Monday, August 31, 2015

A Birthday of Sorts

I'm just coming off night call, i.e. working twenty-four hours a day for an entire week. It's pretty tedious, although you get paid around the clock for doing little more than jumping higher than the ceiling every time your phone rings.  In a typical night call week, you might get paged three times and spend less than two hours doing actual work, but the strain of never knowing when you'll get a page (In the grocery store check out line?  While working out at the gym? While stuck in traffic? and the fear that the issue will be something you won't know how to handle) is exhausting.

I'm on night call roughly once every three months and during the week before it starts, the dread and anticipation turn me into something like the women in the old SNL sketch about "annuale," the pill that allows you to get your period only once a year but turns you into a monster the week beforehand.

Anyway, the last day of call was also my birthday, which turned out OK.  The extra pay is a nice birthday present, and Brigid came home from Switzerland, which was the best present of all.  As I write this, she is safely in Boston, waiting for her flight to Richmond.  She somehow accidentally got to the gate without going through customs, which is a classic Brigid-type thing to happen.  ("Didn't someone look at your passport?" I asked.  Well, yes, someone did, but they wanted to see her ticket and she didn't have it because her flight switched to a different carrier for the last leg of the flight, so they sent her somewhere to get the ticket printed and from there she went straight to her gate.  "But what about your bag?" I said.  She thought it was checked through to Richmond?  I wasn't so sure about that, but my only experience with switching from international flights to domestic was in South Africa, where you definitely have to collect your bag and then re-check it.  Which makes sense if you are going through customs.**)

For the birthday, we had homemade pizza for dinner.  Somehow, copious amounts of olive oil spilled in the oven and the house filled with smoke and the smoke detector went off, terrifying Sancho, who fled the house and wouldn't come back in, so Phoebe stole his dinner AND ate her own.  She's an opportunistic bitch. And during all of that, Grace called to say that Brigid's cat had fleas and what should they do about it.  I baked a walnut jam cake from Smitten Kitchen for dessert. I wasn't in the mood for a frosted layer cake and I also didn't want pie or a cheesecake. This cake was perfect.  Earlier in the day, while walking Phoebe in the alley, I discovered chestnuts!  Last winter, the city cleared away a huge amount of weed trees and brush from the alley, which not only created a pleasant grove between our house and our neighbors', but also gave us access to a chestnut tree that had formerly been inaccessible.

I gathered what I could and then noticed that the tree is absolutely loaded with nuts that haven't fallen yet.  I think Becky might want to come over and share the bounty.  I am now researching ways to preserve chestnuts.  I might make some chestnut butter.  I'm also thinking chestnut stuffing and sweetened chestnut puree stirred into cakes and whipped cream.  We loved buying roasted chestnuts from little carts on the streets of Lisbon.  If you have a favorite way to prepare chestnuts, let me know.

**Brigid and her bag both arrived safely in Richmond late last night.  So I was wrong about the bag, but I half expected her to be met at the airport by customs officials. Grace, who now lives in Richmond very kindly picked her up from the airport.  I wish I could have done it myself, but again, because of night call, driving an hour to Richmond would have been difficult, plus having to drive all the way back so late at night and then go to work in the morning.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Odd Girl Out

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard was my fun book to fall back on while reading John Evelyn's diary.  I can't adequately describe EJH's writing style.  There's an economy of words, an elegance and simplicity that makes every sentence a joy to read.  EJH was also particularly talented at describing the comical inner dilemmas that we all deal with every day.

Odd Girl Out is about Arabella Dawick, a poor little rich girl, who arrives as a guest at the house of her step-brother Edmund Cornhill, and his wife Anne.  The Cornhills appear to have a blissful marriage.  They have a lovely house, plenty of money; they treat each other with consideration and love.  And of course Arabella's entrance into their lives disrupts everything--in the predicable way but also in an unexpected way.  The conclusion of this novel is uncomfortable, as it touches on aspects of human nature that we'd prefer to pretend don't exist.

I'm not sure what to make of Arabella.  She's unwanted by her mother, seen as an inconvenience or else abused by her various step fathers; all she wants is to be loved and to belong somewhere. So she's a sympathetic character and yet she leaves chaos in her wake, albeit unintentionally.  A side-plot in the novel illustrates just how much chaos.  Clara, Arabella's mother, tells Edmund before the visit, "Don't let her exploit you."

One of the things that EJH excels at, and which makes her novels so much fun to read, is her talent for portraying the super rich: their expressions, mannerisms, habits, and fashions.  In Odd Girl Out, Arabella's mother Clara is technically a princess, as her latest husband happens to be a prince.  She flits from Switzerland to Paris to Cannes, leading the life that some of us (myself included) see as glamorous and fun.  It is certainly entertaining to read about Clara, but Howard skillfully portrays how boring and empty such a life can be.

I know that a lot of the books that I write about are not ones that will appeal to many people, but Odd Girl Out is one that I think most of you would enjoy.  It's the thinking person's chick lit.  Definitely pick it up if you're looking for something to read.

Monday, August 24, 2015


My bike got a flat tire last week, so on Friday, I rode the trolley home from work. It happened to be UVA move-in weekend, so the traffic was worse than usual.  The trolley, when it arrived, was crowded so I stood in the aisle and held onto one of the poles.  There were a few seats here and there, but I didn't want to go pushing through the crowd to get to them.  One man patted the empty seat next to him and leered at me.  I ignored him, but this caught the attention of another man who was sitting on one of the benches in the front.  He told me I could sit next to him.  I politely said that I preferred to stand.  The man appeared to be drunk (possibly) or otherwise unstable and the other man on the bench reeked of cigarette smoke. I didn't want to squeeze in between them.  I'm sure I'm not the only woman who assesses empty bus seats for harassment and groping potential before sitting down.

The man said, "Oh, I see.  You're a racist." He got out of his seat and moved across the aisle, making an elaborate show, for the benefit of the other passengers, of vacating his seat for the racist woman.  I continued to stand.  The man started pointing me out to the other people on the bus.  "See her?  She's a racist. She won't sit next to me."  He kept up muttering for most of the interminable ride through the congested move-in traffic.  We eventually reached downtown and I fled the trolley and walked home.

Here's the thing: you don't owe strangers anything. There is an expectation in civil society that an unwanted offer is responded to with a simple "no thank you."  That's common courtesy, but no one should ever be under any obligation to engage with strangers.  You don't have to smile just because some asshole tells you to.  You don't have to give someone your name just because they ask.  You don't have to converse with someone just because they want to converse with you and you don't have to sit with someone who makes you uncomfortable.

In polite society, there are tacit rules about boundaries between strangers: don't make eye contact on the subway, etc.  When someone crosses those boundaries and you refuse to engage, you're not a bitch and you're not racist.  The person crossing the boundary is imposing on you and you do not have to appease someone who is imposing on you.

I don't mean to sound like a victim blamer here, but I think sometimes women end up in uncomfortable or dangerous situations because they are fearful of being perceived as rude or racist.  I was publicly accused of racism and as deeply unpleasant as that was,  I'm glad I didn't sit next to that man. It would have spared me the racism  accusation, but at what cost?  Would the obnoxious questions have started?  What's your name?  Do you live around here?  Where do you work? And sure, you can give a fake name and say you're in town for the day from Duluth, but the more you lie, the more flustered you get and the more power he has.  Don't engage with a bully because you've been trained since birth to be "nice."  You do not have to be nice.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Diary of John Evelyn

John Evelyn (1651)

I have spent the last few weeks reading The Diary of John Evelyn, which I added to my list after reading Virginia Woolf's comments on it in The Common Reader.  I also included this book in my list for the fifty classics project.

John Evelyn (1620-1706) lived through some very exciting times in British history.  His diary begins at the beginning:

I was born at Wotten, in the county of Surrey, about twenty minutes past two in the morning being on Tuesday the 31st and last day of October, 1620.

He then passes quickly over his childhood and jumps to the 1640s, when, upon completing his education, he traveled extensively in France and Italy.  I particularly liked his accounts of Rome--he was there during Bernini's lifetime, which is quite exciting.  He described some of the places that we both have visited, such as Chiesa del Gesu and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontante and it was astonishing to realize that they have hardly changed during all this time.  Evelyn's view of St. Cecilia's is exactly as I remember it.  He also mentions a street of "cheeze" shops that had a disagreeable smell, and I was taken back to the little street of cheese shops in Trastevere that did truly smell awful, though the cheese was nice.

He made his leisurely way back to England, stopping to see every curiosity and site worthy of note along the way.  Before arriving home, he married twelve-year old Mary Browne. After the wedding, he left her with her parents to mature for four more years before embarking on married life.

Once settled, Evelyn never left England again.  He and his wife had eight children, of whom only three reached adulthood.  After the restoration of Charles II to the throne, he was given numerous responsibilities by the court and lived an active life until the age of 85, when he died after what seems to have been a relatively brief "indisposition."

When you've read over 1,000 pages of someone's diary, you feel like you know him.  By the time I finished these volumes, I'd grown to like John Evelyn.  He was a true Renaissance man: brimming with intellectual curiosity and with interests ranging from medicine to gardening to art and architecture.  He was one of the founders of the Royal Society, published several books, and was acquainted with many of the worthies of his era, such as Sir Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys.  He also lived through and commented on some of the more dramatic incidents in English history: the execution of King Charles I, the restoration of King Charles II, the troublesome reign of King James II, and the Glorious Revolution, in which he was overthrown by William and Mary.  He made it clear that he was disgusted with Cromwell, but otherwise was reserved when expressing opinions.  In once instance, when it was said that the Earl of Essex committed suicide in the tower of London, Evelyn notes that the so-called self-inflicted razor wound to the neck sliced through the Earl's vertebrae, and that the Earl's fingertips had razor cuts and states that these observances prompted "reflections."

Evelyn appears to have been an affectionate father.  He doesn't mention his children very much in his diary, except when they died, at which times he was clearly devastated.  He took pains about his children's education, including his daughters'.  It's hard to get a sense of what his marriage was like. Evelyn was nearly twenty years older than his wife and hardly mentions her, except to say that he took her here or there.  The diary gives the impression that they lived separate lives, but that might be totally inaccurate.  He was disgusted with the animal cruelty that passed as entertainment, and in general seems to have been morally upright, but not rigidly intolerant, although also somewhat humorless.

John Evelyn in his sixties

Although the diary is lengthy (three 500-page volumes) it's relatively quick and easy to read.  In my opinion, the English language was at its finest in the 1600's.  It has a simplicity and elegance of expression without the pretension that crept into it in the 1700's.  The diary would be of interest to anyone who is interested in the 1600's in England.

Monday, August 17, 2015


Seamus got a job as a bus boy at a restaurant in our neighborhood.  They hired him on the spot ("you can start tomorrow,") something I thought only happened in the movies.  It couldn't be more convenient.  It's a short walk or bike ride from our house and since he's been considering a career as a chef, he might as well get an inside view of the restaurant business.  One wants one's children to work, so I am glad he has a job, yet it's also bittersweet to see him going off to work and spending less time at home.

The other big change is that Grace moved away from home this past weekend.  She is living in Richmond with her best friend, and with Brigid. (Or, Brigid will be living there when she returns from Switzerland in a few weeks.)  I'm happy that they're living together.  I like to think it will be like an Elizabeth Jane Howard novel!  Grace plans to enroll as a transfer student at VCU, but she is deferring enrollment for one year and is going to work for now and figure out what she wants to study next year.

Brigid has one semester to complete before she'll have her bachelor's degree.  She will be returning to school in the spring and will be teaching art during the fall semester, and also working in a lab at MCV.  She has been working at the camp in Switzerland since mid-June.

Anyway, it feels very strange around here with Grace gone.  We now have only one child at home! Our house is old-fashioned and the bedrooms all lead off of one another instead of being isolated cells as bedrooms are now.  Back when all four kids were still at home, the upstairs was like a cozy hive of sleepers every night.  I could hear my children's breathing from my own room, and it was so peaceful to know that everybody was safe in bed.  I miss that, but it's normal and expected for our children to grow up and move away.

The move itself went well, although there were some bleak moments when it looked like we would never get all of Grace and her friends' things to fit in the U-haul.  But then Jon took over.  He is the grand supreme when it comes to efficiently packing a U-haul.  We had to partially unload and reload the truck, but in the end everything fit with room to spare. In Richmond, there was more consternation when a road we needed was closed and the detour required an impossible left turn onto a busy street and then we ended up going the wrong way down a one-way street and had to back the U-haul and get myself facing in the right direction, which I couldn't do so Jon had to get behind the wheel while I stood in the road and guided.  Then there was no parking in front of the building,  but Grace's friend discovered the alley behind the building where we could park all three vehicles and unload them with relative ease.

Moving in 

And, and (I admit I am the tiniest bit excited about this) we now have a spare room!  Would it be unseemly to start re-decorating immediately?  I thought I would do nothing right away but vacuum the dust bunnies, but by the middle of Sunday afternoon, I had already started demolishing a wall.  (Not a real wall, just a stupid partition wall that's not original to the house.  We demolished most of it when we first moved in, but left a small portion of it as a sort of privacy screen between the girls' room and our bedroom doorway.)

I have a lot of work to do.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Everything you wanted to know about Yugoslavia but were afraid to ask

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West is an account of her six-week journey through Yugoslavia in 1937; part travelogue, part history, and altogether fascinating.

All of the area known as Yugoslavia endured hundreds of years of oppression from the Austrians, Hungarians, Venetians, and Turks. According to West, the people of Yugoslavia are ethnically Slavs, but with differences related to religion and to which power conquered them.  If I am understanding the book correctly, the ethnic violence that has plagued the area is related to long-standing mismanagement by the oppressive nations who would have benefited from internal conflicts.

West's sojourn begins in Zagreb, Croatia.  Accompanied by her husband and Constantine, a Yugoslavian government official, they progress to the coast of Dalmatia, then Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, "Old Serbia" (Kosovo), and finish the journey in Montenegro.

For each region, West describes the sites and gives a detailed history, delving into the Roman and Byzantine empires, the middle ages, and the modern era through World War I.  Consider me educated because there was a lot about the history of this area that I didn't know.  In the nineties, I was distressed by the news of violence and atrocities committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.  Now I understand more about the history behind this violence.  West's visit occurred on the eve of World War II, when Yugolavia was having a brief respite from hundreds of years of violence and oppression, and was soon to be enduring more of the same.

But we can't forget that this book is also a travel story.  They visited villages, cities, and numerous monasteries, mountains, lakes and historic sites and the descriptions are so compelling, this region rocketed up to the top of my "places to visit" list. When they get to Belgrade, Constantine introduces his German wife Gerda.  It is a case of instant hatred.  West immediately pegs Gerda as a smug, complacent, racist, ignorant bigot, whereas Gerda despises West for her interest in Slavic people and culture, which she loathes. It's rather curious that she is married to a Slav, since she hates them so much.

Gerda insists on accompanying them on their journey to Macedonia, to the great distress of West and her husband.  (West compares it to "having to take a censorious enemy on one's honeymoon.") She proceeds to become the biggest wet blanket in travel literature.  In one incident, West offers Gerda the window seat on a train journey. "I think you will see more from the window on this side," West offers, and Gerda replies, "That would be interesting no doubt, if one had the slightest intention of looking out of the window."  Gerda effectively ruins the trip to Macedonia and also damages  Constantine's and West's friendship.  Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is hardly a funny book, but West's husband's side comments about Gerda provide moments of comedy.

At over 1,100 pages, this is not a light read, but it is consistently interesting and entertaining. I did find myself getting confused at some of the history.  So many different Serbian kings were named Alexander and they all seemed to have a habit of getting assassinated.  West, who was a feminist, writes a lot about the condition of women in some parts of Yugoslavia, which does not make for cheerful reading.  Since she clearly identifies with the left wing, her digs at homosexuality are surprising.  It's not a constant theme, but here and there she makes baffling references to the ability of men and women in Yugoslavia to be unselfconsciously beautiful because homosexuality is not widespread.

Overarching the travel and history are West's complex thoughts about human nature.  Upon successfully ditching Gerda before moving on to Old Serbia, West and her husband discuss Gerda as a type and wonder if the Gerdas of the world will ultimately triumph.  Certainly to this day, we are plagued with Gerdas--the smug complacents who refuse to learn.  Counteracting Gerda are the rare, contemplative people.  Of one such character encountered in BLGF, it is remarked that if one person like this one is born in every generation, civilization will not die.  We certainly don't want to be Gerdas, but most of us can't attain the level of enlightenment to be the other type either.  West doesn't suggest a middle path, but there must be one (I hope).

Rebecca West

Finally, the book's title references West's despair at the human tendency to welcome defeat.  She witnesses the disturbing rites performed in Kosovo on St. George's Eve, in which lambs are sacrificed on a stone, in exchange for favors from God.  Later, she reads the Serbian epic poem about a grey falcon, in which the medieval Serbian prince Tsar Lazar is given a choice between creating a kingdom on Earth or one in Heaven.  He chooses Heaven, which leads to the Serbs' defeat to the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.  With the threat from Nazi Germany looming, this is particularly frustrating to West, who sees that humans actually prefer to be the black lamb--the innocent who is sacrificed--and allow themselves to be overrun by evil.  Excellent food for thought.  You will not breeze through Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but you will be richly rewarded for reading it.

And finally, a big shout out to my friend who comments here as "Not Beehive" for recommending this book to me.