z's New Trick

As described by T: "He can stand up like a real person now!"

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Splendors of the Vatican

On New Years Eve, AJ and I got to go on a real date. Not one squeezed into a two hour block. Not a dinner and movie at our local mall. Thanks to grandparents in town, we went over the Minnesota History Center to see Splendors of the Vatican. On display were mosaics of the apostles, a compass Michalangelo used on the frescos of Sistine Chapel ceiling, several reliquaries, including one containing what is said to be bone fragments of St Peter, and many papal articles including the pastoral staff of Pope John Paul and the papal garb that Pope Benedict didn't choose (apparently three cassocks--is that what they are called?--are laid out for the new pope and whichever fits best is worn to greet the well-wishes at St Peter's, while the other two are stashed away at the Vatican). When we were in Italy three years ago, the Vatican was my most favorite site. I loved looking at the art, the Sistine Chapel was amazing, and St Peter's was awesome, in all that that word symbolizes. Someday, I want to go back to Rome on the off-est of the off season so that I can enjoy a bit more solitude in the Sistine Chapel rather than standing shoulder to shoulder with loads of other tourists.

There is something about the Catholic church that calls to me. The unbroken connection to the time of Christ, no matter what depravity and dark periods the church passed through, is powerful. The Catholic churches I have visited feel otherworldly--the Gregorian chanting of Vespers, the deep silence of stone walls, and the art portraying Jesus, Mary, and the Saints. While some people think they are creepy, I like the relics--like the bones of apostles, the finger of St Anthony in Padova, as well as other physical objects like the chains that Peter was supposedly held in. We also saw the Mandylion of Edessa at the museum, which was a cloth taken to Jesus for him to touch, in order that his power might be transferred to a sick individual for healing. He is said to have placed the cloth over his face, and when he pulled it away, an image of his face remained. It was preserved in ornate fashion, encapsulated in gold and jewels. Relics are venerated by believers because the holiness of the person is said to still reside in these bone fragments or objects that they touched. I like the idea of physical objects that connect me to someone who lived hundreds of years ago.

I also like the Catholic emphasis on Mary. While Mormons typically downplay Mary to some extent because we don't want people from other religions to think that worship her, I like seeing images of her and feeling the great respect and reverence that Catholics have for her. I like that there is a woman who is venerated, and yes, even worshipped. To me, the Catholics get closer to the idea of a sacred feminine than the Mormons do, because even though we profess belief in a Mother God, we never talk about her, never compose paintings of her, and are generally left to our own imagination about her characteristics.

I am also drawn to the Saints. Partly, it's the idea that good people can act as vessels of God's mercy and miracles. People who are canonized as saints enter into the Catholic fabric, and become bedtime stories for children and examples of moral behavior and discipleship that inspire followers. I must also admit that I love that women can be saints, that their stories too can be told and retold, and that their lives serve as inspiration. I have wanted for some time to learn more about the stories of the Catholic saints. I picked up a 2009 calendar of saints for my office, and am looking for some reading material to help me learn about them.

And after the museum, we shared a delicious meal at a Kurdish restaurant called Babani's. Ahh. It was so nice sitting there without the kids.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Lost in Translation

This is the first time I'm trying one of these book challenges. I mostly read whatever suits me and whatever looks good. But, Lost in Translation was simple and not too overwhelming, plus interesting and appealing enough to persuade me to try it: I just have to read 6 books in translation during 2009. Here's my first attempt at a list, but I don't feel bound to follow it exactly.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Russian)
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolanos (Spanish, Chile)
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Spanish, Colombia)
Nine Guardians by Rosario Castellanos (Spanish, Mexico)
Here's to You, Jesusa by Elena Poniatowska (Spanish, Mexico)
Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke (German)

Seeing by Jose Saramago (Portuguese, Brazil)
The Rebels by Sandor Marai (Hungarian)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (French)
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Spanish, Chile)
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado (Portuguese, Brazil)
Borges And The Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo (Portuguese, Brazil)
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Llosa Vargas (Spanish, Peru)

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Recent Books

I have read a string of really great books, but I'm behind on writing about them. Once I had a handle of my Christmas projects, I wanted to sit and read and read, and I did make it through quite a few books. Here are just a few words about several of them.

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock. This sounded like a good book. A medical fraud trying to hock a solution to the age-old problem of declining masculinity. John Brinckley's remedy was to implant men with goat testicles. Who would agree to such a surgery? It turns out a lot of men, famous and commoners. Brinckley became a very rich man with his hoax. But, I didn't love the writing, the story didn't flow well for me. It would have been better as a New Yorker article, condensed to its essence.

Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass. This was a simple story of three young adolescents who meet in a campground where hundreds of eclipse chasers have converged to view a total solar eclipse. The three couldn't be more different from each other: nerdy, smart, scientist, home-school daughter who has spent almost her whole life totally outside society living in the campground and taking care of it with her family; the beautiful, popular girl whose life revolves around shopping, make-up, and her plan to break into modelling; and the artistic chubby loner who is failing at school because he just doesn't make any effort. The three of them become friends and work through issues in a sweet coming of age story. And the description of the solar eclipse was exquisite--it made me want to plan a vacation around a viewing.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. This reminded me a lot of Never Let Me Go. The narrator of the story slowly unravels her story and the reader follows along. Jenna Fox has suffered an accident and has amnesia. She can't remember much of her life before, including her parents and friends. As her memory returns and as she stumbles along to piece together her story, a creepy medical experiment by two parents who can't bear to lose a child emerges. A combination of sci-fi and futuristic writing, complete with adolescent angst and questions about medical ethics make it a compelling read. Perfect for Christmas vacation.

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The Worst Hard Time

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

This was an amazing account of the circumstances and stories of people (collected by Egan in interviews) who lived through the dust bowl in the 1930's. Due to the wide-spread plowing up of the prairie to make room for wheat, when drought hit, massive amounts of soil were displaced and blown away. The severity of this human-caused environmental disaster was unprecedented. And the Depression only made it worse. One woman's story was
particularly poignant: when Hazel Lucas's first child was born, her husband spent hours trying to make it to the hospital because the roads were covered in sand and because visibility was so low. By the time this daughter was one, she was coughing up dirt and fine particulate matter, and soon died of what was called dust pneumonia, even though the family attempted to escape the worst of the dusters by moving out of the area.

Here's a quotation from the final chapter of the book detailing the tragedy that these people lived through:

How to explain a place where black dirt fell from the sky, where children died from playing outdoors, where rabbits were clubbed to death by adrenaline-primed nesters still wearing their Sunday-school clothes, where grasshoppers descended on weakened fields and ate everything but the doorknobs? How to explain a place where hollow-bellied horses chewed on fence posts, where static electricity made it painful to shake another man's hand, where the only thing growing that a human or a cow could eat was an unwelcome foreigner, the Russian thistle? How to explain fifty thousand or more houses abandoned throughout the great plains, never to hear a child's laugh or a woman's song inside their walls? How to explain nine million acres of farmland without a master?

Here's a review from Publisher's Weekly that I really liked:

Egan tells an extraordinary tale in this visceral account of how America's great, grassy plains turned to dust, and how the ferocious plains winds stirred up an endless series of "black blizzards" that were like a biblical plague: "Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains" in what became known as the Dust Bowl. But the plague was man-made, as Egan shows: the plains weren't suited to farming, and plowing up the grass to plant wheat, along with a confluence of economic disaster—the Depression—and natural disaster—eight years of drought—resulted in an ecological and human catastrophe that Egan details with stunning specificity. He grounds his tale in portraits of the people who settled the plains: hardy Americans and immigrants desperate for a piece of land to call their own and lured by the lies of promoters who said the ground was arable. Egan's interviews with survivors produce tales of courage and suffering: Hazel Lucas, for instance, dared to give birth in the midst of the blight only to see her baby die of "dust pneumonia" when her lungs clogged with the airborne dirt. With characters who seem to have sprung from a novel by Sinclair Lewis or Steinbeck, and Egan's powerful writing, this account will long remain in readers' minds

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