Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A very California Christmas.

During our first or second Christmas in California, we spent an afternoon exploring San Clemente and brought home a dried starfish that has adorned the top of our tree every year after.

Yes, it's California, but we live in the desert. It gets cold at night.

So many presents! Now that we're all older, my sisters and I are able to give each other things that we really like. Angelica got me an exercise shirt and earrings, Rachel yarn and hair clips, and Shannon the bracelet and earrings above. Very thoughtful. My gifts to them were mostly handmade: to Angelica, an old nondescript book hollowed out to make a secret compartment and the hat she's wearing; to Rachel, a scarf and a Point Loma shirt; to Shannon, a hat and scarf set.

Grandma made lamb for dinner, and after some more potica (see previous entry) we drove out to Oceanside.

The jetty was covered in sea life. We scrambled over the rocks, shooting pictures.

And so we ended the day where we began it--with starfish.

Monday, December 24, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .

The mountains are covered in snow, and there's potica in the kitchen.

After a childhood of significantly white Christmases, I'm satisfied to glance out the window every once in a while and gaze on all the snow I could desire with the comforting knowledge that it's a mere 25 minutes away. Snow-covered mountains are a vast improvement over snow-covered urban Midwest city.

I think Christmas tastes like minced walnuts and rum extract. I don't have many heritage foods I can claim (dumplings? cabbage? Gigi's ausukes?), but potica (pah-TEETZ-a), Slovenian nut bread, defines Christmas with Grandma Barr.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by Susan Vreeland.

In February, PLNU is hosting their annual Writers by the Sea conference, and Susan Vreeland will be one of the featured speakers. My English prof mentioned we’ll have to read something by a conference author next semester, so I decided to get it out of the way during break.

In striking similarity to Tracy Chevalier in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vreeland weaves a story around Jan Vermeer and his art. Vreeland’s painting, though, is imagined, a canvas supposedly lost to history. Her novel begins in the present with its latest owner before traveling backward through time and culminating with Vermeer’s daughter, the sitter for the purported portrait. Each chapter is a self-contained chronicle of the painting’s effects on the people who encounter it.

“I couldn’t keep my eyes from the girl in the painting. What I saw before as vacancy on her face seemed now an irretrievable innocence and deep calm that caused me a pang,” admits a 19th-century possessor after she commits a decidedly un-innocent act. Many characters project their feelings onto the subject, a young girl seated before a window with sewing materials idly surrounding her.

Through the painting, Vreeland explores the power and impact of a masterpiece. One man squanders his relationships in his tortured devotion to the painting. A woman unwillingly sells it at her husband’s insistence, which irreparably mars her opinion of him.

What is the true power of a masterfully executed work? A painting, after all, is just delicately applied pigments. Could a mere image hold such overwhelming irresistibility, that it could drastically transform the lives of real people? True, not all its owners sever relationships over it. For some, the portrait functions as a minor player in their domestic drama, the memory of a lost love, or the means of obtaining a substantial sum of money. But for many, the painting illuminates the hazy, undefined areas of their lives, casting light on unnamed longings or personifying inner conflicts.

Because the viewers often create their own meanings, is the artist’s intent irrelevant? Vreeland does not make any declarations. Often in the novel, the art serves merely as the catalyst for the varied reactions of those who behold it. Most significant, though, is the fact that the portrait changes these individuals. The power of the work of art comes in its mystifying ability to impact the beholder. Vreeland seems to say that in this way, a painting can alter the world.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The works of my hands.

When I get back to school, my hall is holding a belated gift exchange of winter accessories. My secret recipient mentioned she'd like a hat, a scarf, or gloves, so I thought I'd fashion her the two that I know how to make.

I've been crocheting like crazy for the past two weeks. It started at school, when I discovered two skeins of yarn in my closet while searching for adequate Christmas present materials. I derive great pleasure from creating something useful and appealing out of a ball of string. The rhythm of the repetition and the mental exercise of understanding a pattern are addicting. Like cooking or sewing, I've found that crocheting imparts a delightfully affirming sense of domesticity. It's the dawning realization of those of us raised post-feminist movement: when you don't have to do it, it can be a lot of fun.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I've never valued my free time so much in my life.

And that's all I have, of course--free time, that is. No homework hanging over my head, no reading I should be doing, no places I have to be or people I have to see. I'm going to savor it for all it's worth.

We picked up my grandma at the airport on Friday right after I finished my last obligation, a couple of hours at the library. Saturday we dressed up for a Christmas party and took our annual in-front-of-the-tree-with-Sherlock picture.

Sunday I devoted my morning to the Times crossword, my afternoon to walking the dog, and my evening to church. Monday I read a book, crocheted a scarf, and rediscovered my grandma's dumpling soup and apple strudel. Yes, I'm going to savor it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Close to midnight: A paean to James Agee.

As I returned the Harvard Business Journal to its slot on the magazine rack, I glimpsed an irresistible headline on the December issue of Harper's: "Enter the Ford: Lost fiction by James Agee."

James Agee is magical. His hypnotic prose elevates the most pedestrian to levels of highly charged symbolism. He writes of things I harbor distaste for, illiteracy and carnivals and rural accents, and he stirs in me sympathy and wonder. The South of Faulkner and O'Conner scandalized and repulsed me; Agee's mesmerizes me.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was as superb as its title would have it; A Death in the Family gorgeously executed. It is to the latter that the omitted chapters in Harper's belong. I stood amidst the magazines and soaked him in. I don't know how he does it, though I suspect the mind-mimicking run-on sentences have something to do with it. I don't know if analyzing and deconstructing his methods would destroy the delight of the whole. But I do know, especially this late at night, that to behold his work, to stand and savor it, inevitably leaves me in awe.

I'm just trying to comprehend that I have really, truly, nothing pressing to attend to at the moment.

This may in fact be the first such moment of this semester thus far. I was surfing the Internet in the dorm this afternoon and my friend, walking by, asked automatically, "What are you doing, homework?" It was then that I realized I will have no homework for three weeks. Three weeks! Imagine that. I spent an hour tonight playing more or less guiltlessly a surprisingly addictive vocabulary game.

True, I have two more finals tomorrow, 8 am to 10 am and 10:30 am to 12:30 pm, but I think I've studied for them sufficiently. I don't forsee any problems there. I breezed through my Psych final on Tuesday, despite the fact that my professor, after having told us on Thursday that the test would comprise just twenty questions from the last chapter of the text, sent us an e-mail Monday night encouraging us to study for the thirty-five additional questions that he had neglected to mention. Hmmm. Good therapist, I'm sure, but lousy prof.

I worked until six like usual Tuesday night, then grabbed dinner before returning to the library for a World Civ study session, my third in a week. We were feeling rather helpless at the end--it was so much information, and there was so much still that could be discussed. How could we know whether we'd be prepared? I went to bed that night with Herodotus, and woke up with him too, for that matter. This policy served me well. By the time I finished my oatmeal, the Persian Empire was actually making sense.

The exam was hard (six essays, two hours . . . go!) and painful (my writer's cramp lasted through lunch and my first shift at the library). But I'm thinking, hoping, I did well. It's a testament to my prof that I could now sit down with questions like "What does the Bhagavad Gita say about peace and harmony?" or "Asoka wanted to create a Buddhist empire; Charlemagne a Christian empire. Describe the goals, programs, and long-term effects of each" and actually have something to say. It was a good course. If I get an A, it'll be a great course, potentially one of my favorites.

My fridge is defrosted. My dirty clothes are piled up. My finals are almost over. I'm ready to go home.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The most wonderful message that could have entered my inbox on this, the eve of finals:

"Your files have been sent to our typesetting department."

My twenty-five hours of copyediting were not in vain. Sitting in the caf poring over the monstrous CMOS during dinner and dealing with the publisher's supercilious assistant to the assistant on the phone weren't a waste, either.

Now I just have to survive the week, and then I'll be home for Christmas. Three days, four finals . . . Ready? Go!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

It's been a good few days. Why this vague feeling of apprehension?

So my Thursday was basically classes from 7:30 until 1:30, work until 5, a break for dinner, a study group from 6:30 until 8:30, and then sitting in my hallmates' room until 10:45 when open dorm ended and I could finally take a shower. Not the best day ever. Friday was more of the same until 4:30, when my entire hall went out for dinner to mark three birthdays and two going-aways. We went to Pizza Nova, where the twenty of us were served surprisingly promptly and attentively. I split a margherita pizza and devoured the garlic balls.

I went to bed at nine and slept almost until eight. Apparently it had been a long week. I went for a run, then came back, showered, and went to brunch. Determined not to do anything significantly productive for once, I surfed the Internet until I couldn't anymore, then bantered with my roommate for a while, and finally succumbed to the World Civ texts that were calling to me from my backpack, where they had been lying since that study group. I started compiling appropriate excerpts that should help my groupmates and me when we get together on Monday. Three thousand years of human endeavor is a lot to be responsible for, especially when you have to write six coherent essays about it in two hours on Thursday.

I joined in on a surprise party this evening for one of those birthday girls. We ate chocolate-covered strawberries and played charades. It was a good time. Later, I made some couscous with black beans and steamed veggies for a light dinner, and now I'll be going to bed. Not knowing whether or not my professor's manuscript has been accepted is killing me. Oh. That's why.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Warm, inside and out.

Last night was the first night this year that the heater worked in my dorm room. I can't express the intense pleasure I had when, upon waking, I stuck my arm out from under the covers and, instead of the usual icy impersonal draft, I felt the dry toasted air of the heating vent. I luxuriated in the cabiny warmth for a full fifteen extra minutes.

I carried the warm feelings with me as I walked to Spanish class. Before we began class, my prof asked me to step outside. Any trepidation I might have harbored was immediately dispelled: she told me that, because I had received As on all the tests and hadn't missed a day of class, I could completely skip the final. Yes!

In World Civ, we got back our test scores from the first part of the final that we took last Friday. Mine was 18.5 out of 20, which was as good or better than everyone I had studied with, all fairly good students in their own right.

And tonight is the last time I will have to work until midnight and then get up for a 7:30 am class. I have to get up for the 8 am final next week, but that half-hour makes all the difference in the world.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Strange to say, a typical weekend.

I went to the cider celebration last night, an annual Christmas concert here on campus. It was superb. I can't believe the sounds the human voice can make when it's used right. My roommate was in the choir, and everyone looked a lot prettier than the picture would have it.

Today I went to the RA group interview meeting, which involved the better part of the morning. Then, I finished my professor's manuscript for the second time. I spent this entire week trying to achieve a satisfactory knowledge of the Chicago Manual of Style (quick—what's the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash? I didn't know either until this week) so that the publisher will accept it. Here's hoping.

Afterward, to decompress, and try to warm up—it's cold here!—I rode my bike out along where I usually run, down through the naval base. Since it rained yesterday, it was windy and clear and brilliant.

The Shelter Island marina

Downtown San Diego, through the naval barbed wire

An exciting shot of me

The sunset that I was privileged to watch on my way back