Week 23: Alexandria

Locations: Alexandria, VA


Dates: 1/19/97-1/25/97

Sunday I familiarized myself with Barbara's house, listened to music, and spent most of the day updating Web pages (including a new Words & Stuff column). (The new organization of the Wanderjahr pages was actually done early the previous week, but I hadn't had time to upload it 'til now.) Barbara called to check in. I couldn't reach the person who had her cat.

The rest of the week passed in something of a haze. Monday I wrote some, went shopping, watched movies. The cat arrived late Tuesday afternoon, with no explanation of why the person who'd had her had been incommunicado all weekend. Shortly before the cat arrived, I discovered that roughly a 5-foot by 8-foot corner of the rug in my room was sopping wet. A friend of Barbara's, Jack, came over and we worked out that a pipe in the wall must have burst; we opened a faucet to try to keep any further water from coming through, which seems to have worked so far. Jack offered to loan me his wet/dry vacuum to try to pick up some of the water already in the rug, and a big fan to blow across the rug to try to dry it off some. The next afternoon I decided to go pick these items up, only when I went to do so my car wouldn't start. I decided to take Barbara's car, as she'd said I could do, but the key was at Jack and his wife Scotty's place. So Scotty brought the stuff over here. The vacuum definitely helped, but left the rug still pretty wet; I set up the fan and left it running on High and went upstairs to watch a movie. An hour later there was a loud clanking noise from downstairs. I rushed down; the noise was coming from the fan. I turned the fan down to Low, which seemed to quiet it down. I came back down a while later and found the fan completely stopped, and an ominous red glow coming from deep inside it. I yanked the cord and put the fan out on the porch to cool down. Fortunately, no further mishaps transpired on that front. Y'know, entropy suddenly struck Michael's place in Boston when he left me there alone... Maybe I oughtn't let friends let me housesit for them.

Spent various evenings watching movies on video (there are three Blockbuster stores within ten minutes of here; the only one I've been to is happy to accept my card from California). Read a lot of SWAPA, did a fair amount of writing. Set up my printer for the first time in weeks and printed out all 70+ pages of Arthur's & my screenplay (at 1/4 size, double-sided, so 8 pp per sheet of paper). Also printed a story that's been ready to go out for weeks—had forgotten it was done. Since I just got a rejection from Asimov's and therefore they don't have anything of mine right now, I'm sending this new one there. Got a vague start on a rewrite I've been planning for months. Don't know whether anything's arrived for me via papermail since I got here, 'cause Barbara had the mail stopped before she left, and they won't start it again without her explicit say-so...

Thursday, a marvelous warm blue-sky California-sunshine day, I took my car in to have its electrical system fixed. (I'd had AAA come out to jumpstart it the day before.) Turns out the previous owner of the car had wired the electric windows directly to the battery; while this had the cool effect of letting you roll the windows up and down without turning the car on, it also meant the windows drained the battery even when not in use. Apparently. That statement sounded a little weird to me, 'specially since the whole thing worked fine for nearly a year after I bought the car, but the mechanic seemed pretty certain this was the cause of my troubles, and I'd had a long-standing hunch the repeated dead-battery problem had something to do with those after-market electrical systems. The mechanic also fixed the electric door locks, which have been increasingly erratic for the past six-plus months and which recently have taken to automatically unlocking the doors after I lock them. Unclear whether that problem contributed to the battery drainage. Too early to be certain that the repair work actually fixed the dead-battery problem, but I'm optimistic.

While the work was going on, I explored the Old Town region of Alexandria, something I'd been intending to do at some point anyway. Some nice colonial architecture. Spent most of the afternoon in The Torpedo Factory, a converted (you guessed it) torpedo factory which now serves as studio and gallery space for a couple hundred artists. Lots of cool stuff (pottery, scarves & other fabric art, jewelry, paintings, photography, sculpture), all of it significantly more expensive than I'm willing to pay for art at this point. Oh, well; at least I got to look at it. Worth the visit. Also wandered through Olsson's, a bookstore Steph had recommended, and gazed across the Potomac toward DC.

In other news, I finally dug up my cheap-airplane-ticket vouchers and checked the small print, and found that they required two weeks' advance purchase. I was going to use one to fly back to CA for a few days around the end of January, to attend the Moving Worlds conference on VRML, but there were repeated hassles over whether I would be able to get into said conference, even just to sign copies of our book, without paying the $700 entry fee. At any rate, I realized that it was now too late to get cheap airplane tickets (less than two weeks 'til the conference) and decided not to go. Shortly after making that decision, I got email indicating that I could get in to sign books for free after all. On a whim, I checked the Southwest Airlines Web site and found that (a) their one East-coast airport is BWI (Baltimore/Washington, about 20 min. drive from here); and (b) they had a discount fare available, with 7-day advance purchase, that was actually lower than the price on the vouchers I have (which are for another airline). So I called Southwest, and after waiting through an amusing but long series of "please wait" recordings, got through to an agent. Who told me that the fare for the trip I wanted to take was not $368 (discount fare on another airline), not $328 (SWA Website listed fare), but $268 round-trip, coast-to-coast. Furthermore, it still counted as a round trip if I flew from BWI to San Francisco, then returned to BWI from San Jose. Such a deal!

And then I heard the details: in particular, that travel would take 9 to 12 hours in each direction. I realize this is still way quicker than, say, driving, or crossing in a covered wagon, but I've been spoiled by the nonstop flights that do it in five or six... Also, there were no seats available the day I wanted to return, so my return flight would have to move to the next day. I began to wonder if other airlines had somewhat higher low fares available for a little more convenience.

But before I got around to calling, I got email from Josie indicating that she was unlikely to attend Moving Worlds, and I decided to bag the whole idea. Why put myself through a big hassle, not to mention the hassle of getting someone to feed the cat during that time, just for 3-and-a-half days in CA and a single book-signing, especially if neither Josie nor I was terribly enthusiastic about it?

So the current plan is for me to fly out to CA sometime in mid-Feb and spend a couple weeks there, including a couple of days attending VRML '97, the VRML conference in Monterey near the end of February, where Josie and I can do a signing. Sounds much more relaxed. Details still to be arranged.

In other SGI-related news, I finally got through to the Human Resources person I needed to talk to there. Pending official approval, we worked out what I consider the perfect deal: I don't come back 'til August or so, and they don't hold a job open for me; I just apply for whatever job I want when I'm ready to come back, with the understanding that I'm not guaranteed to get it. However, if I do get it, they refrain from re-setting my sabbatical clock. Sounds fine to me; I don't want to be keeping any group from hiring sufficient employees (by having them hold a job for me), but I'm far more likely to return to SGI if it means I get a sabbatical in a year instead of four years.

Another thing that occurred to me this week is that my driver's license expires at the end of March this year. I definitely need to get it renewed when I'm in CA.

Haven't made it into DC yet, or even close. I may do that next week. On the other hand, it's been very relaxing to spend most of my time alone (or with the cat); my reclusive ways are re-asserting themselves. Maybe I'll just sit inside hunched over my computer all week next week.

Movies, Books, etc.

Radioland Murders
Non-stop comedy set in the twilight of radio's golden years; little known (undeservedly so) despite the talent involved. Mary Stuart Masterson is marvelous as always, and while the movie never quite achieves the heights of The Hudsucker Proxy, it comes in a close second in the 1940s-style-comedies-made-today genre. (Note: The director, Mel Smith, also directed The Tall Guy. Now are you convinced you should see this?)
Belle Epoque (dubbed)
Not, as the advertising would have you believe, a sexy farcical romp about a soldier sleeping with four sisters; rather, a semi-absurdist comedy about the transfer of power from the monarchy to the Republic in Spain in 1931, in which sex happens to figure prominently (albeit largely offscreen). Several good moments, an intriguing cross-dressing sequence, but never stopped feeling a little out of kilter, probably partly because I was so unfamiliar with the political situations being satirized.
Woman of the Year
The weakest Hepburn/Tracy comedy I've seen; seems to me the writer and director hadn't quite worked out how Hepburn and Tracy would work together yet (and alas, it just isn't especially funny). Nonetheless, quite good performances, interesting characters, and you can see the beginnings of their chemistry that developed in later films.
There are many fine moments in this classic comedy about the power of media and the eternal battle for ratings at all costs, but I kept wishing it had been made in the '90s instead of the '70s; for one thing, the older male characters wouldn't all look so similar to each other. Even if there were nothing else good in the movie (and there is), it would be worth watching for one priceless sequence in which a couple of black communist radicals argue with network representatives. (Note: My second Ned Beatty movie this week, my third in the past six months. Weird.)
Lake Consequence
Billy Zane demonstrates that he can actually act (something he didn't do in Dead Calm), and the writers demonstrate that a movie whose focus is sex can actually have interesting characters and philosophical questions. I'm still not satisfied with the conclusions drawn, and I felt a little misled by my expectations about what was going on; but what the hell, there's lots of nice scenery along the way.
Bullets Over Broadway
Another Woody Allen film that would've been way better if it didn't seem to be a Woody Allen film. Some lovely turns of plot, reminiscent in some ways of Get Shorty only (alas) far less funny; worth seeing for writers and wannabe writers, and Woody Allen fans (if only to be surprised at how well John Cusack can play a part clearly written to be played by a young Woody Allen), but others might want to give it a miss.
Dead Man Walking
Good performances all around, evenhanded treatment of issues, and some very powerful scenes, but left me a little unsatisfied—maybe just 'cause it didn't affect me quite as strongly as everyone told me it would.
The Phantom
Fun, very pulpy; fortunately more like Rocketeer than like The Shadow, but unfortunately the pacing is off throughout the movie, leaving characters standing around looking confused for seconds on end after every action scene. Had forgotten Billy Zane played the Ghost Who Walks, making this my second Zane movie this week; he makes a pretty good pulp-action star, and Kristy Swanson (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) makes a great pulp heiress/adventuress; both of them have some great interaction with Catherine Zeta Jones as the chief female baddie. (Note: despite my love of The Prisoner, I would never have recognized Patrick McGoohan as Zane's father if I hadn't read the blurb on the box.)
Starts slow, but a major plot twist halfway through makes the entire movie work. Extremely gothic; Olivier is superb, Joan Fontaine less so, Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers pretty damn scary; I can see why this won an Oscar.

(Last updated: 3 February 1997.)

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