Sunday, February 26, 2006

Worst. Movie. Ever.

Last night with some excitement we went to see the Oscar-nominated live short films, which are only showing in a few cities. Last year we went to a combination of the live and animated short films, and it was great. Very diverse - you never knew what you were going to get from one to the next, like a plate of delightful little mixed hors d'oeuvres.

By contrast, this year's collection of live short films could have been subtitled "Five Short Films About Death." Three of them were about men whose wives die. One of them has an extra guy whose wife dies, along with his baby, just for good measure. That one, an Irish film called Six Shooter, was, bar none, the worst movie I've ever seen in my life. Every moment of it was unpleasant. To make things worse, the theater ran it fifth in the lineup, so it would be the last thing you remember from the evening. And then they forgot about us and left us sitting in total darkness. It was so unpleasant that I had to take a sleeping pill to overcome the memory of it and find the blissful peace of sleep. Seriously, I'm not kidding, it was that awful.

I can't really say more because I'm employing the technique from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to completely erase that time from my brain.

The one film that was not actually about death was about working the night shift at a grocery store, which is probably akin to death. But it featured the sweet-looking young man who played Percy Wood in the Harry Potter movies, and good music, and naked women, and practical jokes played on the sexist boss. That one, and the one about the psychiatrist with six weeks to live, were practically knee-slappers, in relative terms. Why couldn't they have put one of those last? I probably could've managed a chemistry-free night of sleep.

That being said, I still like short film as a genre. But if you're thinking about going to the Oscar-nominated shorts, let me recommend you try the animated films this year.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Where has Flora been?

Yes, I know, it's been a while! I feel very busy for some reason, although again my commitments can't compare with people I know who have children, or are in graduate school, or even, you know, work full time jobs. What can I say.

I had an absolutely wonderful trip to visit my sister last weekend. The high temperature on Saturday was 7 degrees F. We didn't leave the apartment. Thank goodness for Olympics! I also did manage to replace my hat with something fabulously stylish. And on sale!

I have some good stories from private investigator school, but they will probably have to wait for the weekend.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


An email from my dad today made me cackle with laughter. He is following with great interest the research that I'm doing into his father's family up in the arctic north, because for various reasons that side of the family just wasn't discussed much when he was growing up (except for the famous uncle, of course). So he is learning about his history too.

This is all quite fun for me to watch as it evolves, because there’s a whole lot I didn’t know anything about. It sinks in that while my mother was justifiably proud of her side of the record, and not bashful about rehashing it, Dad was exactly what Garrison Keillor means by a Professional Shy Person. As a result we got a lot less info on that side. I feel like Kunta Kinte in a parka!

Now how many people do you know who can work Garrison Keillor, Kunta Kinte and parkas into the same paragrah?

Gaaah! Or, how much do I love my sister?

Tomorrow I leave for Chicago for a weekend visit to my sister. Projected high temperature on Saturday: 25 degrees. Projected low: 5. Single digits. That's FARENHEIT, for our international readers. Really fracking cold.

I lost my winter hat a few weeks ago. I'm headed to the Windy City in 5 degree weather hatless!

Crap. This would be a really good time for my dad's gene pool to kick in, thank you very much.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Obsessions and musings

Lest you think I've forgotten about Julius Rutabega - I have not. I have been researching like crazy, fascinated by not only my family but the whole history that surrounds them. I have been madly checking out books about colonial Ceylon, the Hudson's Bay Company, the Red River settlement and rebellion, life in 18th century England...not to mention doing a great deal of genealogical research.

I have become particularly fascinated by the mixed-race women of fur trade Canada who were among my distant grandmothers. According to books I've read, in the early days of the fur trade, European women were not only absent but banned from much of fur trade territory. So men married Indian women, partly for companionship but also because in Indian culture, marriages were a normal part of forming allegiances. Either party could leave the marriage at any time, so women could just go back to their tribe, without prejudice, with their children, should their European husband die or move on. These women were highly valued for their skills as translators, liaisons, and their ability to provide shoes. The European men simply could not master the art of making moccasins and snowshoes, and for years relied entirely on native women for this task. The official position of the HBC until 1806 was to prohibit local marriages and even the presence of native women in the forts; in their letters back to headquarters, the traders kept trying to explain - You don't understand, we need them to make shoes. Seriously, we totally suck at making the shoes.

The first generation of mixed-race daughters were highly prized as wives, retaining the practical and language skills of their mothers while acquiring some European learning, religion and outlook. Lady Strathcona, for example. Even daughters of low-level company men were sought after by the company's officers as wives.

But then, the first white wives began to arrive, along with clergy. Hysterically small-minded clergy maintained that these wives - some of them the highest-ranking ladies of the forts - were no more than concubines, because the marriages were conducted à la façon du pays rather than in churches (which were of course non-existant at the time). Unlike their mothers, they lacked the independence that came from solid survival skills and tribal ties. Many of these women were suddenly in a precarious position.

Some men took the opportunity to be scoundrels, and deserted their wives, even taking their children back to Britain. Others married their wives in church ceremonies. Still others, though, refused to give in. They said, I have been living with this woman as my wife for 30 years. We have raised numerous children together, and buried and grieved for others. To "marry" her in a church ceremony now would suggest that we weren't married all along, which is insulting to both of us. So - bugger off. Many working-class Bay men were Scottish Presbyterian, a denomination with its own independent streak when it came to marriage, requiring nothing more than two consenting parties and a witness.

I find this dynamic fascinating, for many reasons too long to go into here. Class, race, gender. Decency and selfishness. The missed opportunities of history. I want to reach through the pages of the book and strangle some of these clergymen and company officials, and their self-righteous wives too.

Thanks to the internet, I can see an affidavit in the Canadian National Archives from my earliest mixed-race ancestress, born around 1805, signing on the dotted line with an "X." What was Nancy's world like, this "washerwoman" and self-described "half-breed," daughter of a Scottish father and a Cree mother, baptized and married to a Scotsman in the eyes of the church at windy York Factory in 1828?

Monday, February 13, 2006

The pusher in the lobby

I just discovered that the snack bar downstairs from my office sells rice crispy treats made of Crack-o-Crispies. This is something that really should not have come to my attention.

And I was feeling so proud of myself for skipping the piroshki stand for lunch. I'm hooked on the piroshkis down at the market. One day I ordered a cabbage-and-onion and then a honey poppyseed pastry for dessert. The girl behind the counter beamed at me. "The two items you ordered are the most authentic Russian recipes out of everything we sell!" she said.

I gave her a look back that must have said, well, duh, because she looked even more pleased and asked if I was of Russian descent.

"No, but close enough, " I answered. My people are from a little further west, and their pieroghis are drop-boiled and fried rather than baked, and they're smaller. But it's the same concept. A concept that'll turn me into a plump little baba before my time if I don't apply some restraint.

And now there's the crack in the lobby to contend with too. The world is fraught with peril.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Strange times indeed

Our country's attorney general testified (sort of) on Monday about the administration's warrentless survaillance. His performance was yet another illustration of the Bush administration's stunning disdain for any branch of government other than the executive. More and more the administration is simply claiming the legislature has no power to make laws - not, at least, if the words "war" or "terror" or "protect" can be worked into the subject in any way.

Faced with sharp reminders - from Republicans, no less - that it is Congress that makes the laws, Alberto Gonzales replied in smirking tones, "We'd be happy to listen to any ideas you might have." This is obviously the new approved messaging from the White House, as if the United States Congress were simply a warm-and-fuzzy citizen's advisory committee that has started taking itself too seriously. You're here to give the illusion of public participation. We're sorry, were you under the impression that you had any actual power? Oh dear, how awkward.

I find myself reminded of Nicholas II and Alexandra. Tsar and Tsarina, Emperor and Empress of All the Russias, Divine Autocrats.

Alexandra believed, as monarchs did for many centuries, that her husband ruled by divine right. Suggestions of any obligation to consult or share power with the people were dismissed not out of power-hunger or disdain for the good judgment of common citizens - or at least, not just from that - but from a genuine belief that anything other than absolute power was a violation of God's will.

Despite descending from the British royal family, with its constitution and its rowdy democracy, Alexandra saw "autocrat" as a positive term. Her copious letters and other contemporary accounts are filled with sincere expressions of this belief.* Faced with the demand that the tsar sign "a constitution or some horror like that," a frustrated Alexandra declares "Nicky is an autocrat! How could he share his divine rights with a parliament?"

* See, for example, The Last Empress: The Life & Times of Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina of Russia by Greg King.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

It's all a matter of perspective

Today as I was microwaving my lunch, a colleague - the executive director of another organization in our office suite - started asking me about the life of an interim. I've become a bit of an evangelist on this score, encouraging every exhausted CEO I meet to consider the temp life. "I'm kind of in awe of you," she said. "It's like being the substitute teacher. You have to just walk into chaos and deal with whatever you find. It sounds terrifying to me."

"Oh," I said with surprise, never having thought about it that way. "Actually, I'd say just the opposite. I'm in awe of you. You do your job every day while also having to think about how you're going to pay the bills and keep people employed in, like, 2009. Now that's terrifying."

I told her that I'd finally accepted my true nature, as someone who needs to move on to something new pretty regularly. It's just how I am. I spent most of my high school years studying to become a professional musician - only to change my mind (somewhat traumatically, actually) in my senior year. For a while I was into reading poetry at bedtime every night, a tradition that Enrico rather liked, and he seemed puzzled and a little sad when I just stopped one day. No more poetry, done. Same with the vegetable garden - one year I'm building cold frames and researching heirloom seed varities, the next year the whole place can go to wildflower for all I care. Writing murder mysteries? Did that. On to sweeping historical sagas based on my eccentric family history. My fluent French? Fading fast, but maybe I should learn Arabic!

Sometimes I fear that I'm going to tire of things that are really good for me. Like exercise - I do fall off that wagon regularly - or yoga. Having finally found a church I can groove on, I hope it doesn't prove a fair-weather commitment. I'd better not wake up tomorrow and decide I'm no longer a dog person.

Supposedly, my Myers-Briggs personality type is like this. Hard to be in a relationship with, according to one book on the subject! Independent, inscrutable, slightly eccentric, and prone to obsessiveness about one's interests. I don't see myself that way, but shockingly, when I asked my beloved hubby about it - hey hon, am I stubbornly independent and slightly inscrutable? - he remembered a sudden urgent need to inspect the compost pile, or something.

The best show in town, Part II

My PI classmates have gotten over their previous temerity about blunt questioning of witnesses. Possibly a bit too much so.

"And could you tell me how I might be able to contact this Tom person and his bitch?"

Meanwhile, however, one of our classmates felt moved to berate us all for our naivete about how the "lower classes of people" live and talk. I don't know what he does for a living, but I wanted to smack him. The instructor - who is fabulous, imagine a cross between Judy Dench and Peter Falk playing Det. Colombo - handled it well though. It was true that many of my classmates were not listening, and repeating the same questions over and over; she pointed out that we were missing clear, culturally specific clues that should have directed our questioning. However, she also reminded us, not for the first time, that a private investigator cannot express or even feel the slightest hint of judgment, condescension or mockery toward anyone they speak to. Otherwise - conversation over, they won't tell you a damn thing. And plus - shame on you, for who are you to feel that way about any fellow human being?

This week's homework assignment is to find a specific house (residence of the fictious Tom, and his lady friend), based on the kind of vague directions that people often give. "Go down Yesler a ways from the grocery store, away from town, farther than you'd want to walk, and then there's a community center where we play bingo sometimes - Minor or Myers or something? Go right somewhere about there, and it's a grey house. It's not the white house where Alex's grandfolks live, it's the one next to that."

Seriously. That's my homework. Find this house and come back with the address.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

That wacky Mother Nature

Here in Western Washington (state, that is) we are recovering from a massive wind-and-rain storm, which toppled trees, caused mudslides, closed and damaged bridges, and left a couple hundred thousand people without power. This morning's newspaper, with its dead-on ability to put things in perspective, has whole sections devoted to WHAT TO DO IF YOUR POWER IS STILL OUT WHEN THE SUPERBOWL STARTS. Because the Seattle Seahawks are in the Superbowl, which is this afternoon. Something I absolutely could not make myself care less about even if I tried, but it appears I'm in the minority on that one.

The storm didn't seem all that dramatic to me, although the wind was damn cool yesterday. Just the force of it, seeing the trees sway so violently, hearing the sounds of it. The dogs would go outside and sit with their noses straight up, absorbing the swirling maelstrom of smells, the canine equivalent of dropping acid no doubt.

Meanwhile we also had an earthquake on Thursday - small, but some eople felt it. I was bummed, because I didn't notice it. I like to feel the earthquakes. Don't get me wrong, in no way am I trying to encourage them, but if they happen I like to know about it. There have been four sizeable earthquakes since I moved here 14 years ago. One of them we missed out on because we were driving in a car, and didn't feel the earthquake above the bumping of the car. For the second one, we were in our house, and at first we heard a noise like a really really large truck driving by, and then the house started to shake and sway. For the third, I was at the office, talking to my real estate agent. "Hey," she said suddenly, "We're having an earthquake." I felt nothing, but sure enough - tick, tick, tick - the earthquake vibrated its way to me, slightly further from the epicenter than my realtor. I could hear the air conditioning unit dancing on the roof.

The last one, of course, was the big quake in 2001. Roads were shut for months, building facades collapsed, and yet amazingly, no one was killed. I was at a meeting in the community center of a park, and we all just ran out the door into a big open field, probably the safest place you could be. The earth didn't just shake, it undulated, like being on a boat in rolling waters. A sort of cognitive dissonance sets in, because the sensation is familiar and yet you're not supposed to have it while standing on the ground, the most basic surface there is. It's like asking what exists beyond the universe - your brain can't conceptualize something beyond the most basic foundation of your experience. There's nothing more grounded than the ground, right?

Anyway - the weather people say the sun is supposed to stick around now, GLORY Hallelujah. The entrenched cloud of rain that has been lingering here since mid-December is finally moving on, a guest that has long overstayed its welcome but is deaf to polite hints. Only some 80-MPH winds and a magnitude 3.6 earthquake managed to deliver the message.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

And the Oscar goes to...

This week in PI class we practiced interviewing witnesses. We are working on a real-life case from a few years ago, a drive-by shooting of a house in which no one was killed, but a bullet lodged near a sleeping baby. We are criminal defense investigators, so our client is the accused shooter, Joe, who maintains he didn't do it.

So six students had signed up to act as the various witnesses, including Joe; Mary, the victim whose house was shot; the investigating police officer; and a few alleged eye-witnesses. The rest of us were divided into groups, each with a shot at questioning one of the witnesses. It was, by far, the most entertaining three hours I have ever spent in a classroom.

Let me tell you, these witnesses were fabulous. They were more believable than I could have ever expected, these retirees and soccer moms. The instructor must have prepped them, and it really brought home that in real life, these interviews are rarely linear like in the books and movies. The interview is happening a year after the events in question. People are hostile, or confused, or stoned.

The police detective grunted unhelpfully. The defendant, Joe, interrupted his own defense investigator repeatedly to ask "Got any gum? Got any candy? Got any cigarettes? Got any money?" The victim, Mary, answered nearly every question by shouting "HE TRIED TO KILL MY BABY!"

A streetcorner witness was asked if they had been drinking prior to witnessing the incident, and then, as a follow-up, "How many beers would you say you'd had?"

"What, you mean, like, since morning?"

Eventually, it became clear that our victim, Mary, had a relationship with the officer who had arrested our client. But being the middle-class folk that we are, all of the students were avoiding the uncomfortable questions. Finally the instructor said, "Look, you have learned some things about Mary. You have to ask about them."

One brave guy finally ventured in. "Mary, did you have relations with Detective Dogood?"

To which this perky mom gamely responded, "You mean, did I do him?"

At which point, we all howled with laughter. And decided we should probably close the door lest the Software Project Management students in the next room get the wrong idea.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Better now

I have been focusing on people whose cover letters and resumes elicit giggles and groans, but to be fair, this is a very impressive pile of candidates. Now that I've winnowed the raw pile, I'm charged with reducing my half of the remainder to no more than one dozen good prospects. I'm having a hard time, because there are some damn interesting people here. What do I want to buy with my one-dozen resume slots? So many shiny things to choose from. I'll take the senator of a Latin American country, the career international relief professional, the low-income housing developer, the campaign manager for one of our nation's 12 (record!) women Senators - and throw in a few senior staff from a couple sizeable charitable foundations. Oh, and the guy who's fluent in Spanish and Lithuanian. *

* Specifics camoflaged to protect the innocent.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Sent packing

I have been informed by my co-worker that I need to go home and not evaluate anybody else's resume for today. Apparently I've gone 'round the bend and my judgement is suspect.

This, after she informed me that a candidate had just called to say she was submitting a revised application, and would I please read that one instead of the first one?

At which point my head spun around on my neck and I apparently said something along the lines of "I ALREADY READ HER RESUME. SHE CAN'T MAKE ME READ IT TWICE. NOBODY CAN MAKE ME READ ANY MORE RESUMES THAN I ALREADY HAVE TO." And, I might have been beating my head against the back of the chair.

160 resumes, people. With sentences like "Management is Management, Selling is Selling and Marketing is Marketing!" ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY.

So I've been fed some restorative chocolate and relieved of my duties.

Tips for Jobseekers, Part II

The deadline has passed, praise the goddess. 160 applicants. I'd like to take this opportunity to share the optimal way to submit one's resume electronically:

  • PDF your resume. I know, not eveyone has the software for that, but go to Kinko's and make a PDF of your resume. This ensures that the formatting will hold up (a guarantee that can't be made with Word) and that nobody can change the text.
  • Put your cover letter in the body of the email and attach a single PDF. Do not send the attachments as zipped or secured files that require multiple clicks to open.
  • Clearly name your attachment so that when it's saved, it's recognizable as yours. If you call it "Resume for Do-Good agency.doc," then I have to rename it. Call it "JBrown resume for Do-Good.doc."
  • Send your application from an email address with your name, not somebody else's. If you are Mary Smith and your email address reads and John Brown, it creates confusion when one wants to go back and find your original email.
These things seem to me obvious if you put yourself in the shoes of the resume recipient, but - apparently not. Meanwhile, here are some sentences that should never, ever be used in cover letters. Really.
  • "My skills are vastly underutilized in my current position."
  • "I am willing to relocate to Seattle for this position, but might I suggest Colorado or Albequerque, New Mexico if we should envision future office moves?"
  • "As I am currently living in Malawi and do not have reliable phone or internet access, please direct all responses to my colleague Mr. Jones."
  • And, my personal favorite: "I also have a little thing that I like to call Vision."