Tuesday, July 29

Shook Up in SoCal

Today I was relaxing at home on the couch, enjoying some downtime on my day off when my couch started to shuffle back and forth. It was just a bit at first but it didn't take me long to figure out I was experiencing my first California earthquake. (I make the distinction since I have felt a few in Illinois, although none as strong as what rolled through southern California today.) We shuffled and rolled for a couple of minutes, but nothing even fell off the shelves. Eric kept a steady eye on his precious flat screen t.v., poised and ready to spring to its rescue if it started to shake too badly. One thing I can say--feeling the earth shake in a one story house is different than in an apartment building. Considering the time it takes for the building to settle, it's hard to tell exactly when the actual earthquake stops.

When we first turned the television on afterwards, the networks were reporting the event as a 5.8 with the epicenter in Chino Hills (a few miles from downtown L.A.), but as the afternoon wore on, it was downgraded to a 5.6 and then 5.4. Either way, anything between a 5 - 6 on the Richter scale is considered "moderate." As it turned out, 5.4 wasn't enough to make any Angelinos spill their lunchtime Starbucks mochachinos, so most of the city's inhabitants were only shaken up enough to make it the most popular topic of conversation for the afternoon.

Sure, this quake only knocked a few things off shelves in the areas closest to the epicenter and--thank God--no major damage or injuries occurred. No harm, no foul. Like everyone else I was joking around about it after the fact. And yet... Considering where I work, one thought lurked, bubbling in the muck at the back of my mind: I was thinking of the citizens of towns like Pompeii and Herculaneum in August of 79 A.D. After all, practically every day at work I talk to people about the catastrophic events of that day and the fact that the reason we know enough about ancient Roman villas to create a reconstruction of one is because the towns were completely buried (and thus preserved) when the volcano exploded. By all accounts the quakes and other disturbances that happened in the days before the massive catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius didn't phase the locals and they continued about their daily lives as usual. They were used to the earth shaking where they lived--it was just a part of life in their part of the world. This is actually not too different from the nonchalant way some residents of southern California think of earthquakes--it's just part of living here.

Of course there's nothing you can do if the earth decides to split open and swallow you one afternoon, but I have enough respect for the forces of nature to know that the potential exits. Inevitably, one day we will be reminded that we're no different than the ancient Romans living in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. The "big one" will likely find us going about our daily business, blissfully unaware of what the earth has in store for us that day.

With any luck, I'll be living somewhere far, far away when that day comes. :-)

Wednesday, July 23

A Job Well Done

Today was just another day at work, shining a light into the darkness of the Eurocentric/Classicist ivory tower, educating them about the world outside their Greco-Roman view of ancient history. Of course I’m kidding. …a little. :-) Really, though, it is true that those who are interested in ancient Greece and Rome are usually fascinated by ancient Egypt and typically don’t understand much about it. So today when I taught my course on “Religion in Greco-Roman Egypt: Negotiating Identities” at the museum, I had a full classroom of nearly forty people with lots of interest and questions. I’ve mentioned before that finding time to prepare for this course has been one of the challenges of my summer thus far, so now that it’s over and went well, it’s a great relief and very satisfying to put it behind me.

By this time in my career I’ve taught enough and spoken in front of large groups of people often enough that I don’t get petrifyingly nervous anymore, but I do get a case of the butterflies right before I go on. I mean, I’m only human—I want it to be good and I want it to be accurate, and I want to communicate and connect with the audience. That doesn’t just happen—it takes work! After our Education Specialist for Adult Programs introduced me and I began speaking at the podium I had some sweaty palms, but that cured itself as I got into the material and became focused on the subject and what I was talking about. With my own tendency to get swept up into what I’m talking about and audience questions the first part of the three hour session went over its allotted time, but I always expect that time will be an issue. The second half of the lecture went more quickly since I asked them to save questions for the last segment of the class, when we went up into the museum galleries to check out the artifacts in person, so to speak.

Without getting into too much detail, this course was on burial equipment (i.e. coffins, shrouds, funerary biers, etc.) from the time period in Egypt when the Greek and Roman empires had both come into Egypt and integrated aspects of their art and culture and religion with ancient Egyptian culture. It’s a very intriguing period because there’s so much going on, but it’s also complicated because there’s so much variation and ways in which the ancient Egyptian style of representation was used with the Greco-Roman style. To us the style looks like a hybrid of the two traditions, but as I discussed in my course, the contemporaries didn’t see it like that way. They saw nothing strange. What they did see was a sacred image and that was going to glorify them in death and help them get to the afterlife.

Here's an image of a linen shroud made for a woman from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It came from Akhmim, Egypt and illustrates well this so-called "hybrid" style of burial equipment from Greco-Roman Egypt:

By the end of three and a half hours, my voice was very much on it’s way out and I had a spectacular headache, but many people wanted to shake my hand and talk to me afterwards, which is always a good indication that people were interested and enjoyed themselves. Eventually I had to just simply retreat and run away. If I hadn’t, they’d have held me captive for even longer, I’m sure! All things considered it was a great success, and I look forward to being able to teach this course again. In the meantime, some of the research I’ve been working on in regard to the religious aspects of the Herakleides mummy (which played a significant role in today's lecture) I hope to turn into a conference presentation and if I'm lucky I'll get to present it to the scholars at the Villa during one of their “Brown Bag” lunch talks this fall. So I have more to do with my research on this topic, that’s for sure!

Right now I'm really, really tired, but I had fun today and feel like it was a job well done, so it's worth it.

Saturday, July 12

War Games

As some of you may know, I live with a video gamer. Eric loves toys, and thanks to that recent stimulus package, we are outfitted with the latest in video gaming systems, the X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3. Now, I'm a child of the '80's too, and I grew up with Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, Paperboy, and Duck Hunt and all of those classics that led to frequent cases of "Nintendo thumb," and I'm definitely a fan of Nintendo Wii--but I just can't get into the shoot 'em up war games that Eric likes to play on the X-Box and PS3. I certainly don't think I need to be "into" everything that Eric is, but when it comes to those video games, the fact that I'm not into them creates annoyance on my part. My husband has a daily date with his video games that you could set Greenwich time by--when I come home from work, Eric (who usually beats me home) is in deep combat mode. On the one hand, this means I could do whatever I want without distraction. I could light my hair on fire and run screaming around the house, and as long as I didn't obscure his view by running in front of the t.v., his concentration would remain in the game. Seeing as how this nightly overtaking of the t.v. upsets the balanced marital stalemate between we equal adversaries, I've had to reestablish it by asking Eric to take advantage of his games when I'm not home or when I'm out for my evening walks and wait until I've retreated to the bedroom for the evening before he plays them at night. Thus far, the arrangement has been a decent compromise.

But even with all of the complaining I do about the amount of time Eric devotes to his video games, I'm a little envious as well. I have a nostalgia for the days when I was a regular gamer myself. Still, even if I was into playing video games more, we have only one t.v. in the living room, and that would lead to another upset in our stalemate. ...Then last week while cleaning house I unearthed Eric's little handheld Nintendo DS, and I thought it might have possibilities since I could play it while he was using the t.v. for his mega-graphically enhanced games. Silly me. (Can you hear the laughter of all of the married women who came before me?) Once I started playing the DS, that got Eric's attention and he wanted to play it. It's like living with my little sister all over again! He was perfectly happy with his (much more complicated, challenging, and expensive) games until I found some games to play with, and then he wanted what I had. This is a prime example of winning the battle but losing the war.

And yet...

My current strategy is to wait him out. Eventually he will tire of the puny little DS system and return his full attention to his X-Box and PS3. Then--then!--I will have it all to myself. Mwha-ha-ha!

Friday, July 4

Happy 4th of July

Oh posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.
--John Adams

Thursday, July 3

A Good Dose of Comfortable Horrors

Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within.
--Dorothy L. Sayers

I practically grew up in mystery novels. Well, I suppose a more accurate assessment would be I did grow up in mystery novels. As a kid I was usually always right where I wanted to be: in the middle of a good book. I enjoy all sorts of mysteries, but for this first post on favorite authors and genres I intend to devote to an author of the fictional genre I think of as my literary home: the so-called "malice domestic" mysteries.

The name is meant to describe mysteries very similar to those written by Agatha Christie and are "loosely defined as mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence; and usually (but are not limited to) featuring an amateur detective, a confined setting, and characters who know one another." As one of my favorite heroines once said, "If someone is going to kill me, I want him to take a personal interest." That means no random acts of violence, just "malice domestic"--that is, murder committed among people who know each other or who are connected in some way. Some of my favorite authors of this genre include Aaron Elkins, Sharyn McCrumb, Charlotte MacLeod, Lauren Haney, Joan Hess, and--last but by no means least--the Grandmaster herself, Elizabeth Peters. Since my first love in this genre was Elizabeth Peters, we'll start there. That's not so easy as it might seem. As someone once remarked, "What can you say about Elizabeth Peters that she hasn't already said?"

Although she's written nine stand-alone novels, Elizabeth Peters is best known for her three different series novels, namely those that feature Vicky Bliss (scholar of medieval art), Jacqueline Kirby (writer and librarian), and Amelia Peabody Emerson. By far the most popular series with readers is that featuring Amelia Peabody, intrepid archaeologist and Egyptologist. Being educated as an Egyptologist, EP has the know-how to spin a great historical mystery with the kind of accuracy that only an expert could render. The series begins in 1884 and subsequent novels have followed the Emerson family all the way into the 1920's. That kind of longevity in a series is rare, and it's not just clever plots and witty and daring heroine that sustain it--it's also the skillfully and intimately drawn characters that keep readers coming back for more. My destiny of being hooked as a loyal reader and admirer of this series is kind of a no-brainer. The Egyptology angle, for one, makes it appealing to me. But there's also the factor of time. I started reading this series when I was around thirteen years old, which means for most of my life each year there's been a new Emerson adventure to pick up. Each book in the series is linked with my memories of growing up, so I have a great affection for all of them.

Should you consider picking up an Amelia Peabody mystery, I highly recommend you start at the beginning, with Crocodile on the Sandbank. Later developments in the story mean so much more when you know what's happened before. Trust me.

Just because Amelia is my favorite doesn't mean I don't enjoy Vicky and Jacqueline's adventures just as much. Vicky would probably get by just fine, except she keeps getting mixed up with the mysterious John Smythe, forger of art and antiquities--a problematic friend to have when you work in a museum. EP likes to brag that Vicky is one of the first fictional heroines to turn down riding off into the sunset in the arms of the story's hero in favor of blackmailing her superior into giving her a dream job at a major museum. In this way, EP is one of the most influential authors of this genre in the past four decades or so. When she started writing, publishers were locked into romantic suspense novels that followed a set formula. Initially, they were hardly thrilled with the idea of a mystery featuring a smart female protagonist who didn't fall into the arms of the leading man on the last page. As with Amelia, I recommend starting at the beginning of this series. Beware, like the Amelia mysteries, these books are addicting. And with addiction comes the threat of eventually running out of a way to get your fix. When it comes to this series, addicts have been without a fix since the late nineties. For about ten years now there's been one pressing question on loyal reader's minds: "Will there ever be a new Vicky?" It was finally answered this year: Yes. The new book is The Laughter of Dead Kings and it's coming out on my birthday. Can't beat that! (Hence the countdown above.)

Jacqueline Kirby's adventures are another story. I think they can be read in whatever order you like, but there's also a lot fewer of them. You'd think there's a limited kind of trouble a librarian turned romance writer could get into, but you'd be wrong. My personal favorite in this series is Naked Once More. These books are just hilarious--especially if you're a keen observer of humanity and enjoy applying a cutting sense of humor to life. Die for Love is also a good romp, but Naked's still at the top of my list in this series.

If you decide to pick up one of these books, you're guaranteed to be entertained. If not, I recommend you check your pulse. Seriously.

Currently Reading: Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Tuesday, July 1

Strange and Weird Encounters

I'm definitely looking forward to the holiday this Friday--the Villa will actually be closed that day--and the fact that school groups are over for the summer. The last group we had come through was one of my worst experiences thus far. It must have been some sort of continuation high school. Most of the students didn't even pretend to listen--even after I brought out my meaner side to get them to straighten up. It's just impossible to earn enough respect from troubled kids like that in such a short time. Some of them were curious and asked questions (laced with profanity). I shouldn't have put up with any of it at all, but with it being the last school group of the school year and with the combination of frustration and pity that comes with encounters with kids like that, I just endured it. Sometimes when I'm dealing with these inner city kids I feel like Hilary Swank in "Freedom Writers." I'm white and privileged so what reason do they have to listen to me? Those students needed to be taken through by their teacher, someone who works with them daily and who has earned their respect. Anyway, glad that's over. Teaching should lighten up from now until late September without school groups to fill the morning schedule.

Mostly right now I think I just need some time away from this land of fruits and nuts. The other day on my general tour of the collection, some old guy started asking me about Pompeii and then suddenly broke into a loud, dramatic recitation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I was really beginning to wonder how the heck I was going to stop him when he finally ended the performance. Also, among the people who come up afterwards to tell me it was "great" or "amazing" or whatever, once a week or so someone tells me I sound like Jodi Foster in Silence of the Lambs. I honestly don't know how to respond to this remark except to say, "Er--thanks." They seem to think they're paying me a compliment, and I like Jodi Foster, so I guess I should leave it at that. (Some of you may remember, she was one of the celebrity tours through the Tut exhibit--we took her, her partner, her mom, and her son through the exhibit with the public. She was very nice and down-to-earth.) In any case, these are the strange and weird encounters that make up my days here at the Villa. Never a dull moment.

I hope this finds you well and making the most of your summer!