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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Belated 38th

Yesterday was my birthday.  I didn’t wake up until 5 PM.  I was tired.  Nobody in my family remembered it was my birthday, though I was listening to my accumulated voicemails on the drive back to DC this afternoon and found that my art dealer boss had not only called to wish me well, he’d sung the entire Birthday Song, in tune no less, on a message yesterday morning.  So sweet.  My mother could be forgiven for forgetting my birthday, since I forgot hers earlier this year, but she had to nag my siblings by text message to get them to congratulate me on the occasion. Bob called first, then my sister.  They both regaled me with the medical happenings of the day, from the administration of an activated charcoal dosage to a prostate exam workshop. 

Ah, the prostate.  For a nonmedically-employed spinster virgin, I know way more than I should about prostates and the curious history of the treatment of what is now discretely referred to as erectile dysfunction.  Aside from my one-time application to work at Osbon Medical Systems (a firm specializing in vacuum-pump inflation of that certain portion of the male anatomy: a technique perfected, and then, in a brilliant stroke of lucky timing, sold off by its inventor just before the advent of Viagra), I hadn’t devoted any time to this subject, but then I chanced to check out Pope Brock’s 2008 book Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, as my audiobook for the drive south for Thanksgiving.
A biography of “Doctor” John Brinkley, a snake-oil salesman of superlative skill, with less talent with the scalpel, but no less enthusiasm for all that, Charlatan chronicles how Brinkley came to convince hundreds, if not thousands, of desperate men to allow him to insert freshly-harvested goat testes into their own scrotums, debilitating many of these unfortunate fellows far more than their original sad conditions, and costing at least 41 their lives.  And yet, as Brock points out, there were other, better qualified, “real” physicians who at the same time were pushing sexual rejuvenation techniques almost as strange, which were subscribed to by many of the rich and famous.  Their occasionally-misguided researches eventually led to the synthesis of testosterone, and to other gland-related breakthroughs, whereas Brinkley’s broadcasts in efforts to bolster his quack enterprises gave birth to innovations in totally unrelated fields, specifically: advertising, public relations, modern political campaigning, and contemporary country music. 

But it did leave me wondering: who was the person who thought up the notion of injecting female human blood into rabbits to determine whether the woman was pregnant or not?  Who made the connection between the rabbit dying and the woman being pregnant?  Or is that an old wives tale about medical practice of yore?  I think a fascinating history course would be an overview of the development of medicine, and how we have come to define medicine as it is today, how some ideas have revolved in and out of favor in both “legitimate” and what I’ll delicately call “peripheral” medical practice, and how there is always some sucker out there willing to spend good money on cure-alls and powders promising him he'll be a god, at least from the waist down, after application.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Rip van KYP

I've spent the last three days in bed, thanks to a common cold.  Most of that time, I have been dizzy, then unconscious.  How can anybody sleep for almost 24 hours at a stretch and then repeat the process thrice?  I've done it.  Today I've stayed up for six hours thus far.  Thank God I am at my mom's, so there's someone to check occasionally to make sure I'm still breathing. 

Thanksgiving, other than the encroaching cold, was very good.  I had Meal One with Paxifist and her family Wednesday night, then Meal Two with my dad's side of the family in Charlotte on Thursday.  I was the only representative of my branch [as my mom was over at her fiance's, Bob was hunting (and studying 'tween deer with his iPad in his treestand), Nate and his wife were at her mom's, and S Dawg en famile were in Rhode Island], and there were none from my dad's brother's, so it was a considerably smaller gathering than usual.  Still, it was wonderful catching up with cousins, and the food was fantastic.  The cold germs had made some inroads by that point, so after dinner I took a couple hour nap, then continued on to Augusta.  My mom and her fiance and I drove down to Middle Georgia for Meal Three on Friday at Grandmommy's.  I slept in the back seat both ways, and after dinner.  When we got back to Augusta, I went right to bed, which began the three days of mostly sleeping.

It's probably exhaustion, on top of the cold.  I might be a slug by nature, but this is beyond the norm.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Work Interlude, Pinkie Toe Break

If death and hell are in the power of the tongue, life and heaven are within the purview of the pen.  I had my first meeting with Mr. Lollard today.  I looked through the guide to the family archives, which fill more than a score of grey acid-free cardboard boxes on wire shelves along the walls of the basement office, and then talked with him for an hour about what he wanted to include, how he wanted to proceed.  Basically, I encouraged him (as he is home alone with his wife over the holidays), to begin thinking about holidays and celebrations past.  The book is to begin with a tale he made up while serving overseas, which has come to be a family favorite—and from the context of that tale flows details that will thread through the whole history.

I don’t think that you can write well about anything personal in which you are not emotionally invested, though it is true that whatever you may find emotionally moving may not shift others in the least.  Certainly, you need to have a more than superficial purpose in creating a family history—merely relating a series of stirring episodes, without having any deeper intent, might not even excite the reading next generations, but it certainly won’t impart any lessons to them.

Enough pontificating. The end result, at least for the first quarter of next year, is I’ll be working for the Lollards 2 days a week until such a time as it becomes necessary for me to increase that commitment and upgrade to a full-time position.  Before Mr. Lollard has several pages written down, there’s no need for me to try to work independently, and we both agreed that it will be several months before we have a clear picture of where things are going.  I’ll be continuing to work for the estate sale company in the meantime, though on a slightly reduced schedule; so, for better or for worse, I’m not “divorcing” that job as rapidly as I’d previously expected.  In a way this is good—I will get to be a part of the former (and future) Korean consulate sale in January—though it also means that I may well continue to be scraping by for the foreseeable future (though less close to the bone because of the two-day proper wage earning).

Metaphorical bones being scraped; real bones are faring worse.  I certainly won’t be doing any heavy lifting for the next month, as I have broken the pinkie toe on my right foot, the same foot whose ankle I badly sprained only a month ago.  I’ve got my bruised nubbin of a tarsal taped to its neighbor, but WebMD says it could take 4 weeks to heal.  It hurt so much when it broke (I hit it against a chair leg, there was a “snap” and it stuck out at an odd angle) that I was inarticulate for a couple of minutes.  Right before bed on Saturday, too.  The top of my foot is blue.  I was so good this past week and had actually gotten to the gym four times!  And now, with this latest injury, I’m unable to exercise again.  I am comforting myself with ice cream, peppermint drops, and miniature M&Ms.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bob, Bond & A Breakup

My crotchety Navy brother, Bob, is threatening to spend Thanksgiving alone with Guinevere.  My mother’s fiancĂ©, John, asked about Guinevere’s identity, and Mums responded that her distinguishing characteristic was her ability to lick her own posterior.  John concluded that she was either a contortionist with peculiar personal hygiene habits or a cat.  Guinevere is, in fact, a formerly porcine feline, whose sole interest in my brother is as a potential provider of table scraps.  Whereas there are other cats who simply like to hang out, and come running for ear rubs alone, Guin is a purely selfish and superficial furry beast, whose god is her stomach.  She is not actually Bob’s cat—she belongs to his roommate—so in other words, were he to remain in Charleston with this gluttonous and narcissistic little animal, he wouldn’t even be spending the holiday with a “related” pet.  I called him to tell him he ought to come down to Augusta so that we could watch the new James Bond movie together. Everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it has liked it, and I’d rather go with someone than watch it alone.

I feel a bit like I’m breaking up with a long-time boyfriend!  I told my estate sale boss the other night that I was considering a full-time job offer from the Potomac couple, the Lollards, whose library I inventoried this past year.  She was surprised and somewhat hurt, though I had respectfully told her several times over the last eight months that I couldn’t continue to work indefinitely at the penurious wage she pays me—in fact, she may not realize that the only reason I was able to continue at the estate sale job for this long at all was because of the book cataloging gig, which paid well enough that I was able to break even for much of the year (until the latest round of health insurance premiums and federal taxes came due).  Still, I certainly wasn’t able to save anything, and my charitable contributions are at their lowest in years.  Breaking up is hard to do: there’s stuff at my house, and in my car, that belongs to the estate sale company, and items of mine in her van and at her house, mixed in with the paraphernalia of other consignors.  Leaving that job is like undergoing a divorce.  A relatively amicable one, but it’s still difficult to sort through the piles of “yours” and “mine”.  I don’t think she truly understands how essential I have been to the smooth conduct of the business over the last three years, and won’t until I’ve separated myself from the work—I can’t say I am going off the payroll, because that’s not ever been set up—all of us on the team are still treated as contractors, and paid by occasional check.  I do want the best for her and the company, and so it has been frustrating to see advice about establishing a payroll system, raising wages and providing health benefits essentially ignored, as has been my counsel to use a computer program to inventory sold items, rather than hand-writing lists at checkout. 
It’s all very well and good to sing the praises of extra-cubical jobs, where you aren’t stuck in an office all day, but are doing something interesting and different week to week.  But I need some predictability in my income, not to mention a considerably higher, honest-to-goodness living wage.  A girl’s gotta eat.  A single girl who is homing in on age 40 needs to think about saving for retirement, too.  I also have longed for employment which uses my intellectual skills, which have gotten pretty rusty since graduate school.  And I need to have regular hours, in conditions where physical injuries aren’t commonplace.  The research and writing job (a sesquicentennial history of the Lollard family) seems to promise to meet many of these wants and needs.  I told Mr. Lollard that I would like to have a trial period, to see if he and I got along in our one-on-one work, before I began full-time, and he agreed to this.  We’re supposed to meet Monday.  Full-time employment could start in January if all goes well.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Asia's Italians


I went to the housewarming/birthday/post-divorce party of a professor friend last night and met some interesting characters from her department between the drinks table and the chilled shrimp hors d’ouevres.  One was a linguistics professor from Spain who taught in Greece for years before earning her doctorate and spending almost a decade at the University of Hawaii.  We ended up talking about Korean drama, which she said is extremely popular all over east Asia, with some Japanese fans actually learning Korean they are so obsessed (hmm, sound familiar?). As a fundraising contribution for some worthy cause, a Korean student of hers in Hawaii had offered a two-hour video-clip enhanced seminar, complete with Korean food and drink, to explain kdramas.  The professor was one of five to bid on it, and the winners were all entranced.  She told me that I was the first person in DC she’d me to express an interest, but that I did was simply proof of its wide appeal—she had previously assumed it was just popular amongst the people in the Pacific because of their geographic proximity.  I responded that although I was not on Facebook, I saw at the bottom of the DramaFever homepage a lot of “likes” from girls in hijab, so it was popular in the Middle East, too. 
Would you disassemble a piano if your contact lens dropped between the keys?  And if your parents arrived home to find the piano in pieces, how would they react?  The wife of my friend’s interior designer (considering they’ve been friends for years, I hope he is not charging her designer prices!) told me that when she got her first pair of lenses, back when they were ruinously expensive, she was practicing and one fell out, into the piano.  She took it apart.  And what was more remarkable was that her parents didn’t freak out when they came home to find keys all over the carpet.  And she did have the presence of mind to reassemble it after she found her lens. 

Lastly, I talked with the daughter of several generations of Muscovite lawyers, a professor herself, with a teenage daughter and a toddler son.  She said she’d always assumed that the whole difference between boys and girls was nurture, not nature, until she’d had her son.  He’s been a little ball of testosterone from birth.  Drat those genes!
Culturewise, the Spanish professor told me her opinion of Korean men: “They are the Italians of Asia. Very emotional.”  Also handsome, and, she implied, more trouble than they are worth.  After all, American guys really are the best on the planet.

Speaking of American men and their culture, both of my brothers have succumbed to their inner rednecks and become deer hunters.  Only my Atlanta brother has had any success thus far, whereas Bob claims that the best call to attract the wiley beasts would actually be a recording of traffic noise, since deer are frustratingly elusive in the woods but always seem to show up, grazing in unconcerned herds, on the sides of busy highways.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Apres Le Deluge

Every day of last week, our octagenarian client quavered, in a strident New Yawk accent, about each item in the house, in turn loudly berating her ancient lover, her shrunken South American spinster housekeeper, and a desiccated little African American gentleman who’d served as her minion for four decades, ordering them to move this, remove that, pack such and such, unpack thus and so. Little pleased her, and what had been decreed one moment was reversed dictatorially half an hour later.  She even went through the pantry to check the expiration dates on the canned goods.  Not only did the house contain more than 15,000 square feet of space—three kitchens, five bedrooms, five full bathrooms and four half-baths, a ormolu-laced mirrored ballroom lit by a Waterford crystal chandelier the diameter of a king-size bed, and a billiard room—it was still full of paraphernalia from her two careers as an Avon saleswoman and then as a sought-after interior designer, and every single item had to be approved for disposal by her, personally.  For months we’d been encouraging her, gently but firmly, to pack up that which she planned to redistribute to four other locations—two condos (one in Florida), a storage facility, and someplace else—and here it was Monday, the morning before Hurricane Sandy was to come roaring ashore, and she was still very much in residence, willfully deaf to my bosses pleas to remove herself and her belongings from the premises.

I’d spent Sunday night over at my bosses, sleeping in her daughter’s room, watching my Korean dramas on my laptop after I’d finished tagging and pricing the jewelry that we’d been given for the sale.  There was a good bit of it—though only a couple of fine pieces—highly saleable costume for the most part.  We’d packed up all of our stuff from the sale we’d finished off Massachusetts Avenue that evening, stuffing the last bits into the corporate minivan around 7 in a cold drizzle.  All the tables were in the car, and the owners of that house, who themselves wouldn’t be leaving for Florida for another ten days, bid us what seemed to be a fond farewell—I shook hands with the husband, and the wife insisted on bussing both my boss and me on the cheek.  Yet once we were home, about 9 PM, my boss came upstairs and plunked herself on her daughter’s bed in a flummoxed state.  She’d just gotten off the phone.  She’d been screamed at by the woman for fifteen minutes—she said she wanted to call the police “on the person who’d done it”, she cried thrice that she felt “raped”, and insisted that she’d never, ever, recommend our company to anyone.  Our egregious fault?  One of my colleagues had used part of a roll of toilet paper squirreled away in the master bedroom.  The upstairs’ bathroom was out of tissue, my colleague needed to use the facilities sometime during Sunday’s hectic sale, and so she’d peeked into the bedroom, spotted the paper, and taken the liberty of using a few squares.  Oh my goodness.  The horror.  The violation of privacy and the right to property.  The sin. The shame.  Mind you, this was the same woman who’d fussed when she’d found out we’d put our lunch in her fridge while we were working.  I’m not saying that she should have fed us peeled grapes and bonbons during the setup and sales process, but denying us basic necessities, like a small space in the refrigerator and toilet paper?  She was wacko.
So, we moved from that one kind of wacko—the woman who wanted to file an official complaint because of toilet tissue theft—to another.  We had four days to set up the mansion sale.  Four days to organize, tag and price the contents of a space which usually would have occupied the better part of a month.  We worked all day Monday, flat out until the storm shut off the power at 9 PM and we had to find our way to the lower level by means of cell phone screen glimmer and a couple of scrounged flashlights.  The owner and her geriatric significant other retired to the one bed upstairs, and my boss and colleague and the housemaid and I made shift in the basement.  There’s nothing like unfolding a duvet in the mostly-dark to make oneself a pallet on the floor and spotting an enormous spider nestled in its folds.  Fortunately I managed to stun it with my shoe and my Yugoslavian coworker finished it off.  We raided the bar thereafter, and Masha settled in to tell the story of how she and an American friend visiting eastern Europe during the early 1970s withstood an attempted sexual assault by a drunken Austrian ambassador and his wife.  Masha is a pistol, and she talks like a machine gun, with expletives stuttering out like high-caliber rounds.  She reminds me a lot of my sister, actually. Bitter, hilarious, intelligent, attractive, and occasionally profoundly sentimental, she can charm and verbally eviscerate by turns.  She’s both inspiring and also thoroughly exhausting to be around.

Maybe it was the drink, perhaps it was the long day, maybe it was Masha’s frenetic energy, but I didn’t have any difficulty falling asleep, nor with going back to sleep after the burglar alarm went off several times in the wee hours, while the storm continued to rage outdoors. 
The electricity was out all day Tuesday. We worked until we could no longer see our scissors and painter’s tape, then went back to my bosses house to price another basketful of jewelry.  Our departure was delayed half an hour by the fact that the corporate minivan’s alternator had gone out, and we had to abandon it overnight in the driveway.  There were trees and power lines down all over, but we didn’t have a clue about the true severity of the storm in other regions until we turned on the TV that night.  New Jersey and New York traumatized.  I repented of my remarks about the weather people exaggerating the potential of the storm—for once, they got their forecasts right.

Thank God the power was back on at the house when we returned Wednesday morning.  We worked flat out, finally pushing the reluctant owner out the door at 1:30 AM Friday morning.  She kept demanding we put entirely unreasonable prices on her possessions ($12,000 for a secretary that an antique expert we called in said was at best worth $1,800), and taking item after item out of the sale and packing it away.  Back at my bosses house, I typed and printed out signs until 4 AM, and then I was up again at 7:15 and back at the sale house by 8, putting them up.  There were already customers waiting. 
The sale itself was huge.  I prayed a lot for peace and patience, both within me and among the customers.  Thank God He saw us through—at one point, my boss chased down a customer who shoved his way past her elderly husband at the door, and successfully demanded he leave immediately—I was in the jewelry area, but I could hear the shouting from the front hall.  By Sunday evening we were all wrung out, though plenty remained in the house.  It was cleaned out Monday by a platoon of moving men.  Cumulatively, I worked 75 hours on that one house.  In a week.  And my boss was there every moment I was. 

“I think,” my bosses hospital chaplain husband remarked as we were breaking down and packing up the jewelry area Monday morning, “That she [the owner, who collected her Lewis Comfort Tiffany candlestick from my display, planning to pack it, along with three whole truckloads of additional items for shipment to storage] suffers from mammonitis.”  “I think it’s also called ‘affluenza’,” I responded.  “No,” he said.  “You can recover from affluenza.  Mammonitis kills you.”  I conclude that it’s like secondhand smoke—even association with someone who indulges in it can sicken.