Friday, November 22, 2013

Down the memory hole

I was listening to a podcast a few days ago, and the host made mocking mention of central vacuum systems. I don't remember the exact context, but the upshot was that the guests were asked if they lived in an early twentieth-century apartment building that had those outlets in the wall where you hooked up a hose and sucked dirt out of your life.

That's when I experience that sudden frisson of recognition, the kind that happens when a long-forgotten detail of your life swims up out of your memory, and you realize: I lived in a house that had those outlets.

When I was a kid, my family built a house on property we owned about twenty miles out of town. We moved to that house when I was in eighth grade. And that house had a central vacuum system. There were unobtrusive hinged wall plates in each room and along the hallways; you lifted the flap to find a hole. Plug a hose into that hole, attach the hose to a handle and the handle to a carpet sweeping head, and vacuum away. The dirt went into some collection device in the lower level of the house. I have vague memories that it was located in my dad's workshop, which was part of a small garage built to house his tractor, based on times when something that wasn't supposed to be vacuumed was, necessitating some foraging around in the collection bin to retrieve it.

Those wall plates fascinated me. The whole system did, really. Vacuuming was one of the more pleasant chores I was occasionally assigned, because I could use it. Was the suction always on? When you lifted the lid, it didn't seem to resist you, but when you removed the hose and flipped the lid down, it seemed to get sucked into place. Were there switches built into the lid mechanisms somehow that triggered the suction?

And then there were the holes themselves. They were tempting to a curious child in the way all openings to mysterious places seem to be. What would happen if I put a ping-pong ball or a Christmas ornament in there? The hose obscured what would surely be fascinating to witness directly, the sight of an item suddenly being whisked away, popped out of your hands like a message in a pneumatic tube.

I've never encountered another house with one of these systems, but I see online that they're marketed to residential customers. I had no idea until hearing the podcast that they were associated with a certain era of multifamily housing in the minds of some urbanites. I kinda wish my current house had one. Maybe I'd even vacuum once in a while.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Use it up, wear it out

When I step down from administration in a couple of months, I'll be taking a pay cut. That wasn't the hardest part of contemplating the decision, strangely enough. But it's a somewhat unprecedented event in my career. I've actually been very lucky in the past five years; faculty at many institutions lost their jobs or had their pay slashed or benefits cut during the recession, and all that happened to me and my colleagues was no raises. (Which actually dated to years before the recession because of financial mismanagement, so we were used to it.) So facing a future with fewer dollars in the paycheck isn't something I really know how to do.

It's spooked me a little. There's no logical reason for this. We're just a few mortgage payments away from being completely debt-free, and we have plenty of resources to draw upon in case of need. But I'm used to having more than enough, and those resources aren't currently liquid.

So right now I'm holding off on some purchases that, to be frank, would be smarter to make today. Since before we renovated the kitchen, our decades-old washing machine has been steadily deteriorating. Currently the wash selector knob is held together with duct tape, and the push-pull functionality that stops the cycle no longer works. So when it buzzes for an unbalanced load, I can't pull to stop it and rearrange the clothes; I have to turn it past the spin cycle and rearrange while it's filling or draining or whatever, a disconcerting race against time until I can turn it all the way back around to spin. And after the kitchen was finished and we put the dryer back in the laundry room, it's never worked right; the air doesn't seem to blow on most cycles, and I have to put it on high heat to get any drying at all. It takes three or four cycles to get a load of clothes dry. Given that and given the age of the washer, I'm throwing money down the drain every time I use them. But the new washer and dryer I want are expensive, and there's that pay cut looming. I can't afford to keep using these, but it's scary to contemplate the hit on the checking account from a huge purchase, given how slowly that account is recovering from the renovation costs, and how much more slowly it will grow once the new year starts and my paychecks are smaller by almost twenty percent.

If that were all ... but it's not, of course. We know that our wonderful plasma TV is on its last legs. I've needed a new Macbook for some time. Each of those purchases, if we did them right, would be four figures. We could do them cheaper, of course, but I resist that solution. You'd be amazed at how much of my happiness is bound up in things that work right and do what they're supposed to, and how much of my joy is sapped, on a daily basis, by things that don't. If we're going to replace stuff, I want to invest in the good stuff, not the as-good-as-we-can-afford stuff.

So ironically, I keep on making do with stuff that barely works at all. The great, in this case, is the enemy of the good. My comfort level with spending a lot of money has never been high, but I could always talk myself into it when I knew from experience that my account balance would bounce back within a few months, and when I knew what I wanted. Now I have an additional mental barrier: the uncertainty of what it will feel like to have less money coming in. It's not an objectively significant problem, compared to people who have actual financial issues. It's just my personal problem, rooted in my personal emotional history with money. But there it is, nagging at me every time I walk back to the dryer, check to see if the clothes are still damp, and start another cycle.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A city that the damned call home

This year I've cut way back on my conference travel. Ordinarily this time of year I'd be juggling presentations and meetings at the national Honors education meeting, followed closely by the American Academy of Religion. But following my exit from most official posts at these organizations, I'm strangely passive about their yearly demands to gather in vibrant cities at big hotels and attend multiple parties. Back in the distant spring, before I made the decision to step down from administration, my boss included me as co-presenter on a session for this year's National Collegiate Honors Society meeting in New Orleans, so I've known for quite some time I would attend. But I've been otherwise content just to let it happen, and hope someone would tell me where to show up. (That's almost too much to expect, it seems; I somehow got left off the list of recipients when the big conference agenda was shared, so I didn't even know when our group dinner was until my boss happened to mention it earlier that day.)

The lack of business suits my mood -- and the mood of the city. I attend some sessions, do some thinking, grab a couple of hours off site to sample the city's food (from beignets to po'boys to gumbo), and try not to add to the self-important bustle of the conference. I support my colleagues and get a little work done and have the football game playing in my shared hotel room by 8:30 pm. And occasionally I wonder: Do I miss being at the center of the action? Having a bunch of special ribbons on my nametag? (The NCHC is crazy for one-off ribbons; there are at least a dozen that I've seen that only one attendee is entitled to wear.) I note that some of the decisions and work are quite important, not only to the organization and its members, but quite literally in the sphere of life and death. But of course, removed from that context as I am, it is undeniably pleasant to leave the worrying and the detail-obsessions to someone else.

This will be the first time I haven't been at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in many, many years. I believe the last one I missed was probably 1997. I went when my children were babes in arms, I went when I had interviews, I went when I had papers to give, and for the last six years, I went as a member of the board of directors. This year I have no committees to staff and I have no papers to give, so there was no rationale for me to ask for my department's support with travel expenses. I let it go. I'll miss it when my friends post to Facebook or tweet about the meeting, but I doubt I will spend a lot of time feeling left out. I have plenty on my plate.

But I confess that sitting in a business meeting here at NCHC this morning, my mind wandered to the AAR office I told many people I might run for in the future. I thought I might do it sooner rather than later. A year out of the trenches and away from the social whirl feels like a vacation. Two years, a well-earned sabbatical. When it starts getting to be a habit, though, you might start feeling sidelined. Irrelevent. Give me a chance to recuperate a bit longer, and then if you have a committee that needs a member or an office that needs a candidate, call me. I don't want to need that kind of status; I hope I'm beyond ever needing to feel important. And I'm way past wanting to have people pile responsibilities on me just so I can stay at the center of things. But on my own terms? I could see it happening again. And I'm betting it will feel as different as night and day, after having climbed the ladder once and been truly grateful to step off the rungs back to solid ground.