Saturday, October 18, 2014

Grandmommy's (& Bob's) Birthday

Grandmommy's 92nd birthday was today.  We ate well, and there was the traditional picture with the ice-cream cake...

And then things got a little frisky after we'd had dessert...

...thanks to my uncle's dirt bike.

Then, my tall cousin, his wife, my uncle and I managed to get down some of that cluster of pears that was hanging out of my reach...

...many were the size of an infant's head!

Bountiful fruit!

We are so blessed in my family to have Grandmommy and my medical brother Bob, who shares her birthday.  Many more happy, healthy years to them!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Poison & Acid

I hate roaches. Hate, hate, hate roaches!!  Spiders, I can see the point of, even if we aren't on the most cordial terms.  But what is the purpose of a roach?  They skitter around in the dark spreading filth.  I swear, they appeared after the Fall. They also tend to move indoors in the fall as the weather cools, and so I have had the unpleasant experience of finding two in my house over the last 48 hours. Both I slew with copious amounts of bug spray.  I have anointed all the thresholds and the overhangs beneath the kitchen and bathroom cabinets with insecticide, so the first and last born of this nasty and speedy brown beetle, together with their brethren, will not be permitted to thrive.  Ick.

Praise God I didn't put my metal testing kit in the same drawer with my diamond tester. Acid and expensive electronics don't mix well.  I would have been sick if something had happened to my Presidium III. As it was, one of the acid bottles somehow leaked slightly, the gas rusting the blade of my Olfa cutter and destroying an entire spool of elastic beading cord.  The testing kit is now in the garage, where I should have left it to begin with.  There, the only casualty to gas may be the occasional roach, and I'd welcome that. It makes my spine tingle to see them dashing for cover when I open the door and turn on the light (happily, I've never seen more than a couple at a time, but that's two too many for me!).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ides Of October

It's been a fortnight since this blog officially crossed the decade threshold with an average of about 115 posts per year.  Right now, according to Google, my readership is majority American and Ukrainian, with a smattering of visitors from Europe and the Far East.  Thanks to all who read and cordially comment!

For all the panic-stricken press the Ebola patients in Texas have received, everyone here in the US should be grateful that there was but a single original case, and that the subsequent infections have been as quickly treated and as closely scrutinized as they are.  Frankly, a deliberate multi-point biohazardous threat agent attack by an enemy (such as that imagined by the late Tom Clancy in his 1997 novel Executive Orders) would have caught the US healthcare system with its knickers round its knees. The lack of clear nursing care protocols, the fact that the CDC initially instructed those potentially affected to "get in touch with a local healthcare provider" rather than setting up a national hotline to triage cases without risking further exposure of the general population (they may have done this by now--a person possibly leaking deadly viruses shouldn't be shunted to the nearest urgent care or emergency room!), and the now-public knowledge that there are only four civilian hospitals with appropriately isolated wards (I visited one when I was in the BTAEID program at Georgetown--it was tiny and pitiful, as was the cramped space on a nearby military base which had actually been used to quarantine the occasional bacteria-exposed researcher) in the entire country suitable to treat the sick is all evidence that despite some twenty years of public speculation, the US has done a poor job of preparing for the next potential pandemic.  The relatively slow and contained onset of this particular outbreak on American soil is a blessing--the disease can be monitored in a controlled environment, and whatever initial conditions led to the unfortunate nurses' infections can be avoided henceforth.

Back in the old days of slow land and sea-travel, countries could attempt to stop diseases at their borders through the use of quarantines. Often, quarantines were places where those who had escaped exposure at their origin point or en route could fall victim to various germs within hailing distance of their destinations, but this also was a relatively acceptable method of slowing transmission geographically.  At least among legal immigrants. Then, as now, illegal border-crossing was rampant.  Furthermore, fears about disease were often used to discriminate against particular ethnic groups.  I have read hysterical pleas for all human migration from West Africa to be curtailed, but not only is this impossible, it is impractical, and potentially cruel, as it condemns the healthy who are not trained to deal with biological contamination to continued contact with the sick.  Sending in American military supplies to the workers trying to treat the ill and stop further infections is one of the wiser decisions our government has made in a while.

AIDS has a 100% mortality rate. Ebola has a 50% rate.  Both are horrible odds, and neither is a comfortable way to die.  Thankfully, HIV can be slowed in its tracks thanks to various drug "cocktails", and mortality postponed for years for the infected.  Ebola has a much faster gestation, and so there is not the time for intervention that is available to most HIV positive patients. However, HIV can be spread among people who are asymptomatic, whereas Ebola has been found only transmissible when the virus has replicated sufficiently to cause symptoms.  The relatively short period between exposure and symptom-development for Ebola is thus also as much a blessing as a curse--past three weeks from exposure, there is no need to worry about having the illness.

Given that Americans are generally well-nourished and basically well-physicked (if not well-insured), I do not think an epidemic of anything besides paranoia is much likely here.  Poor Africa, on the other hand, is a continent long hostage to high HIV rates, and should the Ebola virus enter such unfortunate populations, the death toll could reach medieval European bubonic plague levels.  And given that worldwide travel in hours, rather than weeks or months, is normal these days, trying to shut down the outbreak in and around its point of origin is the best course, rather than waiting fearfully for it to spread internationally.  Would that deliberate human meanness were so easily addressed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dancing In The Rain

I brought the rain back with me from Virginia, where my fraternity brothers (and two spouses) and I spent a sodden weekend in a thankfully large rental house (the mainly male herd of children was mostly relegated to the basement, while the adults hung out upstairs).

Many girls have sorority sisters, but my only (non-genetic) "Greek" association in college was with a co-educational service fraternity. Most of my friends were members, and with them I am still very close, so every year we "brothers" get together near our alma mater in the Shenandoah Valley for a long weekend. I am afraid that the last couple of years the primary financial burden of this gathering has rested on the shoulders of the more moneyed siblings, but all of us dream about being able someday to afford a "family compound" where we could stay permanently.  So, over champagne and chocolate, we spent hours reading local property listings to each other, searching for "must haves" like turrets, brick, views of the mountains, historical connections, large verandas, and so forth.  Some of the real estate copywriters had clearly been drinking in proximity of a thesaurus--to us, only severe drunkenness could explain the description of one rather pretty house as "Distinctive Victorian architecture in the heart of Downtown Lexington with bold contours and striking detail on a grandiose scale."  Oy.

I didn't return from the Blue Ridge with any items I might "flip" to pay for the trip.  Two years ago, I found a fabulous vase which I was able to turn into a lamp base and sell for three times my investment. This year's visit to the local antique mall after church was basically my gathering evidence that there is a lot of junk in the world, and some people are deluded that it is worth large sums of money.  

Today I had a job interview for what may be a full time teaching gig at a local private school. I am supposed to sit in on several classes Thursday to get a feel for the work.  I liked what I saw during the English class I observed today.  I would have Chinese and Korean exchange students!

This evening, on the invitation of a church friend, I went to a dance-exercise class at the downtown public library. This may seem a rather odd venue for sweating people to twist and step pounds away to the thump of loud music, but the new library building is so large that it has plenty of sound-proofed space for fitness classes. I was so glad there was a water fountain close by! I was ringing wet with sweat in just minutes. I hope these weekly sessions improve my lousy coordination and reduce my Rubenesque figure to the point where I can again get my jeans zipped...

Tomorrow is my first formal tutoring session with an independent ESOL student.  I hope I can be useful to her!

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Illustrations For Preceding Posts

The best selfies are with Grandmommy!

This is "leftovers" at Grandmommy's house.

Pinecone cob, denuded by squirrels. They made the yard look like it was covered with discarded barbecue chicken legs.

Dessert al fresco.

An unreachable cluster of pears--each pear in the bunch is larger than my fist.

And lest it be thought I was exaggerating the abundance of scuppernongs/muscadines...

Sweet freckled fruit.

Grandmommy snacks on scuppernongs.
Grandmommy has a vendetta against mushrooms in her yard, but when my mother and I went on a walk down by the Savannah River several weeks ago, we came across a thick shroomy thicket in the woods that we left undisturbed.  Sometimes even my old iPhone can capture fungi--

--and get some good snaps of the flora, too.

Preparatory to my most recent legume-heavy meal over at John and my mother's...our aperitif was in the form of our own individual bottles of Beano.

Well, now I have to hit the bottle of zinc tablets--I feel a cold coming on and I'm supposed to hang out with friends in Virginia this weekend!

Smoldering Ears, Simmering Pears

Nate's ears must have been burning--just hours after I'd explained to some curious younger friends about my past living situations in DC, this nice former housemate of mine messaged me to ask if I'd serve as a sort of character reference for him for potential female renters of the basement apartment in the house he now owns (clearly, infectious disease research pays better than history). I assured him that I'd vouch for his upstanding character.  He's still playing rugby, and is working at a DC-area university, determined that his students will actually absorb some ability to made reasonable deductions based on principles taught, not merely parrot rote answers.  The quality--or at least the independent thinking abilities--of the undergraduates is getting his knickers in a twist.  It was good to hear from him after some seven years' silence. Apparently his rugby team, in concert with the Australian Embassy, is holding some sort of social evening soon to raise awareness of prostate cancer, and he urged me to attend if I were in the area at the time.  He said there would be a lot of large muscular men with Aussie accents there.  Tempting...but I truly have no idea what I would say to other guests at such an event...

I gave away only four pears out of the five gallons I picked Saturday, so this evening I got out my rotary hand-cranked apple-peeler/corer and dispatched the remainder in about an hour, putting the naked spirals in my huge copper pot and cooking them down to sauce.  I sampled a spoonful and it's yummy without any sugar added.  I'm hoping a bit more of the water (I didn't add any--the fruit was moist enough to boil in its own juices) will evaporate before I freeze the sauce in small packs.

My arms are sore from digging a six cubic foot trench in my back yard yesterday.  I ended up having to use a hatchet on the hard clay when my shovel was only able to shift small pieces below the thin layer of plant-worthy soil.  It took hours.  But when I was finally satisfied (and too tired to keep chipping downward), I filled the trench with potting soil, sand and manure, and put in three blueberry bushes (two that had not yet fully drowned, and a replacement for the one that had).  Then I spent hours straightening the garage.  And then I wrote out price-tickets for a third of the jewelry still cluttering up my living room floor.  So, I am actually getting tasks accomplished!

I got a note early this afternoon from a person trying to arrange ESOL tutoring for a recently-arrived Russian speaker, a gig which I would love to get!  My friend June and I are formulating our individual lesson plans for the overseas teaching application we've been working on.  I'm brainstorming about American holidays, and what sorts of associated traditions we have, and how to explain these to foreigners. Would Korean elementary school students like to make hand turkeys to illustrate Thanksgiving? Or maybe they could paste together paper masks for Halloween?  Or should I sing Christmas carols--thereby damaging their delicate ears?  I need to be able to engage the younger set in thinking about special annual events, and the food, themed decorations and activities that go with them.

Suggestions and descriptions from other Americans about what holidays mean the most to you and why are very welcome!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

At Grandmommy's & Days Before

Grandmommy and I went out to the side yard this afternoon rake up "that ol' squirrel mess" as she called it. The squirrels are eating their way through the ripe pinecones, skinning off the wooden petals of each cone in their quest for seeds, and dropping the chips and the cone cobs around the trees.  Each tree's cones seem to be ripening at a slightly different time, as the fluffy-tailed blighters have left a mess around each thick trunk successively. Grandmommy said she picked up 42 cone-cobs beneath one tree one day.  Those squirrels are packing on the pounds for a long, cold winter.

It was a beautiful day, breezy and cool, and before raking we had lunch on the screened in porch. Grandmommy left all the doors in the house open to the fresh air.  Anyone who sneers at the consumption of leftovers has not had Grandmommy leftovers--vegetables, sweet potato soufflé, potatoes, barbecue--all absolutely delicious. As I inhaled forkful after forkful at the porch table, looking out at the green lawn, the sun-dappled leaves, the confederate rosebush with its pink and white blossoms, listening to the swish of the wind through the treetops, I couldn't help but revel in quiet joy.  A foretaste of heaven, really.

Grandmommy is moving a little slower, and she's more cautious about maintaining her balance, but she still can best me raking and at most other work. I wish I were as productive as she is.  The cone-petals rattled like seer's bones as we brushed them into piles and lifted them into the wheelbarrow to take to the roadside, an incongruous death sound on such a clear and life-filled day. And the pecan trees are clouded with caterpillar webs, an early and unwelcome Halloween look.  Grandmommy said that Granddaddy used to back up his truck under the trees, set up a tall ladder in the back and climb up to cut out the webs, but none of us are as brave or as foolhardy to do this these days.

After a break for pie, teacakes and Scrabble (I won the first game, she the second), we went down into the backyard to pick up the falls from the Kiefer pear.  And though my uncle thought he'd gotten all the fruit within reach still on the tree, I pulled off pears enough to pack a five-gallon bucket.  There were limbs just a few feet higher that were loaded like bunches of grapes with huge golden fruit (each bigger than my fist), but they remained tantalizingly out of reach.

People often can't comprehend how Edenic Grandmommy and Granddaddy's back yard is until they visit--the sheer abundance of edibles from spring to fall is difficult to imagine. The scuppernong vines are also loaded.  Grandmommy said the other day she stood there and ate fifty purples and then fifty green-gold ones to see which she preferred, couldn't decide, and ate ten more of each.  The ground is thick with scuppernongs that have gotten too ripe and fallen, and scores of ants and yellow-vested black bees are busy devouring them. I'd love to have scuppernong honey!

The anticipation of an interview—no matter how trivial the job—leaves me sleepless and jittery, filled with nervous energy.  Wednesday night, I was up until 4 AM, and back awake at seven Thursday morning.  Fumbled my way into the kitchen for breakfast and poked through the pantry, hoping a fresh plate of scrambled eggs and crisp bacon would be sitting on a shelf, but eventually ended up fishing out a bag of desiccated store-brand “steam in a bag” veggies from the back of my refrigerator and eating them raw.

“Baby” carrots, hah!  These were not tender orange nubbins, tumbled to smooth cabochons, but clearly mutton dressed as lamb—the tough hearts of ancient sticks, their bark roughly whittled away by irritable men with pocketknives.  They resembled primitive railroad spikes (the taste wasn't dissimilar). I felt braced and ready to forge ahead, like a locomotive.  A handful of candy corn and a can of reconstituted tomato juice completed my morning repast.

I actually have both eggs and turkey bacon in my fridge, but preparing them would have required getting out a skillet and five minutes of cooking.

I was up to the wee hours Wednesday constructing a personal statement between 500 and 800 words about why I wanted to teach English to speakers of other languages overseas, what my teaching philosophy was, and how I handled cultural differences.  The next stage of this particular application for international employment is to compose a comprehensive lesson plan.  So far, only one of the four people I emailed asking for recommendation letters has responded.  I think I must live near a digital black hole, into which all internet correspondence to or from me is sucked away, because not only do I seldom get any acknowledgement of my numerous employment applications, conventional interpersonal emails go unanswered.

Back in the analog world of my yard, for months I have been waging war against the elephant ears my mother had planted in the bed beneath the bathroom windows.  The initial plants had metastasized from the original location, depositing pointy root-pods hither and thither, and I've been yanking out young plants and the alien tubers until I am exasperated. I want to have fruit-bearing plants like a miniature version of Grandmommy's yard, not a thicket of huge inedible tropical weeds!

I found out why one of my in-ground blueberry bushes died (the two in the patio pots are thriving)--two inches below the surface of the soil in my blueberry patch is solid red Georgia clay, something I couldn't see when I was planting by candlelight. Clay does not "perk", and so the poor blueberries have basically been sitting in stagnant water all summer. I'm going to have to dig up the whole bed, add mulch and sand, and re-plant the survivors, plus the replacement Grandmommy has promised me from the "outliers" in her back yard.

Not a peep from any of the interviews from last week and this. I need sleep.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Interview, Toilets and Allergies

I interviewed for another part time (29 hours a week) secretarial position on Tuesday. I had had three hours of sleep the night before, and was grateful the interviewing supervisor did most of the talking, telling me about the history of the organization and things I might deal with should I be hired. Really nice folks, doing practical science instruction within the community.  I was the first person interviewed, and arrived absurdly early (half an hour) because I knew given my lack of sleep I shouldn't be rushed.  Somehow (God's grace), I remained conscious and after the interview managed to get several errands run.

Most of the last week I've averaged about four hours of sleep a night. Just last night, when I'd gotten totally jittery (I am not a person who does well on so little rest), I managed to eke out nine hours--did a world of good.  Hope I can repeat the feat!

For some reason, I spent the earlier part of the week thinking about how to teach an English lesson to speakers of other languages on the subject of bathrooms, and some confusing vocabulary associated with them.  I attribute this peculiar interest to my lack of sleep, the fact that I need to replace the lightbulb in my master WC, and the amusing anachronism of everyone in "historical" Asian dramas being neatly washed, with good teeth and living in cities with no sanitation issues.  Also, the book I am reading about the Korean War emphasizes how dirty the country was, how the whole place stank of sewage, as human waste was collected and used as agricultural fertilizer.  The author points out that Americans of the early nineteenth century could have handled the experience more easily than those of the mid-twentieth, who were used to standard indoor plumbing.

In Korean, the word (피)"pee" means rain, or blood. For us Americans, the word is a cleaned-up derivation of the old word "piss" (deriving all the way from the vulgar Latin).  In American English, "to piss" is a somewhat rude way of saying "to urinate," but if we say someone "is pissed", we are not referring to their private toilet activities, but saying they are angry (PO'd being the short form of "pissed off").  In British English, however, "getting or being pissed" refers to becoming intoxicated with alcohol.  Slang is a funny thing.

So are euphemisms.  The British use the term WC to refer to the toilet. This is an acronym for "water closet", which was a name for the indoor plumbing which replaced traditional outhouses and chamber pots.  They also use the word "loo", whose origins are mysterious (the most plausible theory being it derives from the name of an early toilet manufacturer).

We Americans are often unnecessarily squeamish about the word "toilet", which for us refers to the flushable appliance alone, not the room which houses it.  As guests in someone's house, we usually ask for the location of the "restroom," or the "bathroom," or even the "powder room," though we do not intend to rest, bathe, or refresh our makeup in the place.  Part of this is the influence of our standard architecture--in American houses, it is normal for the toilet and the tub to occupy the same space, along with a sink (in public, dropping the place noun entirely, we will often inquire as to where one can find the "ladies'", or the "men's", as usually there have been separate facilities for each sex).  This is not true elsewhere.  It took me over a year of studying Russian to realize that they used no euphemism, and asking for the "bathroom" would get me the room with the tub in it, which was usually apart from the room with the toilet in it. "Toilet" was "toilet", there was no getting around it.

Of course, historically, before the invention of indoor plumbing, the classic outhouse and chamber pot were the only means of personal waste disposal, and the French word "toilette" referred to a lady's personal preparations for the day--brushing her hair, powdering, choosing her jewelry, and applying perfume (a costly necessity for the wealthy in those noxious times), a dilute version of which is still called "eau de toilette" or "toilet water"--which isn't the gross stuff a person learning modern English would necessarily think of, reading the bottle!  Another seemingly rude but entirely innocent term is the American use of "being pooped" to talk about being tired--it doesn't have anything to do with "poop", a polite, if juvenile word for excrement.

Also confusing for English learners are the prepositions used with "toilet": If one says a person is "on the toilet" it means they are sitting on top of the appliance, relieving themselves (so this is not said in polite society).  If you say a person is "in the toilet" it means they have either accidentally fallen into the water-filled bowl, or, in J.K. Rowling's world, have stepped into it deliberately, preparatory to flushing themselves into the Ministry of Magic (so, again, not said often).  If a person has gone to use the toilet, in the US you say "she went to the bathroom" or "he's in the restroom" or something similar, usually avoiding the word "toilet." We're weird that way.  Of course, in moments of emergency, looking pained and merely saying the word "toilet", though non-standard, can get both an American and a non-native English speaker where they need to go!

On to cleaner topics...  I thought about entitling this post "Allergies: Because Breathing Is Overrated," as for weeks I have been having increasing trouble with my lungs, and have only been able to sleep with a generic antihistamine.  Now, I know why.  The colony of dust bunnies beneath my bed had formed an independent state, with its own constitution, courts and caste system, and had dispatched colonies of its own to the periphery of my bedroom. Now that I am no longer away from home 70 hours a week, I have gathered enough energy to tackle the Dust Bunny Insurgency, and since Tuesday have vacuumed, dusted and vacuumed again. Already, I can breathe easier, and the weight which felt like it was sitting on top of my chest has gotten lighter.  I've stripped all the linens off my mattress, and while I'd like to get a good night's sleep again tonight, I may be up to the wee hours doing laundry.