Friday, December 27, 2013

First-World Domestic Likes and Dislikes

There are two things that I don’t like about my new digs.  The lesser of the minor: the kitchen cabinets don’t go all the way to the ceiling, but stop about 10 inches below.  Who ever thought this was a good idea?  It’s a safe haven for dust bunnies, a total waste of useful space.  This is not my mom’s fault (she believes in comprehensive cabinetry) but the contractors who built the place.  The major of the minor: I actually have enough stuff to fill up the whole house.  No kidding.  I cannot believe I shoehorned all this crap into a tiny apartment.  I am up to my eyeballs in art supplies (many of which I plan to list on eBay once I get in-house internet access), and blessed with books.  Most of the latter are irreplaceable, and not the sorts of things one can get on Kindle.  And yes, I do read them.  It is a pleasure being able to have a lot of them out on shelves again, though one of my large bookcases committed suicide on the trip to Georgia (my mother hopefully suggested gluing it back together, but closer inspection has proven it unglueable).  I put all my children’s books in their own bookcase, and have enjoyed flipping through them—proving that yes, I do retain the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional maturity of a six-year-old.

My favorite things about my new house (it is so plush! My brother observed, “This is the most well-appointed house for any unemployed person on the planet.”): being able to sit on the bathroom counters with my feet in the sink (the bliss of observing one’s facial pores close-up, and the horror of scrutinizing the grey in one’s hair and one’s unfeminine profusion of chin-whiskers from just an inch away), and having space for all my art supplies (be they ever so numerous).  I am five minutes from four grocery stores, five consignment shops (including one exclusively for jewelry) and a Post Office with a 24-hour automatic postal center.  And, also, just five minutes from a 24-hour gym with wi-fi. 

Now to find a job.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sherlocked By Migraine, Mugglywumpiness

The BBC gods executed revenge in my migraine-addled mind last night—600 mg of ibuprofen hadn’t touched the pain, and I was curled up and crying next to the toilet, whereinto I had spit up half my just-consumed dinner, nausea being a chief accompaniment to my cerebral discomfort—and so I popped 1000mg of acetaminophen and crawled miserably into bed, praying that the Almighty would make the skull-splitting agony subside and let me sleep.  I slept, and slept well (14 hours) but had a long and peculiar dream about Benedict Cumberbatch (or someone strongly resembling him) rescuing a small child who was floating down a river.  It was very odd.  This is no doubt a subconscious rebuke for my having insulted the actor's physique in front of other nerd-girls (if it is appropriate for an almost 40-year-old woman to include herself in that category—my trivia team members are considerably younger and thus qualify).  Several weeks ago, at what turned out to be my last night at trivia, we were exulting between rounds over the return of Sherlock (and talking about the Peter Jackson Hobbit trilogy, wherein Cumberbatch voices two characters and Martin Freeman, aka Dr. Watson, plays the title role of Bilbo Baggins), and one of my friends remarked, apropos of nothing, that Benedict Cumberbatch “Has the body of Michelangelo’s David”. Which I thought was insane, and hilarious, and retorted vigorously: “What are you talking about?! He’s so thin his chest is practically concave!”  The interchange highly amused our fellow fangirls, who convulsed over their beer and french-fries.  My teammates from That’s What She Said/No Man’s Cupcake—all three were a delight to see every week, and between Caroline’s hysterical stories about her old colleagues at the Russian radio station, to Jamie’s travels to ComiCon and elsewhere, and Tessa’s tales of food and family, there was always a drama unfolding, or a creative element achieved, and I will miss them sorely.  I saw Catching Fire with Tessa last Tuesday night, and attended Jamie’s and Caroline’s annual Christmas Ornament Exchange on Wednesday—where I met a girl who’s learning Mandarin, because her boyfriend is Chinese.  She and Caroline had become friends while both were over in the former CIS as Peace Corps volunteers.

Though laid low by the severe migraine, I haven’t been struck to a great extent by the realization that I’m here in Augusta for the duration, not just for Christmas.  I left town when many others of my friends were leaving town to visit family, so the fact that I’m not returning to DC once the holiday is over isn’t really “real” to me yet.  My brother told me, “You’re too damn old for dental school” when I mentioned it, and I hate realizing that I’m already middle-aged, and what I wanted to be when I grew up may be what I am, which is nothing, really.  I’m highly educated, curious about international cultures, better informed about history than most of my contemporaries, and yet I am unemployed, and frustrated with my lot.  My new house is so spacious and comfortable it is actually frightening, because I worry I’ll never, ever be able to pay for it, and apart from wanting to be a recognized and published author, I haven’t any inspiring dreams.  I want to think BIG, rather than settling for sorting through minutiae, which is my fundamental distraction in life.  But right now, the great-grandson of last night’s migraine is shifting in my brain, shoving its beak and claws into the pockets in my cranium, and I feel helpless.  And hungry—all I’ve had today (it’s almost 4:30) is a banana, but I fear that the minute I eat I’ll become nauseated again.  Blast!  A pox upon migraines and all their brethren.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Finally Down South

Traffic wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated on Friday: it only took me twelve hours to drive from Rockville, MD, to Augusta, GA, with three brief stops in Alexandria, VA, to drop off and pick up dribs and drabs that I’d either forgotten or had procrastinated about until the last minute.  Then, I and the very last bits of my worldly goods were on their way south.

I arrived home at 4 AM, having listened to all of Argo, by Antonio Mendez and a facilitator, a book which lacked all the sizzle of the movie adaptation.  This was not just due to the fact that the screenwriter juiced up the tension by creating more suspense-inducing scenarios at the airport and on the streets than actually happened, but to the issue that is often endemic in co-written memoirs: the voice of the author is reduced to a featureless monotone, and what was a great tale into a bland porridge of irrelevant details and senseless omissions.  Perhaps this is because Mendez, as a former CIA employee, had to have his work vetted for content by an agency committee for fear something vital would be let slip—could he or they have chosen more bland pseudonyms for people he couldn’t name?  You’d think he’d have used the opportunity to be a little amusing!-- but I would hesitate to blame that group, no matter how bureaucratic, for the overall narcotic effect.  A much better true story of sneaking out of enemy territory is Escape from Camp 14, wherein its journalist author discusses his interactions with, and misgivings about, his subject, how their relationship developed over time, and how he was able to validate details and use external information to flesh out the story.  It’s really disappointing that agency-awarded Mendez, as a self-described artist and painter, would have stuck to the ignominious role of the dull, grey-man good guy, when bureaucratic discontents like Gus Avrakatos make for much more fascinating and compelling reading. 

I did note that one fellow mentioned in Argo, a senior CIA member (the director of Near-Eastern Affairs, I think was his formal title), was one and the same as mentioned in Charlie Wilson’s War, and so had his finger in the pies of responding to the Iranian hostage crisis and that of the response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  It would be fascinating to read the old KGB files on these people, mainly men, who were pushing levers and pulling strings in a series of efforts to manipulate events so many thousands of miles away.  I wonder, too, to what degree the FSB is “outsourcing” its R&D nowadays, a habit that Mendez asserts was always a strength of our foreign intelligence service, and a weakness of the Soviet system’s.  Without any information on the subject, I can only assume that given natural inertia and the nature of institutional finances, the Russians are likely doing more with contractors, and we are doing much less.

Today was Mums’ and John’s first anniversary.  I went over for pizza and cookies this evening on my way to Walmart to return some bookcase pins that were too large.  I didn’t make it to church this morning—my excuse was that I’d lost my cell phone charger and the battery was kaput, or nearly so, and I hadn’t set my alarm.  So, before the Christian shoppers rush after services and lunch, I hit the Walmart for shelf pins and charge cords—the pins didn’t work, but thank God the cords did. 

Today we’ve been overlain by a thick blanket of tropical rain clouds, that have cast thick darkness over the daylight hours and appeared smoky, resting just above the pine trees at night.  Every few hours torrential rain has poured down, taking a few degrees of steaming temperature with it, so tonight I may not have to turn on the air conditioning, which was a necessity for me to sleep last night.  I may have difficulty over the short term adjusting to the temperature difference between here and DC, though I realize this heat is unusual in Georgia in December, too.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole

I'd never been much of an O'Toole fancier until I watched and heard his elegant honorary Oscar acceptance speech at the 2003 Academy Awards. I was so enchanted by its graceful, eloquent brevity that I immediately went on ABEbooks and purchased both volumes of Loitering With Intent, his autobiography.  What a wonderful tale-teller he was! And what a miracle he lived as long as he did, given his astounding promiscuity, and mind-blowing alcohol and cigarette consumption!  He was a stunningly beautiful youth--a "flower boy" before the garden of these gods became crowded with surgically-enhanced lovelies--who aged with gut-wrenching rapidity due to his profligate lifestyle. But his acting ability remained exceptionally vital, even as his external appearance verged on cadaverous.

My two favorite O'Toole films are on either end of his vast thematic and stylistic range: the lighthearted modern romantic comedy (with the ever-chic Audrey Hepburn) How to Steal a Million, and that searing historical portrait of a severely dysfunctional late medieval family (with grande dame Katherine Hepburn) The Lion in Winter.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Headaches, Errands

I hate it when the hamster in my head gets bored on its wheel and decides to amuse itself by gnawing on the wiring behind one of my eyeballs.  Or so it feels when I am developing a migraine.  I went over to Susan and Steven’s this afternoon at 2:45 to help with Christmas party setup, and lasted about 20 minutes before I felt the unmistakable twinges of a major headache developing on the right side of my head.  So I took two extra-strength Tylenol and retreated to my old room in the basement, where I slept for three hours in total darkness.  And as a result was no use whatever to party setup (I attempted to redeem myself with cleanup assistance afterwards), but at least my headache was gone in time for the festivities.

Traffic in DC over the last three days has just about given me an ulcer, if not a headache.  It took me more than an hour to go less than four miles on the beltway yesterday, and Wednesday morning’s trip to Falls Church for my final teameet with Rachel was a 75-minute crawl in gridlock.  This morning, I drove to Georgetown to drop off the check for the History Honor Society fundraiser proceeds, and pick up a load of books from my German professor friend (titles like “Was Hitler Darwinian?” promise to be hot sellers…), and I sat amongst fellow frustrated midday drivers in a construction-addled mess below the university on Canal Road for 25 minutes, a stretch that should have taken between three and five minutes to negotiate.  I will most certainly not miss spending so much time in the car when I move back to Georgia—I’ve burnt half a tank of gas in the last two days!

I don’t think I’d ever been so grateful for nasty weather as I was on Sunday.  It was the ending day of the huge Potomac sale, and we’d been slammed Friday (100 people—we counted—waiting in line in the rain at 10 AM) and astoundingly busy Saturday.  Sunday promised to be a nightmare, as the heathen hoards rushed in, tossing things hither and thither in their mad scramble for deals.  But we had snow and freezing rain from the morning.  Still, people came out in droves; we could only imagine how bad the crush of customers would have been had the weather not been awful!  It was a lucrative sale, just an overwhelming one. 

This week, I’ve been mainly running errands.  I dropped off a consignment of jewelry at the store where I’ve been selling my wares for years in Alexandria, I picked up an item from my postbox that I’d bought online (one of the few things among all that I’ve purchased over the years that proved on receipt to be totally unlike its description—I contacted the seller and told them I was MOST unhappy and that I was going to return it, so they’d better give me a full refund!), I took the leftover Polish pottery from the Georgetown sale back to my friend in Manassas (who had her baby girl on Tuesday), along with her money from the event.  I’ve gotten the oil changed in my mother’s car (the detailing will have to wait until I get back to GA—the salt on the roads here makes any washing instantly obsolete), and a bunch of other smaller tasks done, including one trip to the gym for a long-needed workout and my first visits to a Tuesday Morning and to a Habitat for Humanity thrift store, both of which were successful (lamp parts!).

Tomorrow, Amy and Larry and little Faith leave for a week at Disney World, and I’ll cat-sit for their remaining quintet of middle-aged felines.  One week--and many activities and miles--to go before I leave DC for good.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Sky Daddy & The World Of Tomorrow (& Yesterday)

This week is the Georgetown show that Anita and I have been conducting for what seems like forever, but what is in fact almost a decade.  It so happens that it is also the final prep/sale week for our largest estate sale of the year, one that has attracted a flood of emails and telephone calls from people who have seen pictures of the Bigelow Lucite tables, Venetian glass mirrors, David Yurman jewelry, and so forth, asking for further details and even begging to buy things before the sale opens (which we don't do for advertised items--everyone has to come to the sale to get that which is pictured online..."bait and switch" is not our style). 

So...I am pulled by two loyalties, and the last three days I've left the house at 7:30 AM and spent until 7:30 PM dedicated to the Georgetown show, setting up, selling, talking and then taking down and schlepping everything back to my mother's car (which Anita is THRILLED to have this year in place of my Honda, because we can pack so much more into it!), and two nights running now I've gone to Maryland to help with pricing and table setup for the estate sale afterwards.  I didn't get home until 1 AM last night, and then I had to get up again at 6:55.  I am really tired!  But this is the last push to make much coin before the holidays and my relocation to Georgia, so I'm dealing.  And learning much about 19th century German composer Richard Wagner during my commutes (I borrowed 24 lecture CDs on Wagner from Merry more than two years ago, and determined I'd better listen to them before they had to be returned next week!).

I have had a couple of volunteers from the History Honor Society to assist me with unpacking yesterday and the day before, and one was a young man who aspires to be an archeologist.  He is also one of the tentative recipients of financial aid from the sale, as he is one of four students planning to present papers at the national Phi Alpha Theta conference in Albuquerque.  He went on a dig this past summer in the country of Georgia, shoveling and brushing down through Byzantine and Greek layers of a burial site until finally arriving at the pre-human-civilization level.   I told him about my interest in Pirogov, and expressed in my outline of his life that I had been mildly disappointed that given his great achievements in humanitarian care, the man hadn't apparently been motivated by any religious bent.

To which my young assistant said, "Oh, that's more admirable, because he didn't believe some 'sky daddy' was going to reward him after death for doing good."  Not being quick-witted, I just laughed in response, and said that was an interesting perspective.  Further conversation revealed that this guy, who is doing a post-baccalaureate year at Georgetown, taking ancient Greek and re-taking Latin, is presenting a paper talking about the evolution of the Mediterranean monastic view of black Africans into symbols of lust and evil.  That certain monastics developed such ideas is a matter of historical record, but the relish with which this post-Bac student enlarged upon the topic, and his aforementioned derisive reference to belief in a "sky daddy" suggested to me that he had a peculiar antipathy for religious faith in general and Christianity in particular.  And his first remark about the admirable nature of non-religiously-motivated positive humanism had made me wonder: is it?  From an impartial perspective, is it better to be spurred to good deeds one behalf of your fellow man without belief in an eternal reward?

Upon reflection, I consider this may be an inaccurate construct of human motivations and behavior from the outset.  First, is there any selfless self-sacrifice on strangers' behalf, any genuine charity, apart from a culture once or presently influenced by a religion (any) that teaches such deeds as pleasing to God or gods?  Thus, would it not follow that demonstrating love for one's fellow man without adhering to the particular dominant religion, but recognizing the positive nature of its inculcated virtues is to act well, but derivatively?  In other words, amoral positive humanism is only possible within the context of a society which has as its basis a promise of supernatural reward for doing good.  But given this context, is it still true that people who don't believe in any eternal benefit earned in caring for other people, who are yet exceptionally dedicated to bettering the conditions of others, are thus disinterested purists who have somehow morally surpassed those benighted souls who have a religious motivation for their actions? 

Hmm, perhaps practical examples should be used to test this hypothesis.  At least in the Western context, all the individual secular philanthropists I can think of have--whether consciously or not--sought to establish their names in the popular consciousness, if not in stone, to perpetuate a legacy.  And what is memory but the human approximation of eternal life?  Fame, notoriety, and popularity are a means by which people try to keep themselves from dying, even in defiance of corporal mortality.  Carnegie built libraries, Duke and Thomas Jefferson planned universities, Bill and Melinda Gates and other billionaires give millions of dollars to world charities.  All of these things did and can accomplish tremendous good, and these acts are justly remembered as admirable.  Even within religious contexts, individuals and families often give money with the understanding that their names will be associated with the gift.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but anonymous benefactors are certainly the exception.

As to groups, Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders physicians do phenomenal work, with an established secular philosophy, but it was born out of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition of care for the sick, and I wonder if (even prior to its recognition with the Nobel Peace Prize) it is not association with the organization itself, and its international acceptance, like the Red Cross/Red Crescent (look at the name!), as a public good, that gives its non-religious members a sense of ongoing purpose, that even if they themselves vanish, the organization will continue to make its positive impact felt from generation to generation?

And of course, from a holistic perspective, the alleged superiority of the secular philanthropist over the religious can only be entertained if, in fact, the divinity does not exist, and the fact that God's existence or non-existence is in no way affected by the presence or absence of belief of human beings in that fact is a totally foreign concept to most people these days.  For instance, at the Georgetown show, Anita had given me a stack of copper cuff bracelets to sell, and a woman came by and asked if they were good for the bones.  I answered, somewhat impoliticly, "I suppose they are, if you believe in that kind of hooey."  She responded, "Well, I don't want to buy one from someone who thinks it's nonsense," and walked away (BTW, she came back this afternoon and bought a couple).  All I could think of was: 1) I really put my foot in it, retail-wise, and 2) if it actually works, why does what I think about it matter? 

The sale has not been as dazzlingly lucrative as in previous years, partly, I suspect, due to the fact that our faculty sponsor decided not to send out an announcement on the campus faculty listserv because she had received what amounted to hate mail from some people about last year's announcement--something to the effect that the subject was not "academic" (despite the clear information that the sale directly benefits students).  I told her, "Just goes to show there are stinkers in every bunch."  The undergraduate volunteers had also fallen down on the job as far as putting up the posters she'd printed off.  Our faculty adviser is a sweetheart, and she'd done her best to exhort the members and spread the word herself, but one person can only accomplish so much.

Anita and I plan to have celebratory sushi tonight, while we're running the numbers.  Tomorrow and Sunday I'll be behind another jewelry counter, beating off the savage hordes at the estate sale.  My art dealer boss invited me to his annual Hanukkah party Saturday night, and there's a gift exchange, so I've got to come up with something clever or interesting, if not both, for the event.