Saturday, February 26, 2011

Spring Sickness

The shower water hitting my skull sounded like a piece of paper being rattled by a strong breeze. I hate being under the weather. It's like my brain has simultaneously shriveled like a raisin and turned to soup--it aches like its wrinkles are dried out, and at the same time it can't focus on anything. I plugged in an electric kettle at work this afternoon and left it to boil dry. I would turn and walk two feet in a different direction and completely forget why I'd altered my course. I fumbled receipts, had to remind myself to smile and act pleasant, got dizzy and dull and achey at moments. I left the shop an hour early. There's a rat chewing on the wiring behind my left eyebrow, my ears are ringing, and I have a pain between my shoulderblades, though I got plenty of sleep last night. In other words, all the people hacking, coughing, sneezing and sniffing in my vicinity over the last several weeks have done what even my relatively strong constitution has been unable to withstand--besieged it with enough germs to crack my protective carapace and flood my system. I have a feeling I am going to be getting a lot worse before I get better. So my last stop before home tonight was at the grocery store, where I bought two gallons of milk, a quartet of bananas, and a box of Zinc tablets...enough perishible provisions to last me for three days. I already have five cartons of orange juice in my fridge.

Plainly, I feel poorly. I think I've actually been running a low-grade fever for a couple of days--I've been cold, cold, cold though I've been keeping the thermostat at almost 80 and swaddling myself in layers, and it can't be ALL low iron in my blood causing me to feel like the Ghost of Christmas Past--but I think the overture is over and the opera is ready to begin. All I can hope for is losing a few pounds--thanks to the proverbially-advised "starving a fever"--before the aria at the end.

Friday, February 18, 2011


I'm working on three computers at once right now. My new laptop is burning the last DVDs of the job talks (an arduous process that requires me to "dumb down" the high definition format in which the camera recorded the events so that it can be played on the professors' geriatric computers)--this takes about an hour per DVD. I've been listening to a recorded book on my old laptop, and since that finished I've been squinting at the mostly-dark screen and editing the final, final, final version of the Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands manuscript (I've read through the whole published Russian version and synchronized the translation, now I'm typing up these changes and correcting formatting issues). And on this computer I've just sold $24 worth of books (Amazon trade-in) and bought $31 worth.

Tomorrow I've been called to work at the gallery up in Bethesda. The owner sold it to a former employee last week (my coworkers like her, so there's no worry there). I plan to take my laptop (a functional one) and work on the book formatting in between customers. I'm almost done, and then it's 100% onto dissertation-writing--I'm supposed to present the first chapter to a roundtable of my fellow Russianists on March 18, a commitment I made deliberately to ensure that I'd get busy writing. I've been told that much of the jewelry Anita and I had consigned there for their annual accessories event sold, so I'm relieved not to have too much to ferry home.

My car looks like that of a homeless person--it's filthy outside and inside it's full of piles of clothes and cardboard boxes and mostly-empty plastic cups, magazines, receipts, toys and ceramics. I'm taking a load of donations to Montgomery County Thrift tomorrow morning before work, but I really need to clean out the whole thing and have it cleaned and tuned stem to stern. If it broke down on the beltway, everyone would just assume I was a bum living permanently on the shoulder of the inner loop.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Unhappy Valentine's Day & The "I Love Me" Wall

Yesterday was not an unhappy day because of the lack of romance in my life, but because of the presence of computer problems. I woke up to discover that my fingerprint reader on my brand-new laptop had quit working. This in and of itself was not a catastrophe, as a "biometric identification device" is a neat toy, but not essential to word-processing. What did bother me, however, was that it had worked flawlessly up until Sunday, and then just disappeared overnight. That's right, not only had it ceased to operate, it was "undetected" every time I tried to set it up again.

Then I logged on to my email account and found a letter from a professor in the History Department saying that she couldn't open the job talk DVDs I'd just burned on Friday. While I was puzzling over this question, I noticed a reminder for "this week's African American and Russian job talks" from the chair of the department--another had been added this Friday, and...the one for Monday was beginning thirty minutes earlier than all the others. At 11 AM. I was checking my email (last-minute, before departing for campus to set up the video camera for the talk) at 11:03 AM. OH CRAP!!!

So, I get to the job talk thirty minutes late, and the camera doesn't have any juice in it, so I hunt between rapt people crammed in along the wall for a power outlet to no avail. The chair of the search committee allows a breather after the lecture for me to set up to film the Q&A section, but I lack a tripod, so I end up "steady-camming" the next 45 minutes, panning between the speaker at the one end of the room and the PowerPoint screen at the other. Not a brilliant start to the week. All the professors (and the speaker) were very gracious, though. And my arm wasn't totally numb, either.

Twenty minutes of computer trouble-shooting in the office of the professor who can't get my DVDs to work ends up without resolution. I promise to use a different program to burn new copies, and return home to my own problem computer, to find that...all three USB ports aren't working. In other words, I can't back up the files that I've changed since Wednesday (the last time I saved everything, given my crazy schedule). Most unhappy.

I go to bed. Maybe these software issues will all go away after I've had a good nap.

I wake up and rush off to trivia, the software problems still in residence. We finish fourth because I mess up doing basic subtraction on the third-round bonus question. The two other girls on the team ask me if I'd like to go with them to the Arlington Drafthouse and Cinema, which is having a special showing of The Princess Bride this evening. Like most other American females of a certain age, I not only own a copy of TPB, I can recite much of the dialogue from memory, but I agree because of the prospect of seeing it on the big screen again, and in pleasant company. Too, I have heard good things about the Drafthouse, yet have not been, and the notion that two twenty-something girls would be willing to have an old hen like me along for a casual evening's entertainment is subconsciously flattering.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Drafthouse (physically a very comfortable venue) precedes its films with a short segment of stand-up comedy, or so it did yesterday evening. And standup nowadays, particularly on "romantic holidays" consists mostly of X-rated "jokes" and the "f" word. Ha ha. Not. So I had to sit through twenty awkward minutes of allusions to all sorts of sexual acts before getting to relax and enjoy the PG-rated feature.

Then I went home and went online for two hours to figure out how to rescue my computer files. I got the USB ports working (the drivers had spontaneously corrupted, so I had to uninstall and reinstall these), the data backed up, and the computer to at least admit that somewhere out in the known moral universe there might exist such a thing as a fingerprint reader--although it still won't admit it features such a device).

Today I installed my "I love me" wall in my bedroom. This is what I call that surface in any house or office which features the framed diplomas and certifications earned by the occupant. Given the number of painted self-portraits I have hanging on other walls in my apartment, a visitor might recognize more than the usual narcissism in yours truly. Natural egocentricity aside, both visual self-celebrations are the natural result of two twin trends: my unended studenthood (one can't help but accumulate degrees) and my artistic ambitions (I haven't anyone to sit for me but myself--if I had other models to work from, there wouldn't be so much KYP-centered material around).

I'm donating some of my clothes and the rest of my father's to charity tomorrow--they've been through two estate sales and these are truly the leftovers. I've also culled some dishes from my overstuffed cabinets and sold three of the tables that I used to use for jewelry display (Anita's husband got her new ones for Christmas). In other words, what with hanging the pictures and documents that have been sitting around in bubblewrap for months and with clearing out unnecessaries, my apartment is beginning to look considerably neater. ...Just in time for my mom to come visit for the Cherry Blossom Festival at the beginning of April!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Variations of Value

One lesson I have learned from 25 years of antique collecting, seven years of handmade jewelry vending, and one year working estate sales is that material goods can command widely, wildly different prices. Most extreme are the numbers on the tags in posh retail establishments in well-heeled areas, in comparison to the amounts those very same items can command on the second-hand market in less tony locations. Not being a full-price shopper myself, nor one who participates in conspicuous consumption (despite having decidedly Dom P. taste), I am regularly astounded by people who think that just because they shelled out an unholy amount for a mirror or a bed frame they should be able to expect the same insanity from a subsequent purchaser.

For instance, we’ve done sales in several houses owned by multi-millionaires (who aren’t thin on the ground in this area—I myself live below the federal poverty line in one of the ten most expensive counties in the nation), and despite the success of each event, some of these people (two in the medical profession and one in the communications industry) have been chagrined by the relatively small return on what they had “invested” in household d├ęcor. Sure, your decorator charged you $395 for that lamp [this and all other examples are real!], but we can’t ask more than $25 for it, because they are available at Target for $45. She or he billed you $1985 for that gilt mirror, but the most we can hope to expect from the hundreds of people who will come to your sale is $265. Your wife spent more than $100,000 at exclusive boutiques from Paris to Milan and New York, but the most we can earn from that roomful of designer clothes is $35,000. The cushions on your bed cost $400 apiece for the fabric alone, but we can’t tag them for more than $30 each, or we’ll be laughed out of town by our customers.

It seems to be a disease of sorts, this affluenza, where spending vast sums is interpreted as directly associated with real value, when much of what is bought is simply not worth the scrip. What an antique dealer tells you your collection of old measuring cups is worth and what they’ll fetch in the real world are two entirely different things. I’ve been reading a great book by Matthew Brzezinski (the nephew of the former National Security advisor) called Casino Moscow, in which he recounts his observations of New Russians during the free-wheeling pre-Putin 1990s. An anecdote he says was popular at the time tells of two of these nouveau riche encountering one another one the street: one brags to the other about a pair of shoes he’d gotten in Paris for $1500. The other ridicules him. Says he could have gotten the same pair for $1800 locally. The greater the amount spent, in other words, was the prestige factor, as if it magically imparted some greater value to the article, though it was identical in every other way.

This is an attitude, I think, that is shared today by many people living here in the DC area. Whatever economic chaos is happening around them, those with the high-rolling mentality conflate expenditure with worth, and blithely (irrationally) think that they’ll recoup these amounts from consignment. Whereas if one buys really well-made “pre-owned” goods, you are much more likely to be able to get your money out of them should you decide to trade them in later. But at all times, value is variable: an item is worth neither more nor less than what someone is willing to pay for it at a given time. You could even make a few bucks on something you’re selling if you find a venue that sets it off and a purchaser that really wants it.

But I can’t see any normal conditions where you'd be able to make good on a six-foot ficus tree would that cost you $500 originally.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Grandmommy and I were standing in her front yard, while she pointed out a series of dead or diseased pine trees at the edge of the grass close to the road. One which was not dying, the one nearest the end of the driveway and the mailbox, was split in two partway up the trunk, and a large plant, with a bulbous bottom, had taken root in the “v.” Above the bulb were succulent fat leaf-stems, like an aloe plant, and what on closer inspection what looked like the baited sections of a venus fly-trap. As we watched, the plant did trap insects, luring them in while the base swelled correspondingly. Then, as a squirrel ran up a neighboring pine tree, one stem of the plant caught the rodent by its fluffy tail and folded it into its needle-edged green taco shell for digestion.

People began coming to see this plant and eventually as it attempted to expand its diet to include bipeds, it was pruned like the hydra, and its bulb was neatly sectioned using Granddaddy’s old grey metal scroll saw. The slices looked like smoked salmon and tasted like melon, and the people eating it trailed seeds all over the yard, which I pointed out, but nobody seemed to care.

The next generation of this plant morphed into an aggressive spider plant, with tricycle-size suckers like tarantulas on tethers chasing people into the carport at the back of Grandmommy’s house, but before I could be grabbed by one of these awful things, my dreams were interrupted by the sound of my name being hollered repeatedly by my resident manager over a scatter of strangers’ voices that seemed to be coming from the front room of my apartment.

I crawled out of bed and staggered into the hall outside my bedroom, opening the door to the common area. Mr. B. was there, as were three firefighters, in full professional regalia, who seemed to be milling around my messy living room. One of them jocularly assured me that I wasn’t dreaming, “There’s a gas leak upstairs,” Mr. B. said. I thought blearily that I needed to put on shoes and a robe. But the firemen said I should stay put. So I took two aspirin and went back to bed.

Eventually, the festival lights of the fire truck on the ice-hemmed street went away and I settled into another odd dream about a monster—enormous, terrifying and always off-screen (though I got the impression it was something like Godzilla)—which gulped down cowering people among the marble buildings of downtown DC.

Then I got swallowed myself and discovered there was actually a Victorian inn inside this terrible beast, complete with handmade doilies, tea things, and so forth. It just got weirder from there.

When I finally emerged (after “snoozing” my alarm half a dozen times) from under the profoundly comfortable weight of five Grandmommy quilts, I wended my way to Georgetown for the second of the Russian History job talks. There, I set up the tiny HD camera I am using to record these events (I burn DVDs for the search committees after the fact), and sat down to listen to a history of the machinations surrounding Sino-Soviet relations. My recording was somewhat spoiled by the incessant rattling of crisps-bags as faculty members attempted to access their potato chips. The speaker, too, was somewhat rattled at first as he hunted unsuccessfully through his unnumbered notes for “fascinating quotes” that he’d referenced and then lost.

Lessons: Never watch "Little Shop of Horrors" (I haven’t seen it, but it might just reinforce my own fear of the vegetable menace). Always number presentation-pages and have quotes highlighted. Firemen really are cute in uniform!