Monday, May 30, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

We've all heard of "buying the farm", but smoking the farm was a new experience.  I lit La Finca from the citronella candle and puffed carefully on the clipped end, careful not to allow the thick smoke to travel past my tonsils.  It didn't taste like cow dung, but perhaps it smelled like it--it's hard to tell when you are guppy-mouthing the smoke, creating neat patterns in the air like a contemplative dragon.  This was the third cigar (or the fourth) I'd ever smoked in my life, and it provided a great distraction from the impressively angular cheekbones of the uber-Presbyterian deacon (a retired Air Force officer, of whom I've been terrified for years--he looks like something from the eighteenth century, a fiercely proper and rigorously catechised Church of Scotland stereotype down to his bones--except now I know he can laugh, and he does have braces, which somewhat infringes on the unapproachable affect) who was sitting on my left. 

Three friends, the deacon and I celebrated Memorial Day with a late barbecue of bratwurst and hotdogs, and then watched the sunset from the back porch of our host's lakeside condo.  Dean'd decorated the railing with two little strings of LED Chinese-lantern lights, and when the sun was down asked if anyone minded if he smoked a cigar.  The deacon, and the other two said, "Go ahead."  I said, "No, as long as you bring me one, too."  I relish the idea of shocking the deacon with my wild-living ways.  And I can't stand to have cigars smoked around me unless I am partaking as well--"either everyone does, or everyone does not" to quote Robin McKinley.  It's funny, I've only ever indulged in cigars with other Christians, particularly Presbyterians.

I had another evening of high revelry with my friend Hermione, who accompanied me on Saturday night to the Russia House restaurant in Dupont Circle.  I had a Groupon for 50 bucks, which covered a third of the cost of our meal (H and I split the remainder of the check; she picked up the tip), and the experience was worth every last kopek.  Great service by the young Russian staff, we were encouraged to linger at our table (we stayed three hours, which was as long as we needed to finish off six dishes, two desserts, and a whole bottle of good Georgian red wine), and the food was superb.  Mushroom sauce to die for.  Rabbit sausages with cherries.  Pirogi in puff pastry.  The richest creme brulee I think I have ever spooned onto my tongue.  Heavenly.  And, no doubt, entirely fattening.  I am developing what the Brits would call a "tyre" around my middle, and it's not making me happy.  But for a glorious evening I chose to overlook this unpleasant development and let gastronomic hedonism rule.  And Hermione and I simply had a good time talking--she'll be abroad for the summer, and so this was the last opportunity we'll have had to get together until probably the end of September.  She plans to spend the summer getting in shape--though, given that she runs marathons, how much more fit can she be?!  I, on the other hand, am becoming increasingly pear-shaped.

Reflective images of one's less-than-toned physique are not pleasant to behold.  I am resolved to go to the gym more frequently and lay off the snacks.  And I've also started praying for an exercise/walking partner.  I've so little motivation to get out and move my ever-broadening buns without company, and I sorely need it for accountability, too.   Being flabby feels very unpleasant, particularly in 95+ heat.  And how can I launch what Hermione terms an "all-out dating offensive" if I'm not looking and feeling my best?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Le Saga Duh eBay (and) The HORRORS Of Broccoli

Common complaint of a consumer calling a help-line: speaking to a series of people with faux English names (the kind they must have dredged out of 1940s movies or pre-War novels abandoned on Yon Far Shore by fleeing expatriates bound for home and the Blitz) for whom the King's/Queen's is not their native language, trying to explain a situation complex enough to require sequential reasoning and elementary math proficiency, all of which is lost in translation.  It's maddening.  And eBay's call centers may well be found in Singapore and Mumbai--they are definitely NOT in this hemisphere.  I've spent a total of more than three quarters of an hour on the phone to these distant places trying to resolve a question of some fifty dollars which was not credited to my account.  The last woman I got at least had the common decency to introduce herself by a Chinese name--and she noted that the previous people to whom I had spoken had never actually sent the emails which they said they'd dispatch promptly.  (So basically, they act to call the customer and then lose the paperwork?!)  If it weren't such a large sum, I should have given up weeks ago, but poverty has made me persistent.

I'm having a rotten time with my temper lately.  I was civility and patience itself with the eBay offshore contractors, but I've been close to snapping at my American colleagues in person almost every day the last two weeks.  It's like my soul needs power-washing--I'm becoming a complainer and a witch.  I apologized to one boss for my behavior and asked the other for a raise.  Prayer appreciated.

I hate broccoli.  That's not a complaint--just a fact.  I've loathed the stuff since childhood.  I hate the smell, the texture and the flavor.  To me, broccoli ruins every dish to which it is added, even more so than olives.  Nasty, greasy little deceptively-grape-like orbs, olives.  People have lectured me on the health benefits of broccoli until I've turned green, and I remember one episode from childhood (I was five) when I was sent to my room and threatened with bodily harm for refusing to eat broccoli, but I just couldn't and can't bring myself to touch the loathsome stuff.  Until now.  I went shopping at Trader Joe's the other afternoon and they had this wonderful wasabi-mayonnaise slaw on their sample counter, so I bought the plain bagged slaw, the cranberry-almond trail mix they'd tossed into it, and a jar of that delicious sinus-clearing mayo and whipped up my own salad this afternoon...and I noticed that the slaw was made from raw julienned carrots and broccoli stems!  It's really good.  Of course, the wasabi flavor also helps to mask any residual broccoliness too.  Don't break out the steamed flowerets, though--I still can't stomach them.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fat Cats And Fast Cars

As my dates usually are, this one was not a success. Ben turned out to be enormous, with a dominating personality to match. I picked him up as his mistress mentioned that at his last checkup he’d weighed “fifteen.” “Kilos?!” I guessed, hefting his fuzzy bulk. “Pounds,” she clarified. I think the scale must be off. Ben had some matting and was obviously too lazy to groom his own back, where the long thick black fur was a little greasy. And then he bit me several times—not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to show that he was a bossy male animal despite his missing gonads and removed front claws. Apparently he’s intimidated his smaller feline companion to the degree that the vet is recommending kitty Prozac for the other’s anxiety. Ben’s like a tuxedo-colored sofa cushion, but clearly not as chill as I like, and his sheer girth is intimidating. So I had a legitimate reason to turn him down. There’s always some diplomatic pressure when your bosses sister sets you up with somebody, be it man or cat.

On the fun, successful night out front, I took myself out Saturday evening to see Fast Five. I flirted briefly with the idea of calling a friend to see if she’d meet me at the theater, but I realized that I’m probably one of the few girls I know who’d want to go to see this action flick, and what did I need company for? So I bought myself a ticket, a large popcorn and a “medium” drink (so much liquid you could have drowned an entire litter of puppies in it), found a perfect seat, and kicked back to enjoy the show. Had a fantastic time—it was nice being able to chortle loudly at the great cheeziness and admire the high-speed daring-do without the subconscious urge to make sure a companion was reacting the same way. I was so happy and relaxed afterwards, despite the fact that my bladder was on the verge of explosion. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are a great onscreen team—I hope they make some more B-movies together…

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Sinuses Are Going On Strike

They've been subjected to impossible working conditions, and they've decided to implement a nasal work stoppage in protest.  I only lasted a little over seven hours today at the hoarder's house before I had to give up because my poor nose was dripping like a faucet and I was sneezing every few minutes.  Between the pollen outside, and the dust, mold and mildew indoors, it was pretty darn miserable.  I worked more than 10 hours yesterday, and there's only so much to which a body can be subjected and keep marching along.  Maybe it'll rain tomorrow and I'll get the morning off from the market--heaven knows I need the cash, but I also need the rest!  Anita and I have been invited to a community craft show indoors tomorrow evening, so we'll be getting a little selling in whatever the weather.

My friend Sahar got back safely from Iran and brought me a pretty embroidered blouse.  I plan to wear it to the Russia House restaurant near Dupont Circle when a girlfriend and I go out to dinner there next week.  Maybe I'll also wear my Bedouin jewelry for a really bohemian effect. 

My stable of honorary nephews increased by two a week ago, when my friend Rose gave birth to tiny twin boys.  Thus far, everybody is doing OK--Mom is home from the hospital, and the twins are in the Neo-natal ICU, where they'll stay for the foreseeable future, since they were delivered at only 25 weeks gestation.  They are only a bit smaller than my dad and my aunt were when they were born two months early almost 63 years ago--and both of them survived without ill effects (except for my Dad being legally blind in one eye as a consequence of being treated with pure oxygen...but Daddy was always accident prone).  So I am praying for their continued well-being and asking others to do the same!

Have finally put up the seven loads of laundry I did last weekend over at another friend's house...although feline in many respects, one place I will not make a nest to snooze is in a pile of clean clothes, so I dumped them over my bed before I left for work this morning, so I would be forced to put them up before retiring to sleep tonight.  It's pretty sad that I've got to psych myself out to get my own apartment organized, but sometimes I have to resort to such basic tricks to keep disciplined.

On that note, let me do a little bit of dissertation reading, and then to sleep!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

We See Into Your SOUL

Well, not exactly, but estate sale people do get a personal perspective on their clients that few other human beings share, except perhaps personal physicians.  We see what you've been reading (how the porn magazines are cheek by jowl with the devotional books; or if there's a more savory intellectual theme to the library), what you've been collecting (sometimes to overwhelming degree), whether you kept track of your bills and your pennies, whether you or a loved one have suffered physical degradation in your final years (indicated by medicines in the cabinet, dribbles of food down the front of clothes, mobility assistance devices and other paraphernalia), whether you turned to drugs (I've found crumbling street pills in twists of tinfoil) or more conventional physical satisfaction (slutty underwear, loads of condoms, sex toys), if you were a decent housekeeper or a slob, what family meant or means to you, what sort of pet you kept or keep, on what you spent your income...digging through such detritus constructs a three-dimensional biography of the person living in the house.  Agatha Christie's Miss Marple may have been able to extrapolate personality types from her limited circle within St. Mary Meade, but I'll wager that after a while, were I blessed with the gift of creative writing, I'd be able to pen all sorts of grim and hilarious tales based on individuals I've found within the world of the estate sale.

One of my several sweet coworkers at the sales can't understand "why a nice all-American girl" like me isn't married and so she was thrilled last week when my bosses sister came up to me and asked, "Are you still interested in meeting Ben?" and I responded that I was.  "Ooo, do you have a date?  Who's this Ben?" she wanted to know.  I decided to tease her and responded seriously, "Well, kind of.  He's furry and about a foot high..."  She thought I was being down on the poor guy, and said in righteous defensiveness, "How do you know he's only a foot high?!"  "He's a cat," I said.  She was very disappointed. 

I wrote a serious agent query letter to a man who specializes in Russian history books, and sent a draft off to Irina this afternoon while my friend Leah was reviewing my tax return to see if I needed to re-file (I don't, as my tax obligation neither increased nor decreased a penny).  Our book is ready for the press and I'd love for my 37th birthday party to do double-duty as a book launch celebration.  I'm saving up money to go to Prague and Ukraine in September--I've got free lodging in the Czech Republic capital and my hostess says she'll go with me to visit Pirogov's house museum in Vinitsa, which is a blessing.  I'm not a huge fan of lone traveling, or rather, of lone touring--the getting to and from by myself is fine, it's just so nice to have someone to be with me on either end!  Dissertation research/note-taking/writing continues slowly but steadily--must formally constitute a new committee!  A tiny side diamond dropped out of my grandmother's engagement ring, which she gave me along with her wedding ring (the two are soldered together) about a year ago (today would have been her and Granddaddy's 64th wedding anniversary--it's Leah and Sam's 9th), and I'm wondering whether I should have a jeweler monkey around with it replacing the little 1-pt stone or leave well enough alone.  Based on the model of a quilted bag Grandmommy made and gave me for Christmas several years ago, I'm sewing patchwork totes, which I plan to make my chief craft for selling over the next few months, rather than jewelry.  My father's semi-industrial tent-sewing machine has worked like a champ on the upholstery fabric I'm using.  I'm hoping to sell my beautiful antique Singer at an estate sale sometime soon--my apartment is too small for two sewing machines.

Am heading to the gym (oh my, I'm actually making it twice this week!), Chekhov in hand.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Estate Sale Finds

Thursday marked a high point (or a low ebb, depending on your perspective) in terms of things I have discovered while prepping people's houses for estate sales.  We were working in the shopaholic hoarder's house, and I was in my respirator mask down in the mildew and mold infested basement, whence I'd been hauling junk for three days.  I found a dresser and futon under mounds of boxes filled with everything from candles to video tapes to bits of old newspaper and postage stamps.  And (among other paraphernalia, including shoes with the tags still on them and a FDR-style wheelchair) I found an assortment of kitchen items--old cookie tins, glass jars--and garden supplies.  Since the woman is prone to stuff odds and ends (including rocks!) into any hollow vessel, I was not entirely surprised when I picked up a battered tin that had a lid and felt the heft of something inside.  I opened it and found two ziplock bags containing a grey, rocky powder. 

"Hmm," I muttered.  "This looks a lot like cremains."

Then I found her husband's name with his birth and death dates on a slip of metal underneath the bags.

She'd lost her dead husband's remains in the basement.

I toyed with the idea of just heaving him into the dumpster in the driveway (a more decent burial than he'd enjoyed heretofore), but I ended up stuffing the bags back into the tin and putting it in the hall closet for her to pick up along with the family pictures we'd found.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Having Missed April...

About halfway through April I found myself in the situation of having so much to write about that I didn't know where to start, and then the guilt set in, and I never could talk myself up to the level of enthusiasm to update the blog.  So, here it is a new month already, there are already a dozen topics that I want to ramble on about that concern the last 24 hours alone (Bin Laden being offed!) and I'm forced to choose whether to continue hiding from blogging in a fit of postless shame or to just go ahead and try to tackle a few, very few, of life's little developments...

My sister tells me that she boiled up two dozen white eggs for decorating before Easter.  Rita (age 6 as of April 18) was preparing the little bowls of vegetable dye, when Brad (age 3 as of February 12) came in to the kitchen and S Dawg asked him if he wanted to dye an egg.  "Yes!" he responded, and, seizing an egg, he ran out onto the back porch, where he proceeded to stomp the egg into oblivion and scatter its guts.  His sister and his mother watched him with their mouths hanging open, "What on earth?!"  Finished obliterating the egg, Brad came back inside.  "There, I killed it," he said.  "Can I "die" another one?" 

Rita has told her mother that she wants to study the history of vampires when she grows up.  She's obsessed with vampires thanks to reading the Spiderman comic, whose current villain is a vampire.  She and her little brother went to the circus on Saturday and now she is drawing vampire clowns.  I wanted to be a florist when I was Rita's age. 

I do know of one woman who penned her doctoral dissertation on vampires in literature some twenty or thirty years ago, well before the current Twilight mania.  She now works part-time as an actress and Queen Victoria impersonator, and frequents the book discussion forums where I post.  I started a thread on crazy hats after seeing pictures of Princess Beatrice's Lady Gaga-worthy toque which she supported to Friday's Royal Wedding.  The thread has way more responses from other Forumites than any other (on more serious topics) that I've attempted over the years.

I lent one of my hatpins to a girl who was getting up at 4:30 AM to watch the wedding at a local bar which was serving a wee sma' brunch in honor of the event--girls all over the area were wearing hats in celebration.  I refused to get up at such an hour to watch the event live--another girl friend taped it, and she's having a party (to which we are all wearing hats) this Wednesday, where we'll watch highlights.  In any case, I couldn't have gotten up that early on Friday because I'd worked 14.5 hours Thursday prepping an estate sale and didn't get home until 1 AM--and had to be at my bosses house by 9 AM Friday morning.

This was the most loathed client in my experience of estate sale work.  We should have gathered the vibe from the sign to the right of the driveway: Service Entrance in Rear.  The house had 9 bathrooms in some 10,000 sq. ft., which included five bedrooms, a three-car garage, an exercise room with a hot tub, two (fully-stocked) bars, and a wine cellar.  It was not the nicest house I've been in as an estate sales agent, despite its considerable size--we visit palatial residences as well as more humble dwellings.  But it was the least cordial of all the owners/executors with whom we've dealt.  She treated us like servants, and she treated her Asian housekeeper like a slave.  Really appalling condescension.  She wouldn't let us put clothes on the furniture, much of which was encased in plastic, and she lectured me on "how we don't wash our hands in the kitchen sink."  We all hated her most vigorously by the time we finished our work, but the sale itself was pretty successful, just judging from the foot traffic and the fact that tables that had been heaped with goods were emptied by Sunday afternoon.

If foot traffic alone were an indication of success, Anita's and my first day back at the market on Saturday in almost two months (it'd rained every one) would have been rosy.  Sadly, most people were just browsing, and so I just enjoyed the cool caress of the breeze on my bare (sunscreen-slathered) arms and sat on the trunk of my car reading Chekhov.

Like many people, I suspect, my only acquaintance with Chekhov heretofore was several ballet/dramatic performances of "The Cherry Orchard", which I found pointless and depressing (the ennui of a dying breed of social class does not appeal to me) and which did not in the least encourage me to investigate this "great Russian writer" further.  But then I decided to write about another famous Russian physician, and figured that if I were going to discuss his cultural impact, I might as well see if Chekhov, who began producing short stories while he was studying medicine with those who had worked with and been taught by Pirogov, had anything to say about him.  So, I checked out what the local public library had by the younger man, and discovered that he was truly a great writer, writing fun and funny short stories as well as more serious dramatic fare. 

I don't understand why it's the grimmest, least appealing work of the so-called "masters" that gets forced down the throats of modern students.  If all I knew of Dickens were Great Expectations, I'd hate the man--I don't understand why high school students are made to read this instead of the decidedly fascinating David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickelby.  At least some teachers choose to make their classes read Tale of Two Cities, which is awesome.  Chekhov is the same--there's so much more great, readable material out there besides "The Cherry Orchard".  And I don't know that students appreciate the "Orchard" as much as they should if they aren't acquainted with Russian history, anyway.  And adolescence is depressing enough without having literary misery hanging over one's head--there are much more "relatable" stories within each man's repertoire--why not sucker students in with these, and then leave them to wade through Bleak House on their own?

Dissertation work is going slowly, but I've managed hours and hours of it.  I have found two explicit Pirogov references in Chekhov thus far, and was glad to see Doctor Zhivago broadcast on one of the local public TV channels this weekend.  In my biography I argue that Zhivago would not have been possible without Pirogov.

Hmm, what else to mention in this belated update?  A couple of friends got married in April, a couple more are getting married in May.  I spent an afternoon with an honorary nephew, whom I got to cuddle more at church last night.  I'm going to have to file an amended federal tax return, which may net me a few dollars.  Irina and I finished the formerly-titled Two Motherlands manuscript and it goes off to published readers soon.  I bought a lamp and parts for another.  I went to an auction in Falls Church, VA, and saw at least five people in a room of forty whom I recognized from my various part-time "second-sales" and artisan market jobs from MD, DC and VA--that community in the greater Washington area is a small one, it seems.  I sold three small items on eBay--my first real success in that medium.  I learned a new Yiddish word, which has a cognate in Russian!  I got my MA diploma from Georgetown and my father's picture framed, and hung them both, and I managed to make it through Lent without chocolate milkshakes. 

The pollen count is finally dropping (unlike gas prices) and I am able to breathe!