Saturday, February 28, 2009

Orchids through Darwin's Eyes

Yesterday A. Todd and I had visited the newly opened American History museum and found an hour on our hands before the other Smithsonian museums closed. We decided to run through the Natural History museum next door. Now this is the type of museum I don't usually choose. I think it'll be great fun one day when I have kids and we can talk about the giant whale hanging from the ceiling or the real and very scary giant squid in the case, or the humongous woolly elephant in the front lobby. Or the dinosaur bones. Or the Egyptian mummies.Well we happened upon a temporary exhibit: Orchids through Darwin's Eyes, and it was literally a breath of fresh air to these very non-scientific eyes. I could actually smell the room before we arrived, and I was in heaven.Now I haven't always loved orchids. I have always loved flowers, but I prefer more natural flowers that don't require such care. I love wild flowers and I love the mix and match of color and shape and size. I love having fresh flowers in my home, even if they are the cheap things from the grocery store (but apparently no tiger lilies for me! I had the most delightful bright orange lilies this week until my roommate informed me she is allergic. Alas!)

I honestly couldn't tell you anything about how Darwin actually used flowers in his research--I was only eyes for the color and nose for the smell in this exhibit. But I love the idea. I love the ability to manipulate and care and nurture and observe something and then watch the results--to learn and take note and try again. I love the ability to use beauty to produce beauty, the process of learning the laws of nature through careful observation and appreciation. I want to do the same. I want to live my life that way.

And I want spring. Oh how I want spring. Spring with its sun and blossom and fresh green and hope.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

History, Memory, and Material Culture: An Abandoned Cause... or is it?

This is the subject of my minor field statement. I've been pouring over Freud, Halbwachs, and Nora, over public history, museums, monuments, and quilts, trying to figure out what I mean and how to say what I mean.

It is the least of my intentions to put you through the rough, ragged pieces of my semester's headaches. Instead, I want to share with you the lived embodiment of history, memory, and material culture I experienced on Saturday with Randall. On our way to a great little cafe in Adams Morgan, he pointed out the historic former LDS church on 16th St. NW, now owned by the Unification founded by Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon, popularly known as the Moonies.

The building is itself a fascinating story. This stretch of 16th Street became the place to be for respectable American churches in the 1920s. Tall, imposing stone structures line both sides of the street in the neighborhood in an effort to claim stake to the national capital. About the same time as the National Cathedral a few blocks over, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception over in NE DC, this "Street of the Churches" includes St. John's, First Baptist, Foundry United Methodist, Universalist National Memorial, National City Christian Church, and on and on. So the Mormons took advantage of the property and built this beautiful structure, using the same stone used in the Manti Temple in Utah, and including stained glass unique to Mormon tradition and theology.

Unfortunately, the race riots of the 1970s proved problematic for the neighborhood, and with the suburban sprawl and the decline of inner-city membership, the Church abandoned the imposing stone edifice, focusing attention on chapels outside the District and, of course, the majestic temple on the beltway. A few years later, the Unification Church bought the property and has made heroic efforts to maintain the building. East coast humidity has not done well with the stone of dry central Utah. The baptistry and gym have been updated into office space, and the building is rented out to several different denominations to pay for upkeep.

Wow--Salt Lake or DC?

The stone and spires, reminiscent of the Salt Lake temple, remind the passersby of earlier times, of efforts not only to make the Western desert bloom as a rose, but for the fledgling American religion to stake its ground, its identity, and its culture on the streets of the national capital.
The stained glass on the top left and right have representations of Utah mountains, introducing geographical differences between the cradle of the Mormon Church in the West and the fertile East Coast. And the window in the middle is a map of North America. Each block below has flowers.

A part of me wants to see the building rescued, to prevent the danger of lost history and effort. But the realistic preservationist in me recognizes the expense. The history of demolished Mormon buildings is a touchy subject for many in Utah. While the LDS Church has certainly developed and maintained a strong presence, the history of that development is a beautiful tribute to the inner-city Mormon pioneer--not one who crossed the plains with handcarts and wagons, but one who braved the city and built a monument. Even if it's just a memory.
If you zoom in, you can see the engraving, "The Glory of God is Intelligence" under the window.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


One is off. Another is close. My toenails, I mean. (Before you faint of heart quit reading, take courage. This post is not about toenails). Last Saturday at yoga, every time I went into down dog or forward fold, the very first thing my eyes were drawn to was the missing deep red toenail. I can't bear to look at it. It just bothered me that I could not get away from the one thing that looked so different than all the rest.

On Friday night Tiffany and I caught a showing of the movie Doubt. It was fascinating--riveting, actually. I highly recommend it. Especially because I can't stop thinking about it. I even dreamed about it. There's a power in suspicion, in doubt. I was drawn to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn character because of his compassion and his ability to question and grapple. I was intrigued by Meryl Streep's character--Aloysius (now there's a name), and the way she dealt with her own insecurities by heaping them onto other people. And I was haunted by the contrasts among nuns and priests, among children and adults, among whites and blacks, men and women.

So why a post on doubt, suspicion, and conflict on a blog that's supposed to be about tender mercies, you may ask? Because I do NOT want to turn into this:Because that character turned out to be more motivating to me than anything else. I watched as one insecurity led to suspicion cast outside of herself to planting seeds in other people, to really solidifying doubt. And I'm intrigued by Father Flynn's observation of doubt in his opening sermon: that it can be a unifying force, much like faith. One suspicion leads to another, leading to a fragmented unity that pierces and divides much more than it can ever truly unite.

That night I dreamed about some of my own personal suspicions and doubts. It was as if I was outside myself, because I saw what I am becoming--a product of my own insecurities on several different levels. In the power of dream-land, I literally cast off that negativity, and I felt myself surrounded by light and hope. It was incredible.

So this is my tender mercy. I love how Jeffrey R. Holland says that the greatest, most hopeful word is repent. I love letting go and changing. I yearn to turn my doubts into hopes, both in myself and in the people around me. Instead of fearing my bumpy under-toenail because it's so different, I want to value it as a medal--a tribute to a marathon and to many miles. Too many miles. It sets me apart.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Duct Tape, a Rubberband, and a Screwdriver, or How to be Resourceful

The other day my hair cutter and I were joking about some guy she was seeing who fixed his broken stick shift with a screwdriver--meaning he stuck a screw driver in the hole and used it to shift gears.

It reminded me of my Grandad and how he could fix just about anything with some duct tape and a rubber band. We would come home and find all sorts of home repairs in all sorts of "creative" ways, even if the kitchen sink faucet had to turn the wrong way or the cupboard door was accidentally hung upside down. I used to wonder what it would be like to be able to afford a "real" repair or a new item.

I guess I've come to appreciate the ability to be resourceful. We've had a problem at work with cold temperatures. In the past I've had a space heater at my feet, blowing warm bliss on me all day long. Well apparently Mason has decided to go "green" (will someone please explain to me what that really means?!?), meaning no space heaters.

That's where our handy HR guy Andy has stepped up to the plate. He has all the resourcefulness of my Grandad in office bureaucracy, and I love it. He found a stipulation somewhere that says that all GMU buildings must be kept at 70 degrees. So he decided to prove our case merited the use of space heaters because we are well below the requirement. He had the admin buy a bunch of digital thermometers and spread throughout the center in various offices and labs. He included a spreadsheet and asked us all to jot down the time and the temperature. All proof that the system has failed us, freezing digital historians that we are (we joke that with the budget cuts we'll have to start building fires in the garbage cans again).

The thermometer in my wing has pretty consistently said 67 or 68 degrees. I am here with long johns, a turtleneck, a blanket, and my pashmina, my hands are freezing, and it's supposedly a balmy high 60s? Weird.

Well Monday we had enough "proof" for the facilities guy to come check out the problem. He plugged his laptop into the thermostat in the wall, which recorded a perfect 70 degrees. Then Andy figured it out. The thermostat is right next to the door, which has a swipe card entry. The door knobs are always a little warm from the mechanized security thing in the wall right there (not hot, because we all learned in elementary school to feel the door knob and if it's hot, to stop, drop, and roll, right?). This does not take into account the cold air blowing elsewhere. There was no way to explain this to the facilities guy, who simply goes by what his computer tells him. Grrrrrrr...

So Andy figured it out. He strapped those little lunch box ice packs onto each thermostat, and soon the temperature went up. We're finally feeling like we can pull our hands out of our armpits to type. Genius.

So today's message: be a thinker. Figure out how to work through the problem and find a creative solution. I love using my brain for out-of-the box answers. Now if I can just do that with my minor field statement...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Richmond Dispatch

I love discovering new things and new places... and being pleasantly surprised. Yesterday I drove down to Richmond with Marni for a delightful day. We met up with Chad and Melissa for a tour of the John Marshall House (yes, I finagled my way into a tour over the phone on Friday... supposedly they are closed to individual tours in January and February, but when I told him I'm a descendant of Marshall and I'd only be in town for a day, he made special arrangements for us). It was a beautiful 18th-century home (although I'll be honest--I was a bit suspicious about some of the period pieces in there and some of the stories told. Did John Marshall really sit in that embroidered chair and read Jane Austen? Really?) and I am proud of my ancestors (go, go, judicial review!). And there were some very cool parts of the house--the shutters built into 8 panels to fit just perfectly into the wall, the tromp L'oeil floor canvas, the crown molding, the pompoms (18th-century!) on the baby quilt...
We had lunch at a delightful Irish pub (nothing like yummy potato soup!), then Chad and I headed to the Virginia state capitol. The building was designed by Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Capitol was patterned after this one. It was beautiful--unfortunately all my pictures inside turned out pure black (do you think Thomas was holding his finger over the lens simply because I said I didn't love Jefferson as much as Lincoln?).

The pristine white against the blue sky was breathtaking.

Being an army officer over a bunch of Southern soldiers, Chad really wanted to go to the Museum of the Confederacy. It was interesting... all this stuff about the War of Northern Aggression and the bumper stickers around! Too bad we didn't have time to stop at the Civil War Museum at Tredegar for a nice little comparison.
Seriously seen on a black truck... I love me some Confederates in the Attic...

All in all, I must say that I really like Richmond. There was so much to do and so many great architectural delights all over the city. I loved rounding the corner as we looked for the Confederate White House to see this Egyptian-style hospital in the middle of the VCU Medical School complex. So many other Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings. Who knew in Richmond, Virginia?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Cupcake Disaster

Lest you think I am a veritable Martha Stewart (said in jest because we all know the reason I'm not married is because I can't bake bread, wink wink!), let me present to you my latest disaster.

Because this year church doesn't start until 3:00, leaving me nearly a full day of appropriate Sabbath day activity, and because Marni and I planned a delightful Sunday dinner with Russ, Greg, Jon, and Sue after church and I was in charge of dessert, and because I've been craving summer food, I attempted the innocent-sounding tangerine cupcakes.

Looks like we really are still on for six weeks of winter, folks. I'm so sorry for my contribution to that.

I swear the only ways I swerved from the printed recipe were these:
  • I used regular flour instead of cake flour (come on... does it REALLY make a difference?)
  • My buttermilk had been frozen and had thawed
  • I used real orange juice instead of orange juice concentrate
Does any of that merit the mess you see before you? Seriously, people. There was nothing cake about it. The dough seemed fine, it even bubbled over its allotted 2/3 filling, leaving a nice golden brown ring around the edges of each cup. But then it magically shrunk down to 1/4 of a measly inch, leaving this awful gooey lemon bar-filling-type of nastiness... nothing like the vanilla cake with tangerine peel I had envisioned. I don't get it.

At least my butter pecan ice cream turned out beautifully.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Summer Food in the Dead of Winter

Last week's ice storm and the continuing frigid temperatures have driven me to soups. This week I made chicken tortilla and Italian sausage. Delightful. And I've been downing hot chocolate and marveling in its secret warming powers.

But today is Friday. And I'm tired of winter. I'm tired of warm sweaters and flannel sheets. It's no longer January, but secretly, I'm tired of February. I'm tired of deceptive sun outside on my patio with a temperature of 34.

So I concocted a summer lunch today: toasted wheat bagel with melted provolone cheese, added cream cheese, cherry tomatoes, and avacado. I don't know why that's summer food, but it is. Avacados grow in warm places, right? And those cherry tomatoes were practically garden tomatoes compared to the dreary cheap romas I've been bringing home. It was an excellent combination. All sorts of summer now in my tummy.

Just for that, I'm going to make butter pecan ice cream for Sunday dinner. And I'm dying to try a tangerine coconut cupcake recipe tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Toenails and Pirates, Oh My!

Every once in a while, even in the dead of winter, something really interesting happens. Like this morning I was in a rush home from the gym out of the shower bundling into my warm clothes to get to work to put in my week's hours to get home to work on my next minor field statement (phew!), as I put on my socks, I discovered that not one, not two, but yes THREE of my toenails are about to come off. Hanging on by a thread. One that I did not examine closely because it seriously freaks me out. I swear they were fine yesterday.

This has never happened to me before. Four marathons and countless long runs, 18 months wandering the streets of southern Italy, 2 years of whisking through New York City, and I've lost nary a toenail. In fact, I've had very very few blisters. I have feet of steel. Or just tough feet. (oh that my heart were as tough!)

I hopped in to work, where my new assignment with the Papers of the War Department has me annotating documents requesting the delivery of cannon shot for certain U.S. frigates in 1797, or recommending the appointment of a nephew to a naval lieutenancy or surgeon's mate. Twenty hours a week of perusing such documents can lead to sleepy eyes and unimpressed brain cells yearning (yes yearning) to work out my minor field statement at home.

When, today, what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a letter fresh from the pen of Samuel Hodgdon, Commissioner of the Commissary, to Israel Wheaton, 21 July 1800. He was very concerned about a shipment going through the dangerous waters fraught with Mediterranean pirates. He warned Wheaton to make sure to have enough to pay off the Jews as a sort of bounty to get through, and then he enclosed a list of supplies, including fine India muslin, china with red, blue, and green flowers, red birds and cages, squirrels, mahogany, and other sundries. Sounds like a movie to me. Check it out here (click on image to see the letter).

As I read, I curl my toes in my boots and I can feel my depleted toenails. Why now, I ask? I haven't been running much lately--too cold in these parts. All I know is that when these suckers come off, they're going straight in the mail to little Kim Ethington, my greenie from our days in old Italy. It's a sort of bounty repayment for the toenail she lost after I marched her through the cobblestone streets of Foggia (while she sang "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota" to me at the top of her lungs). She kept the toenail in a special place, and even took it with her--a badge of honor--to show her fellow MTC compadres at our district conference in Bari. There, in the Sheraton Hotel, I accidentally dropped the precious toenail. We spent hours (ok, minutes before the mission president's wife saw us) scouring the floral carpeting there in the ballroom, to no avail. And she hasn't let me forget.
Little Kim soaking her feet after a long day's work in our awesome lovely digs

Kinda makes you wonder what else is on tap for today. Lions and tigers and bears? Or just toenails and pirates?
Here is a true Italian pirate: Laura di Bari...
She's seriously wearing enough eye makeup for all 3 of us
AND she's clinging to my neck. I didn't think I was going to get away alive.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

I Dare You...

Sometimes you have to do hard things. I've had some toilet issues (which is actually pretty funny because the discussion with some friends at work lately has been an invention to prevent your toilet from overflowing). I've tried to ignore it, along with ignoring my minor field statement and a growing stack of mail that I've been afraid to open.

Friends, these are things you cannot ignore.

So this morning, after pushing snooze a few times because of the beauties of working from home and having no class (see above about minor field statements), I found the courage. I grabbed my handy dandy repair book (thank you, Lisa, for the best Christmas gift a single girl can have!) and I unclogged my toilet. Then I cleaned my bathroom. It's now sparkling (not that I don't scrub it down every Saturday--it just got away from me this weekend). There's nothing like the strong smell of bleach and Swiffers before 7 am (it may or may not do a number on an empty stomach, as does the smell of a clogged toilet, but bleach is much more comforting).

All to the tunes of my Buck Up playlist (you don't even want to know what's on there. It may or may not include some James Taylor, Barry Manilow, Bob Marley, Dianna Krall, Mo-Tab, and Peter Breinholt).

Now... I dare myself to attack my minor field statement... and taxes... and bills...