Monday, April 27, 2009

Three years old!

Today our handsome cat turned three years old! According to the Humane Society when we adopted Eddie Vedder in August 2006, he had been born on April 27, 2006. So today's the day for cheering! To celebrate the Ved-man today, we decided to not pick him up at all (he hates being picked up), to Ticketmaster him (which means waving a feather on a string in front of him so that he can chase and attack it; we call it "Ticketmaster-ing" because, you know, Eddie Vedder hates Ticketmaster, and wants to kill it), to give him "meat food" (wet food from a can instead of his usual dry kibble), and to take him outside both in the backyard and on the balcony. We think he had a really good day. (But can one ever reallly tell, with cats?)

Here are some Eddie-related goodies:

Cat in his desk drawer:

Mr. Vedder curled up in the down blanket, seeking a little warmth:

The "Pointy-Faced Killer" all a blur in motion as he attacks Ticketmaster. (You can just make out an ear and the top of his head in the top left corner of the photo)

"Meow-er" cooling off in the bathroom sink:
Happy Birthday, Eddie Vedder!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Yom Huledet Same'ach!

I hit the quarter-century mark last week, and although the end of the semester always conspires against my birthday festivities, I managed to get in some good old-fashioned celebrating and happiness anyway.

On Wednesday, the night before my birthday, my two favorite Daves came over and cooked me and Justin one of the best meals I've had in a really long time. The menu: macadamia nut-encrusted tofu steaks, roasted asparagus, roasted new potatoes, and Sticky Date Pudding with Toffee Sauce for dessert (Justin models a plate with the entrees in the second photo). It was high-class and delicious dining, to say the least, and I couldn't have grinned more cheerily about having such awesome (Wash U-transplant) friends here in Madison:

Then, on my birthday itself, after a day of breakfast at our favorite diner, a quick bike ride to a lakeside park, and lots of phone conversations with friends and family (and some work, of course!), Justin was going to take me to dinner. He said we had to catch the bus by 6:30, and that he'd told our friends the Barkers that we'd stop by to say hi to them and their baby, James, on our way to the bus stop. Of course, when we got to the Barkers' place, what should I find but a surprise potluck party just for me! After some tears of happiness and overwhelmed-ness (the second set of such tears for the day), I proceeded to explore the AMAZING spread my amazing friends had prepared for me. Justin had prompted them by suggesting that I love "colorful dishes with lots of vegetables and/or fruits." And everyone was in their best form, with a meal that included, going clockwise around the plate, staring at 12 o'clock: yellow rice with zucchini and vegetables, caramelized beet and goat cheese pizza, roasted potatoes and white beans, tricolor rotini pasta salad, spicy bulgur pilaf, noodles with tofu, artichoke brownies, fresh guacamole with tortilla chips and (not pictured) two cakes--orange chocolate and raspberry chocolate! It was just right.

Me, looking happy and well-fed, with baby James:

And the fun continued for days to come, as I received so much e-love and tele-love and postal-love from my friends and family near and far: a story written just for me, home-baked lemon bars, music of the bluegrass and indie varieties, Alice Waters' cookbook, gardening tools, coupons for gardening help, craft scissors, a super-cool pencil photo craft, a vintage beaded purse, gift certificates, thank you cards, homemade candles, and lots of hugs.

As I said to Justin after reading one particularly poignant card, "People really do like me!"

This reminder couldn't have come at a better time. Thank you to everyone who made me feel so special, both with material objects and with your presence in my life.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why my hair is turning gray and brittle...

One of the things that made me realize I was losing touch with people this semester (and that made me want to start this blog as one possible solution) is that it occurred to me that very few people would be able to share the joy and elation I will be feeling on May 14 after 12 pm if they couldn't experience, in contrast, the incredible stress and sadness of the months leadng up to that date. Why that date, some of you may ask? On May 14, at 10 am, I will enter a small seminar room in the Medical Sciences Center here on campus and will be faced with three brilliant professors who will quiz me on the content of some 200 books and 50 years worth of scholarship for two hours. Then, after a few minutes of deliberation, they will decide whether or not I've passed these "preliminary exams" (or "prelims," as we call them) and whether or not I can move forward with my Ph. D. program. This is decision day for me a in number of really important ways. This is the culmination of all that I've been slaving over for the past seven-ish months. This is, in some ways, what will determine the next chapter of my life.

Last semester, starting in September 2008 or so, I chose three fields, or subdisciplines within my larger program of the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology. These three fields are Environmental History, Science in America, and the History of Public Health in America. For each of these three fields, I chose one advisor who is an expert in that area, and drew up a list of 50-100 books which, after reading, would make me a (tentative) "expert" in that area. (You can see the lists of books by clicking on the fields above, if you're interested). Then, over the course of the last seven months, I've been working my way through these three lists, reading all of these books. Now, obviously, with 212 books to read in about as many days (along with taking courses, planning a wedding, serving as a graduate student representative for CHE, eating meals, and sleeping roughly 8 hours a night), I didn't really read every page of every book. The idea is mainly to know a really important subset of books very well, and to know enough about the rest to be able to talk about them intelligently, to know which ones to return to in the future, and so on.

I actually survived through the reading and note-taking process (with a helluva library account). Then, on Tuesday, April 14, each of my three advisors sent me one question that served to make me think back on the big themes from the entire list of books I read. The questions were on topics like how studying food can contribute to our knowledge of environmetal history, how science has been shaped by the physical environments in which it has been practiced, and how public health measures have been used to normalize a "deviant" sector of society. From that date that I got my questions, I had roughly three weeks to write three 8-10 page essays in response to those three questions. I'm in the middle of drafting these essays now, and they're due on Thursday, May 7. Then, I'll have one week to brush up on all my names and dates and timelines and big ideas, and then on Thursday, May 14, I'll go in for the oral defense of my prelims, in which my three advisors will ask me all sorts of questions about my essays, about the readings I've done this semester, about how it all ties together. And then they will let me know my fate.

I could go on for a really really long time about how I feel about this whole process, how deflated it's made me feel, how seriously I think I may not pass all three of my fields, how this will change my views about the next stage of my academic life. But for now, I'll just leave you with this sketch of my semester. I hope it gives some indication of how overwhelmed I've been, how weighed down I've been, but also how free! and light! and relieved! I'll feel after May 14 (regardless of the results).

Wish me luck, or just wish me that I may remember everything I've studied.

You're the Historian: The Joy of Primary Sources

Their are lots of days when I forget why I wanted to be a historian in the first place. It's not that I forget why I'm interested in academia, or in environmental history, or in exploring the role of scientific expertise in our culture. I just forget why history, in particular, is the way I chose to go.

One of the things that makes me remember, in the most powerful of ways, is the awesome wealth of primary sources out there, and all the digital ones, especially! There is just something that feels enormous about being about to go through all these preserved relics of another time and place, these words and thoughts and arguments that come to us from the past. Being able to rifle through someone's personal letters in an old and dusty archive someone makes me feel like that person has become so important, in this retrospective way. And that all my thoughts and words and reflections are so important, too, in that they might one day help some historian unearth what life was like in the beginning of the 21st century for a white, middle-class, Jewish, liberal academic woman in Wisconsin. Our records have enormous power.

One of my good friends just shared with me that all the records of the American Museum of Natural History are online, starting in the 19th century. And you can learn from these, for example, that over 30,000 people attended a lecture of a famed Arctic explorer in the late 1800s. 30,000 people! At a time when people didn't have cars, the roads were mired in horse manure, and transportation in general was difficult. That's the sort of interest there was in exploration in that era. Just from a little fact like that, we can learn so much.

Some of my go-to digital archives for when I need a reminder of how exciting all this is are Cornell's Home Economics Archive (HEARTH) and their Core Historical Literature of Agriculture (CHLA) archive, as well as the North American Women's Letters and Diaries (NAWLD) collection.

Wanna know what rural black women in the 1870s wrote about in their diaries? Go to NAWLD, set your parameters, and you can find out. Wanna know what women wrote about, say, "bananas" between 1870, when the fruit was entirely unknown in the US, and 1925, when one could be found in almost every worker’s dinner pail? Click away! How about finding out what mothering manuals said about treating the common cold before germ theory became popular in America? Go to HEARTH's "Hygiene" section and browse around. Entirely different worlds are opened with the touch of a button.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Southern Charm

In June, we're planning on heading down to the Gulf of Mexico to spend a week on the Alabama coast, in a little beach town where my family and I spent many summers during my childhood. "Excited" is not strong enough a word to describe how I feel when I imagine a week of nothing but sand and blue skies and roosting and crossword puzzles and fruit smoothies with Justin. No work. No pressure. No stress. No deadlines. Eeek! to the umpteenth power is more like it.

But, unfortunately, this vision is marred a little bit by an experience we had in setting up the details with the small-town Mississippi woman whose condo we're renting while we're in Alabama. You see, I first called her to make the arrangements and she said she'd have to call me back. Before she did, though, Justin and I decided he'd take over the honeymoon planning work, so he offered to just answer my phone when this woman called us back. When she did, he told her he was my fiance and would be coordinating the planning from here on out. After the phone call, he told me that she'd been rather cold and fairly standoff-ish on the phone and had said things like "Where you are you two from?" in a rather accusatory voice. But, we moved forward with it anyway.

The next time Justin spoke to this woman, she was again pretty rude. And in the course of taking down some of his information, she said, "Now, is this Anna I'm speaking with, or which one are you?" Justin paused, and said "No, actually, this is Justin, Anna's BOYfriend, or fiance." At this, there was a long pause, an (almost) audible sigh of relief, and a subsequent total change of tone as this woman congratulated him on our engagement, inquired into Justin's life, and was totally filled with the typical Southern "charm." Of course, at this point we realized that she had mistaken Justin's somewhat high-ish voice for a woman's voice, had assumed we were a lesbian couple, and had not been too sure of supporting this sort of behavior.

Justin hung up from this conversation and came to tell me about what had happened. We both sort of sat in slightly-stunned silence as we recognized conflicting feelings of gratefulness for being the recipients of this woman's newly-found charm, but also bitterness that this charm was so selectively (and arbitrarily!) doled out.

And it's not even that I blame her. At least not entirely. She's an older woman from a small town in Mississippi. Her environment and her upbringing have largely shaped her to have certain views she can hardly call her own. But it still makes me so angry. Angry and sad.

It reminds me in such a personal way that even as we have all this good news streaming forth from Iowa and Vermont and DC, there is still so much work to be done, so much privilege we take for granted (in the sexual orientation realm as well as in so many others), so many people's lives that are unfairly restricted and challenged.

If you haven't seen this yet (and are lookin' for a good cry), please watch:

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The beauty of artifice

One of the many things I'm excited about regarding our upcoming wedding is the chance to flex my craft muscles. I've always loved making colorful works of functional art from paper and foil candy wrappers and toilet paper rolls and bits of string and whatever else I have around. But sometimes it feels like there's not a lot of space for that sort of creativity in the adult world. But I'm making this wedding into a space just for that. And even though by the time I actually have a chance to devote all my energy to wedding-crafting, it'll be just about two weeks before the event, I've been sneaking in a little craft time when I need a break from the grind, or in between books. My latest venture has been into the wide world of paper flower making. I don't yet know exactly how I'm going to work these yellow beauties into the wedding, but they're going to make an appearance somehow, I think, both because I really don't want to have real flowers that cost too much and die within days, and because it seems like a perfect way to showcase a little handmade flavor. So, for a glimpse of what I've come up with so far:

In case you're interested, some of the inspiration and instructions for these flowers can be found here (Image 1), here (Image 2), and here (Image 4).

Which ones are your favorites? How might we might we use these in our wedding?

Those are indeed the questions...

Baby James the Rapper

Our good friends here in Madison, Erin and Matt Barker (who we hiked in the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park with last summer, when we got engaged) had a baby--James--in January. He's only a couple of weeks older than my nephew Jeremy, so I've really enjoyed getting to watch James grow these past few months, both for his own sake and because it gives me some idea of how Jeremy is changing. Although I love them both, I inevitably find myself comparing them--their mannerisms, their sizes, their appearances, their rapping styles... And even though Jeremy is my flesh and blood (shares a quarter of my genes, right?), I've gotta say, I think James is the better rapper:

It's true that we don't have a video of Jeremy rapping for a fair comparison (and, it's possible that Justin might have helped James out, just a little, with this one). So perhaps the jury is still out. What do you think?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kids and Gardens and Markets, oh my!

On Friday, I found out that I got one of the internships that I wanted for the summer! I'd been concerned because the job actually starts almost two weeks before I'd be able to start (on account of our wedding and honeymoon--more on that to follow) and I'd already been rejected from another internship program at the same organization for that reason. But this one came through, so now I can share the exciting news that I'll be working as an intern with the Kids' Gardening Program at Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens.

Troy Gardens is this awesome urban farming project a couple miles north of where we live here in Madison. Their missions are:
  • To nurture a meaningful relationship between people and the land
  • To grow wholesome and organic food for local tables
  • To regenerate urban natural areas
  • To cultivate a diverse learning community
  • To teach what we practice
  • To foster healthy communities and personal wellbeing
And, given that those are some of my own main missions in life, it looks like this gig will work out pretty nicely for me! The Kid's Garden, specifically, helps children from area community centers plant and maintain their own garden beds and participate in arts and crafts and cooking projects. So I'll be helping out with all that, and hopefully picking up some gardening skills of my own while I'm at it.

Which leads me to the next exciting part of this post, which is that I've acquired my own little 7' garden plot here at Lakewood Gardens, where we live. They have a few community garden plots, and I've managed to get one for myself. So, even though I doubt I'll be able to get out there to dig around in the dirt at all before May 14 (when I finish with my prelims, after *hopefully* passing my oral defense), after that date, I'll have a garden! And, thankfully, you can plant stuff a lot later around here than we did in Arkansas, so I think I'll still be ok getting some cucumbers and tomatoes and peppers into the ground in the second part of May. I've consulted this handy Dane County Planting Guide just to be sure.

And finally, to continue with all the excitement regarding fresh produce around these parts, today was the first day that the Dane County Farmer's Market was back outside, on the capital square! (there's a hint for all your wedding invitation acrostic puzzle-solvers!) And even though I was stuck inside working all day and couldn't actually find time to go to the market (which is a pretty big deal, as it's both the highlight of spring/summer in Madison and the largest producer-only market in the nation), just the very thought of all that asparagus and onion and winter spinach and rhubarb and cheese made me grin a little more than I might've otherwise.

Yay for vegetables!

Friday, April 17, 2009

You're the Historian: Peaches come from a can...

In order to help myself along with the project of actually learning more about American history as I go along with this whole Ph. D. (in History!), I've been trying to memorize the U. S. Presidents in order. I've pretty much got it down, thanks to this video:

And I'm still working on this one:

And the worst one I've seen so far (laughably so):

Anyone want to quiz me?

Monday, April 13, 2009

You're the Historian: Go Time

I just got my prelim questions! Ack!

No more procrastinating now.

I guess all those crepe paper flowers are just going to have to wait...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Friendship! Is there anything more beautiful?

Last weekend, just as I was sitting down to work for the evening, two of my favorite people in the world called me, one almost right after the other. And although both times I picked up the phone and almost inwardly groaned, thinking “I want so much to talk to my friend, but I have so much work to do that I don’t even know if I’ll enjoy this conversation,” I nevertheless picked up the phone both times, compelled by some internal pressure to not subvert my priorities, to not let these mountains of work all around me to turn me into the sort of person who doesn’t savor friendship or continually reinforce the tender ties that link me to the most important people of my past (and my present! But only if I’m careful and attentive…)

And then, both conversations turned out to be so gratifying, so warm, so reinforcing, that I wondered how it was that I ever even considered not answering the phone. But as much as I enjoyed talking to two of my dearest friends about everything that was going on in our lives, however briefly, I could still feel the weight of a semester of rare correspondence. I still recognized that there was so much going on in my life that they didn’t know about, and that I couldn’t possibly fill them in on in a half-hour conversation.

But it also made me return to the idea of this blog as an incredibly powerful form of communication. I, for one, LOVE reading people’s blogs (heck, even the blogs of people who are semi-strangers, blogs that I stumble upon through facebook browsing or following blogger profiles through comments) and find so much value in being able to keep up with a person’s life through a few clicks of my laptop mouse, so that I still feel connected to their lives, even when we haven’t had the chance to talk in a while.

So, I’ve decided to rededicate this blog with a new mission of reinforcing and stimulating friendship. I’m going to start writing about the sort of things I would talk to my closest friends about if we could have a weekly lunch date in Bowles Plaza or the ASMS cafeteria or the Jacobs Camp dining hall or on the grass of the Library Mall. And I’m going to actually tell people about this blog, so that they (hopefully) will leave me comments and hold me accountable for actually updating this blog. Here's to the mission.

Won't you all help me out?

You're the Historian: On the importance of mentorship

This week has been one heavy with expectation, with a sense of the future.

As I imagine the future, one possibility that emerges has me as a professor at a university dedicated to teaching and to research, a university where the students are assumed to be first-rate and the professors are there to help mold them into the leaders of tomorrow. As I imagine this possibility and consider what I will be like and what I will prioritize in my varied academic roles as researcher, professor, seminar-leader, committee-member, mentor, and all the rest, all I can hope is that I can remember what it’s like to be a graduate student and can offer my own students the kind of support that I see being so very crucial to my own life today. I imagine that as a professor it becomes very easy to forget what it’s like to be a student, to get wrapped up in the daily grind of academic work and put aside concerns over students’ mental and emotional well-being.

This week, very different models of mentorship have prominently shaped how I feel about myself, my future in this business, my success with my upcoming exams, and my own self-worth. A mentor’s kind word is everything. Having someone in a position of power tell me that she has faith in me, that she thinks I’m good at this, that she won’t let me leave grad school, that she has every confidence I will pass these exams…well, it just means everything in the world to me. I need this support. (And I imagine others need it just about as much as I do. Who will give it to them?)

Don’t let me forget this.