Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Life in Trash bags

A couple of days ago I noticed workmen taking out bags of trash from one of the apartments that is off the lobby of our building. I thought they might be remodeling it or something.

As I came and went (which if often because the dogs are always pining for a bathroom break), I noticed that the contents of the bags seemed to be mostly books.

A few days later, as I passed through the basement of the building (where the trash receptacles and laundry are) I was stunned to find an enormous pile of clear trash bags full of books. Off to one side there were cartons upon cartons of vinyl records.

I peered through the translucent bags to see what kinds of books there were. I noticed books on language, Judaism, old volumes of encyclopedias, and biographies (mostly of Nazi leaders). I picked up a brand new elementary Japanese language book that was on the surface of the pile. Deeper in the pile I saw a stack of photographs. There was also a box with junk that included an really old Atari computer (it probably had something like 4K memory).

Here before me was someone's life...all in trash bags. Had the person run off? Died? Whatever happened, this was what was left behind.

Being in the middle of my own crazy and hectic week, I held the sense of sadness and melancholy for a few seconds and then let it drift away.

Tonight, when I was taking out the trash, I came across the pile still living in the basement. Rummaging through it were three twenty-somethings. I asked them if they had found something good. It seems like there were quite a few science-fiction classics. I told them that I had some extra boxes if they needed them. They took me up on the offer. When I returned a fourth individual was poking through the vinyl albums amazed at what was there.

Intrigued, I joined the scavenge telling myself that I would get one good book. I came back up with about eight. I picked up some old H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks. Not high quality, but I knew that Sara like HPL. We already had those stories in an anthology, though. I did get a nice hardback H.G. Wells from 1923 or so and a strange book on Magic and Witchcraft iconography.
The other people were certainly taking away more, including many first edition Phillip Dick, Isaac Asimov, and other sci-fi writers.

I asked my fellow rummagers if they knew what had happened. The story they had heard was that the person was carted off to a nursing home and no one wanted to deal with his things. So there they were, hanging out in the basement until tomorrow when they will be taken off to some landfill. From this person's archaeological record, he was some kind of computer scientist interested in space, science-fiction, magic, and languages. He was probably Jewish - maybe a Holocaust survivor or related to one. He enjoyed music and strategy games.

The whole experience has made me think of all the people we pass everyday. As an anthropologist I know each has a story, but this is the first time I have tried to get to know a stranger through their own collection of material culture. Put together a snapshot of a life through the windows of transparent trash bags.

I wonder what story my possessions will say of me someday...

Monday, December 18, 2006


I am tired. It has been a long semester after a particularly difficult move after a particularly stressful spring.

Finals are this week. I have lots of grading to look forward to, but I can also count on a little break. A brief moment to catch my breath and find my equilibrium.

A nice surprise made its way to Sara and me recently: a small token of friendship from Sherri that was very much appreciated. It is nice to know that kindness is still floating out there.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Crisis of a Dying Computer

My DVD Player/CD-Writer on my computer died yesterday. I came into my office and it was making some strange noise and the light was flashing in an unsettling pattern.

After shutting down the computer and rebooting, the light changed to red and the computer no longer believes that the drive exists.

I also had a CD-ROM drive that died on me a couple of months ago. The computer still talks to it, but the drive refuses to open up to anyone else.

The consequences of these events are dire. I can no longer put music on my computer from CDs.

The recent failure is just a sign of the fragile health of my computer. I have had this computer for four years now and it is starting to have random fits (old things and people tend to do that). I got it to write my dissertation on (the laptop I had - which is not in the loving care of Scott - was too unreliable to entrust the massive undertaking of a dissertation and the keyboard was just too small for writing 300+ pages). I knew the day was coming when I needed to start considering replacing it.

I think that day is upon us.

What to do? Among my options:
  • Get a cheap external hard drive and hope that the computer continues to clunk along for a little longer.
  • Get a cheap PC to replace the computer for now.
  • Invest in a better PC that will carry me through the next couple of years.
  • Switch to a Mac - also a bigger investment.
This is a decision that will have to wait until the semester is over and I can ponder it with a better functioning mind. I will entertain suggestions/advice, though...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Irony of Freedom

It is sad day when students are more free to voice their dissent in Iran than in the US (and the leadership is more willing to accept it).

Do I think there is more freedom in Iran than in the US?


But I do think that the current administration's policy of segregating (at best) and silencing (at worst) dissent is a very slippery slope that we are on.

And despite the last election, we need to remain vigilant.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Moving On

Sometimes it seems like tyrants live forever. Fortunately one has come to pass. Augusto Pinochet has joined the Chileans who died from torture and executions under his watch in whatever awaits us beyond this earthly existance.

I had an uncle when I was very young, about three or four, who was from Chile. I don't remember much about him except that he treated my aunt poorly, he played the accordion, and he used to talk about Pinochet. I do remember asking my parents who this Pinochet was.

This is how I learned the meaning of the words dictatorship, coup, torture, and persecution.
Even my father who is rather conservative, did not have nice things to say about this Pinochet guy. I also thought it was silly for a leader to have a name that was so close to Pinocchio's.

It is nice to see that Chile has moved forward, being the first Latin American country to elect a woman president on her own merit.

And could someone tell me why the Texas flag looks so much like the Chilean flag?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

At Work and Being Bad

Thanks to Sherri I am procrastinating and not grading. Mindless fun is just what I need right now...

Monday, December 04, 2006


These days it seems like I am working at at least three jobs (but only really getting paid for one).

1. Teaching: This is what I would consider my day to day job. I have to prepare lectures and activities for my classes, grade, and meet with students regarding the course.

2. Research: Implicit with working at an institution of higher learning, one has to do research and prove the value of said research through scholarly channels; that is, one has to publish or at the very least present the findings.

3. My third job, however, I think comes more out of working at a public institution rather than a private one. Recently I feel like I am also a social worker. I seem to be encountering students with all sorts of problems and issues. Depression is the most common and prevailing issue. Some of them recognize it, while others try to hide it. As someone who suffers from this illness, I can usually recognize it whether hidden or not. Other issues some of my students face: domestic abuse, unwanted pregancies, dyslexia, and deaths of loved ones.

I have mixed feelings about this third job I have been thrust into. These students need help, but often do not know where to get it or are unable to get it. It seems that other faculty seem unsympathetic to their situation (but I am just acertaining that from the way they react to my willingness to listen and help). I let them know that I am not trained to help them with their specific issues, but I can lend an ear and try to help them find help.

Trying to help students with these issues is not in my job description, but I realize that often they are overwhelmed by these circumstances and they are not going to be successful with their education as a result of it. And making sure they are successful IS part of my job description. So what to do? The stream of students coming into my office has grown because as the semester comes to an end, the stress grows, the deadlines loom, and the students crack. The meetings and converstations are draining and time consuming, yet I feel I need to do what I can for them.

Why am I facing this new dimension of the education profession now? It must have something to do with the fact that I am dealing with a broader socio-economic spectrum of students. There are more students that do not have the resources to find and get the assistance that they need. In addition they might even have family situations where there is a lack of understanding of the issues that they face. Moreover, the school itself has less resources allocated to address the issues these students face.

For now I will continue to do what I can. Listen, give advice when asked for, and help find more competent forms of help when needed.

And there are some small rewards: the smile on a student's face who has gotten back on track and is doing well in class when a few weeks before she had been distraught and in tears in my office.

That said, I need a break soon. Just a few more weeks.