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Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Flurry and Hiatus
Things are back to normal -- sort of -- for the time being. I have a strong feeling that the next days, weeks, months are going to go through multiple cycles of normality and fresh realization of what has happened. It's rather like the fires themselves; they flare up and move fast and scare you into shocked silence, then they die down, and you go back to what you were doing. Then the embers rekindle, and back it comes. Then they die down. Then the mudslides will come. Then the grass will grow again. And on and on.
When I saw them last, my friends were getting a handle on the situation and beginning to make at least short-term plans for getting their lives back together. The good news is that most of their animals and a few belongings did survive the inferno. The bad news is that virtually everything else was destroyed. They are taking it one day at a time, understandably.
My own life is back to its usual paths, too, albeit with an occasional hitch in its gait. Work was bad today; the air quality inside was quite poor and the one fan and one filter were inadequate. My eyes are still achy and my chest still feels tight. I can only imagine what it was like the previous day (they were closed Monday); they were only 5-10 miles from one of the fires. Ironically, the air quality outside was much better today; there was even some patches of blue sky instead of the endless eerie yellow pall that made one feel like one was inside a bad sci-fi movie.
Other news -- minor in light of the greater events, but annoying to me, so I'm mentioning it here -- I've now been rejected from two insurance companies. Apparently my iritis makes me a "bad risk," meaning the only policies they're willing to offer are far more expensive than my current $334 a month. This is not good. I'm going even more broke than I already am dealing with my existing COBRA payments. This is what I get for being an honest person, I guess -- it's easy to toss out an application that is honest about past problems while it might be harder to notice problems with a dishonest one. (Not that I'm thinking of lying -- even by omission -- on the next application. But it's a cruel thing to realize.)
No wonder people are so paranoid about the implications of genetic testing for disease!
Just letting you know that I'm probably not going to be blogging for a while due to the
horrible fires in southern California; we're being told not to use the phones unless we have to,
and my connection is dial-up.
I also don't have the time or energy right now -- some very good friends of mine (virtually
family) barely escaped with their lives Saturday night. Their homes have been completely
destroyed and those of us in the area who know them are busy trying to get them things like
clothes, food, etc.
If you want to help other people who are in a similar situation, but who may not have the same
resources in terms of friends, I strongly recommend going to the Red Cross and making a
donation. Their URL is http://www.sdarc.org/ Thanks.
I'm too tired and ear-achy to write something really coherent, so here's a few things I've noticed or wondered about during the last few days:
Should I be pleased or worried that I have now become so familiar with the filing system that I can, more often than not, locate the correct place for a file within one or two places on the first try? (To fully appreciate this, realize that the system is not well indexed, that many sections have gaps of up to 3 digits' worth, and that the labels for the individual files are not visible when they are in the drawers.)
The back room smells of stale sweat. Given that at least half of the people working here smoke, this is not a good thing! (I find it hard enough just squeezing past people in the narrow hallways; I don't mind smokers, or even cigarette smoke that much, but smoker BO is nauseating.)
On a related note: can anyone recommend a good cuticle cream? The action of repeatedly plunging my fingers in between closely-packed files is wreaking havoc on my fingers. Cream that smells good -- I like rose, lavender, sandalwood, orange and neroli scents (and not fruity so much) -- gets bonus points.
Chalk up one more person I disillusioned with the knowledge that this lowly temp has not only a master's but a doctorate. I'm more-or-less used to the concept, but others keep being either startled or grimly satisfied with yet another sign that the economy is poor. Heh -- nice to be a datum in others' schemata, isn't it?
Pizza tastes much better when you are tired beyond belief and can barely pick up the phone to place the order. It also makes a good lunch in the break room the next day.
If I were sufficiently motivated to start my own business, here is one possibility: an efficiency consultant.
My thought, based on how my temp jobs have been going, is that a temp -- especially one with strong skills in analysis, observation, training and communication -- would be an ideal resource to consult if you were concerned about inefficiencies in your procedures, worker morale, etc. The consultant comes in, works just as a temp would for a few days, a week, a month (whatever is needed to gain a full understanding of regular procedure). Then she writes up an evaluation of the existing procedures and offers recommendations for improved function. An additional service might be implementing the new and improved procedure and educating the workers on how it works (though this could be dicey, if they felt betrayed by her spying on them while under the guise of an innocuous temp). The business could be called something like "Temp's Eye View Consulting" ("Temp Eye for the Corporate Guy" of course came to mind at once and was dismissed just as fast!).
Now, I know that efficiency experts are nothing new, nor consultants. But having the consult actually DO the job being evaluated would, I suspect, provide a level of insight mere observation would not offer. Plus, the hiring company would get some files filed and memos typed!
Don't forget -- all ideas on this site are copyrighted... *smile*
I started my new temp job today, and it is easy to see why one of the previous temps quit. It is very tiring on the lower back! (After I eat dinner I plan to lie on my back in Savasana for a while to uncrimp it.)
Beyond that, it is relatively low-key -- most of the employees wear jeans and t-shirts -- and not conceptually difficult. Basically, you sort files into different categories, organize them within categories by account number and then file them.
Practically speaking, it offered a fine example of things that desperately need improving but which aren't because there is no time to do so without shutting down the whole system. The file cabinets are old and erratic. They are poorly labeled on the outside, necessitating repeated peeking to see if the drawer is one you need to open or not. The hanging file folders are inconsistently labeled; some sections are very well flagged while others require a lot of digging around to find the right section. The files themselves are badly and inconsistently labeled, requiring extra time to find the account number. Moreover, large sections of the main files are missing at any given moment in order for the data entry people to work with them; while there is a daily list of who has what, I quickly discovered that it is not entirely accurate. Even when it is, having a file that is "out" means hunting down the person's cubicle (there is a map for that, at least) and doing your filing while trying not to get in their way -- awkward to say the least.
Oh, and did I mention that we're also supposed to time how long it takes to do each stage and record the number of files processed at each stage? (Needless to say, most people are stunningly casual about this.) Ironically, the idea is to enable the supervisor to improve efficiency!
So, all around, it was an experience in navigating chaos that I lack the authority -- not the ability nor the will -- to make more efficient. By the end of the day I was getting rather zen about it -- watch the chaos and don't think too much about it.
Gaaaah. I hate, hate, hate trying to fill out health insurance application forms! It doesn't matter whether they're on paper or online; they are just horrible. I spent most of today wrestling with one on-line form only to be told at the end that some number field was wrong -- and when I checked it, there was nothing wrong with it, except that the computer thinks so. Feh!
Of course, the larger frustration behind this is having to even apply for health insurance. I did send off an application about a month ago for a new policy, but it was denied -- and of course you have to write them and wait a month before anything resembling an explanation is forthcoming -- and now I have to say I was denied once on all subsequent applications.
This said, not applying is not an option. I am still covered with COBRA from my last employer, but the monthly premium is equivalent of a week's salary -- when I am even working! It is just insane. (And of course the temp agency only offers insurance to those who manage 30 consecutive working days -- a nice catch-22 right there.)
AAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHH! *sound of ripping hair and stomping feet*
In other news... I do at least have a paying job for the next few weeks. Filing. At $10 an hour, before taxes of course. Could be worse, I suppose, but I'm going to miss my afternoon volunteer work. *sniff*
Finally, after weeks of thinking I should but not acting, I practiced yoga this afternoon. It was not the best practice -- I was very stiff and the room was too warm (I'm not a Bikramite!) and my mat smelled stale -- but I did it, and that is the most important thing.
I did learn some interesting things about myself while practicing. One of my long-standing favorite poses is Vrksasana or Tree Pose. You have probably seen people doing this pose. It's the one where you stand on one leg while the other knee is bent and that foot rests on the standing thigh; at the same time the hands touch palm-to-palm above your head. (If you wish to do this pose, be firm but relaxed with the standing leg -- feel as if it is a root reaching deep into the ground below you. Then raise up through your spine, feeling your torso lift. Extend your arms, but do not raise your shoulders. Make your face calm and serene. Choose a dhristi or gazing point and look calmly at it. If you fall out of balance, go with it and smile. Be a calm, flexible tree.)
Usually I am very happy to practice Tree. I like the feeling of calm that comes over me and the quiet joy of looking peacefully at one place while balancing in a beautiful shape. Not today. My thoughts were battering about in my brain -- very random thoughts, too -- and I was not calm and I kept wobbling in a way I usually do not.
Clearly, I feel out of balance on some deep level and Tree revealed this to me.
On the other hand, I found myself greatly soothed by a pose that I usually rush through: Salabhasana or Locust Pose. Here you lie on your stomach and raise your upper chest while lifting your legs and extending your arms backward. (If you wish to try it, be sure that you keep your stomach flat against the floor and your lower back calm. Lie with your arms at your sides, palms up. Lift only the front of your torso at first, with chin slightly tucked. Move as if a string was attached to the top of your sternum and was being pulled gently up and to the front of you. (If you feel the bend, it should be in the area of your shoulder blades, not your lower back.) Raise up on one breath, then lower slowly on the exhale. Repeat several times slowly before trying it with raised legs. When you raise your legs, point your toes and extend gently backwards. Again, the lower back should feel calm, not tight and stressed. Do this for a few breaths, raising torso and legs on the inhale, then lowering on the exhale. Now add the arms, which have been lying along your sides. Raise them gently on the inhale as you raise your torso as before and feel them extend back and slightly down. On the exhale, lower both arms and torso. You may wish to try raising only the torso and the arms before trying it with all limbs raised at once. Repeat as often as feels comfortable. Afterwards, you may wish to rest in Child Pose: kneel on the ground, curl over your knees into a restful fetal shape and let your arms either rest by your side or in front of you.)
Gently raising and lowering myself with my breath was surprisingly soothing and engrossing, and I felt much calmer after doing Locust.
Even Savasana or Corpse Pose was a surprise today. (This is the one where you lie on your back to rest and reintegrate yourself at the end of class.) There are always some small adjustments that I feel compelled to make as I lie there, but it is typically a calming experience. So I was very startled when a sudden itch prompted me to sit up abruptly and scratch my leg. Some corpse!
All in all, this practice was not quite what I expected, but that is, I believe, a good thing. If nothing else, it was a reminder not to take myself -- or my assumptions -- for granted. Things might -- and probably will -- change.
Last night I dreamed that I found a job much better than the ones my temp agency's been finding me -- though it was still clerical (I was to be one of several personal assistants for a wealthy guy adding to his private staff). My agent was even there in his glamorous fifties-luxe living room as his house manager made me an amazing offer the agency could never hope to top.
That, obviously, is a pretty easy dream to read. I don't know what to make of the next part though, which involved rambling through an urban park setting like the one near where I live in the company of an elderly band of bagpipers playing the blues.
In other news... I have told my advisor that the likelihood of my needing a reference letter for the academic job search is growing increasingly small. I just can't work up the enthusiasm needed to visit all the websites of the posting institutions, write tailored cover letters, etc.
Where did that enthusiasm go? Increasingly, it seems to be heading into museum work. Now, to find a way to get over that "needs 3-5 years of experience in museum work" hurdle (and to feed myself while doing so).
One thing I'm discovering is how little people who've never temped know about the experience.
My friends and family are continually and repeatedly surprised when I tell them that, no, I'm no longer doing Job X. Job X only was for four days and ended several weeks ago. Moreover, I had a Job Y and a Job Z, and they're over too. And I don't know if there's another job on the horizon any time soon, nor how long it will last nor how much it will pay. This makes no sense to them.
Of course, I'm not sure if it makes sense to me, either.
I was looking over my resume, which was a somewhat cheering experience -- I forget often how spiffy my work skills really are.
Unfortunately, I think that the next time I send out a resume I'm going to severely prune it first. I'll probably leave off the doctorate, for one thing (maybe even the M.A.), and find some way to account for my time that is not lying but which doesn't scream "snotty academic" either. Then I'll hack away everything that doesn't relate to the job description, even though it might make me more marketable in the long run. The goal: to look like an entry-level plain Jane with potential but no big flaring talent. Then, maybe, I'll at least get a chance to prove myself.
It's really farkin' stoopid, innit? To do what women have been told for years -- don't look smart, honey, you'll never get a man -- and what I did far too much of in high school -- playing dumb so other kids would like me.
One thing about doing a task with great intensity over several hours and days is that it begins to affect the way you see the world -- or at least this happens to me. As I mentioned earlier, I've been busy doing accession descriptions and condition reports for the local historical society. As a result, my "eye" for scratches, dings, corrosion and the like has been considerably sharpened. This is good as far as the work goes, but it can be a bit disconcerting when I leave the dim archival caverns and step back out into the outer world.
I find myself looking at the steering wheel of my car and think, "Shows slight wear along outer wheel surfaces. Plastic covering begrimed, with heavier accretions along areas of greater use." Or I look down at my shoes and "Leather surface worn, particularly around the edges and front of shoe. Nicks and gouges along front of toe box. Leather shows distortion along top edge of toe box, probably due to internal pressure by toes. Slight staining at edges of sole." And so on. It's somewhat strange seeing the world in terms of the effects of time and wear upon it.
Does this awareness make me more of an historian? Or a better yogini? Both perspectives are deeply concerned with the passage of time and the ephemeral quality of human creations. It is, however, mildly unsettling seeing these forces at work on objects in use as well as those that have fallen into disuse.
A side question which has long bothered me: why the heck am I "an" historian? I mean, we're not Cockneys or such. Can I get away with calling myself "a" historian or will the grammar police chase after me?
I'm crunching sandal-clad through dry leaves, live oak leaves, their sharp spines prickly through my socks. Scattered on top of them are acorns. Some oaks in southern California produce acorns that are short and fat, with a little point on the end that makes them perfect for spinning as ersatz tops. These acorns are long and thin, most straight but a few curving like the talon of a bird. They are bright green and smooth when they first hit the ground; later they weather to a soft brown and then to black. This is if the insects and birds do not get to them first. Some have been pecked and chewed before they even land; others sport a tiny hole or two that says a worm is quietly devouring the meat from the inside out. Peel the stiff skin from an acorn and the meat is revealed -- crumbly and brown if old, streaked with lines of black if infested and smooth and yellow if fresh. A thin fuzzy layer, like the inner skin of a hard-boiled egg, can be removed in turn. The meat then gleams, golden with promise and calories.
The native peoples of this region -- Cahuilla and Kumeyaay and Sycuan and others -- migrated seasonally to harvest the acorns when they ripened. Each tribal group gravitated to its favored trees and each family within in the group to theirs. Acorns were pounded and dried into meal, baked into mush, boiled into porridge after the bitter tanins were leached out with boiling water. Some elders today speak wistfully of the sweet blandness of these foods, comforting in the way a favorite childhood dessert or meal would be.
Food aside, it is easy to see why these people gathered acorns. There is something deeply satisfying and compelling -- perhaps even primal -- about collecting a hatful, a jarful, a basketful of these smooth green promises that lie scattered so abundantly among the leaves. I feel it as I move among the sunlight and shadows, bent at the waist, acorn-laden hat swinging. My friends feel it as they drop them into jars to take home and plant or marvel at the smooth beauty of the meat inside. Their small daughter feels it too, though she thinks it only a game to gather up acorns in a frisbee. As she tips them back and forth in the shallow container, it is easy to envision another child, with a shallow woven basket, doing the same.
It's been confirmed -- I'm even more of an archive rat than I'd thought. I've been spending part of my unemployed time volunteering at one of the local museums, partly to have something to fill my time, partly because I want to gain some experience in this area, and increasingly because it is just fun. (Yay. Or -- at last!)
Now, I should explain what I think is fun, because only then will the title of this post make sense. I have been spending my days with a collection of interesting little objects that were recently taken off exhibit. (I'm going to be coy and not tell you exactly what the objects are -- I don't want to make the game of "find the Rana" too easy.) These things are of all ages and of varying degrees of physical complexity. They're made of combinations of materials and by many different manufacturers. So what I am doing with these objects is filling out a sheet for each one in which I describe both the object and its condition, inside and out, in as much detail as I can manage. I also include a sketch of each object, noting key features and problem areas.
I am _loving_ this. It's like a bunch of puzzles and art curios and nitpicking detail work and descriptive writing all in one.
Too bad the market for curators is even worse than that for historians; this has the feeling of a true vocation in a way teaching never was and archival research on its best days was and is.
Recently, several people have privately expressed concern to me that they'd been "too cheerful" in their comments or email to me and that this was making me feel bad.
I want to reassure you all that this is not the case, or at least not in a way that means everyone should stop telling me things will get better.
When I'm in one of my black moods, I'll read everything through that murky filter of angry hopeless depression -- BUT expressions of positive optimism will not provoke such a mood in and of themselves. Moreover, although while I'm brooding I'll think they're irrelevant to me, I WILL appreciate them when I mellow back out. In other words -- your comments don't make me feel bad; I make myself feel bad. Sometimes I use others' words to beat myself up with, but, believe me, I have an abundance of handmade weapons lying about in my very own brain that are much easier to use.
My snarkiness and bile are reserved for those who refuse to accept that anyone could be depressed in the first place and should just snap out of it. This doesn't describe anyone who's written directly to me.
Besides, even in my foulest mood it's good for me to remember that the world doesn't revolve around me -- just because I'm being a bitter pill doesn't mean that all happy activities in the world have to stop.
(This is another reason I was considering stopping the blog -- I myself hate reading my bitter angry words afterwards, yet during my bitchiness my own optimistic posts nauseate me.)
There have been many things contributing to my bleak, bitter outlook on life and blogging this week. My apartment is an utter chaotic mess and I can't find the energy (or space) to fix it. I was working that tedious, dull job and getting little to no sleep as a result of the early morning schedule. I wasn't even eating very well. I also received several emails from more together folks (none of the regular readers here, as best I can tell) claiming that if I was Truly Called and Willing to Sacrifice to the Cause I could indeed research and publish on little time, scarcer money and scant sleep. No, I can't. So I guess I'm not Truly Called -- go lump it.
But the worst part was (and to a degree remains) that my whole value system is being upended and tossed into the recycle bin. One of the central tenets of my life before this has been that money is useful, but it isn't everything. It is not the sin qua non, it is not the reason to live, it is not the measure of trees and squirrels and human beings, it is not a yardstick for the worth of music and art and simple human feelings.
I was wrong.
When you are poor, it is. I was ready to accept that tedious job simply because it would ensure steady income; I'm only not doing it because they had no more need for the additional help. So already I begin to sacrifice principle for money. I look at my apartment, and I do not think of it unreservedly as "home" because it looks like a money pit. I think about doing something fun with friends and think "How much is this going to cost this time?" A yoga class looks like $13 I don't have. My bike is not something fun or even easy transportation but something requiring $15 I don't have for brakes. My phone is a money maker and a money sink. My food is not nourishment or pleasure but an oft-begrudged demand on my dwindling savings. The mail is not a source of diversion and entertainment but the source of more demands for money I don't have. Even doing things like hiking or knitting or volunteering at the historical society -- supposedly free -- come with thoughts like "Why aren't I doing something that could earn me money?" or "Other people get paid for this; why aren't I?"
Everything is weighed and measured and found wanting. The idea of doing something good simply because it is good is struggling to stay alive, but it is a struggle, ground down by the daily and nightly anxiety of having no resources left. I'm cashing out retirement accounts just to keep a roof over my head and food in my stomach and there is no end of this in sight. The academic job search seems distant and unreal though deadlines are looming. No alternatives are available anywhere that I can see from where I sit.
I used to call myself a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist -- a person who sees a dismal present but has hopes for the future. I'm becoming a full-time pessimist, unable to believe any promises of lights at the ends of tunnels. Either that or there will be lights, but they will be on-coming trains.
There are small sources of joy in my life, like D. and my family and my friends and my volunteer work -- but with these cold eyes veiled with money signs, it's hard not to think that these might be frail reeds on which to hang my hopes. The good side of me knows this is overly cynical, but cynics thrive at three in the morning when all outside is black.
I'm back. Thanks for the support, folks -- it's much appreciated, even though most of the time I read your descriptions of my site and have to wonder, "Who is this paragon?" I must do a better job faking it than I'd thought. But, anyway, I'm back, for now. The next post will help explain some of the cause of my black mood; my slide into bitter cynicism has only been arrested, not reversed, I'm afraid.