Saturday, August 27, 2011

At the Antiques Roadshow in Pittsburgh

When we heard that PBS' Antiques Roadshow would be taping a series of episodes in Pittsburgh this summer, we knew we had to enter the lottery for tickets.

Who knew it was so hard to get them?  Tom and I entered, as did my mom, sister, and brother.  On the day the lottery winners were announced, I checked the website and discovered I didn't get them.  Via e-mail, my sister and brother confirmed that they hadn't, either.  Then we heard from Mom:  she was a winner!  So she and her chosen guest would each be allowed to take two items for appraisal.

There was some dithering about who would get to go with her.  Among the siblings, we decided that Tom was actually probably the best choice, since he's the real antiques guy in the family.  And he had a couple of things he'd been wanting to find out more about:  a Dürer print that had belonged to his great-aunt Esther Mary, and a pewter tea caddy engraved the the date 1774 that he'd picked up at an auction in May.

Tom was also the person who suggested what my mom might take--an "archive," of sorts, of the couple of years she spent working as a hostess on the C&O Railroad after she graduated from college, between 1948 and 1950.  She still had her uniform (well, actually, it's been on display at the C&O Railroad Museum in Hinton, WV for many years), and she also had a set of publicity photos that were taken on a promotional run to the Railroad Fair in Chicago in 1948, showing her in the uniform.  She also had one of the original coloring books that the hostesses handed out to kids on the train, and a couple of other documents.

As her second item, she took along two Victorian scrapbooks that my sister found in the attic of a house she lived in about thirty years ago in Columbus.  Apparently, the original owners of the house had been a pair of sisters who were Ziegfeld girls in the early 20th century.

Waiting in the entry hall for the general appraisal.
The guy in front of us brought this giant Buddha statue.

The Roadshow organizers have the whole process down to a science, and the whole thing ran as smooth as silk.  The tickets specified an arrival time (10:00, in our case), and these were staggered every hour so that there wasn't a crush of people all at once.

After waiting in the initial line, we were assigned to the general appraisal tables, where people looked at what we'd brought and gave us tickets for specific areas (in Mom's case, "Rugs & Textiles" for the C&O uniform and "Collectibles" for the scrapbooks; in my case, "Prints and Posters" for the Dürer and "Silver" for the tea caddy).

Then it was into the convention hall, where volunteers escorted us to our first lines and explained the process:  you get in the line for your ticketed area, and then wait when you get to the front of the line to have your ticket punched and to be taken to your appraisal table.

The setup was much like a pinwheel:  the appraisal tables were inside a sort of tent in the center of the hall, and the lines kind of snaked out of gaps in the tent.  What this meant was that you really couldn't see any of the set or the "celebrity" appraisers until you got inside the middle, although there was a smaller taping setup outside the pinwheel, too.  (See a photo on the show's website here for a visual.)

We were first escorted to the Textiles line to have mom's uniform appraised.  It seemed an odd choice, since she also had photos and other C&O memorabilia that accompanied it, and sure enough, the appraiser, Steven Porterfield, admired the suit and fawned over the photos but ultimately filled out a little referral card and sent us over to Collectibles.  (The beauty of the referral system is that you don't have to leave the inner sanctum and get back in line, but can go straight to the appraisal table.)

The guy there, Philip Weiss, was more interested in the uniform as a piece of railroadiana (yes, that's the real term), and said it'd be worth a lot more if it had a patch or something else that marked it more clearly as a C&O item.  Unfortunately, when the C&O cut the hostesses' jobs, mom was required to turn in her pins and patches...which she dutifully did, though after the appraisal she said she wished she hadn't been so ethical!  Weiss said the collection was probably worth somewhere in the $300 range to a railroad buff, but added that it was probably of more value as a piece of family history.

Publicity shot of Mom in her hostess garb, taken en route to the 1948 Railroad Fair in Chicago

Baby getting tired of posing; Mom looking nervous (as she said, "I didn't know from babies then!")

And honestly, that's what I found most astonishing about the whole experience--how gracious the appraisers were, even when they were telling you that your stuff was worthless, and even after they'd been being gracious for hours.  I have a feeling that's one of the requirements for being a successful Roadshow appraiser.  Another must be having a nose for a good narrative, because (as anyone who watches the show regularly knows), the thrill is as much about the story behind the items as it is about the items themselves.

For example, when I went through the silver line to get the tea caddy appraised, the appraiser, Reid Dunavant, asked how I'd come by it.  As I explained that Tom had bought it at an auction just a couple months ago, I felt like a total poser:  the tea caddy itself might be interesting enough, but my story was a real dog.  I mean, who cares about an item someone bought recently with the explicit idea that it might be worth something?

(Unless, of course, it's an 18th-century chair that you picked up for two bucks at a yard sale en route to the show, as in one infamous segment.)

The Dürer print, on the other hand, did have a good story:  purchased by Tom's great-aunt Esther Mary on a trip through Europe en route to Turkey in the 1930s, it spent a good decade or two stored in Tom's grandfather's barn until his parents found it and hung it on the wall.

A similar print had been appraised on the show several years ago for $40,000.  Since it's hard for a non-expert to tell whether it's an early printing or a modern one, it was the #1 item Tom wanted to get more information about.  And what more perfect marriage of great backstory and value if the piece turned out to be worth something?

Well, to make a long line story short, it wasn't.  When I got up to the appraisal table, I told the story to Nicholas Lowry*--known to viewers for his wild suits and cowboy boots--and he said, quite gallantly, "Ah.  One of my favorite images."

Then he whipped out his jeweler's loupe and looked at I-don't-know-what details in the print and told me, with great gentleness, "Well, it's not an original print.  But it's still a lovely decorative piece...worth fifteen, twenty dollars."

Yes, that's right:  I stood in line for two hours to find out that mouse-eaten thing was worth one Andrew Jackson at best.

Still, there were pluses to spending that much time in line.  I got to see a lot of other people's stuff, and hear more about how the show is made:  for example, they planned to shoot about 55 segments over the course of the day, around 50 of which will be aired on the three episodes from Pittsburgh next season.

And once inside the appraisal "big top," I got to see several segments being taped, or getting set up to tape.  A woman in line told me that she tried to talk to a guy who was seated on a makeshift set waiting to shoot the official TV appraisal of his item, and he waved her off, saying that he'd been forbidden to talk to anyone while he waited.  So mysterious!

Bottom line:  no one's quitting their day job, and no one's going to be on TV.  But there was a glimmer of fame to come out of it:  a photo of mom showed up in the "behind-the-scenes" slideshow for the Pittsburgh taping!

I'm not sure I'd go again, but if I did (and if you do), here are some tips:
  • Don't take a print, poster, or painting unless you're ready for a long, long wait.  Bring a paperback or your Kindle if you're not the chatty type (no cell phones/texting are allowed in the appraisal hall).
  • The shortest lines seemed to be for textiles, silver, Asian arts, and antiquities...but that might have just been when we were there.
  • This should go without saying, but wear comfortable shoes.  I did see a few insane women in heels, presumably in anticipation of being on TV.
  • Take snacks!  There was a concessions booth in the entry hall, but my understanding was that if you went back out there, you wouldn't be allowed back into the appraisal hall.  The woman in front of me in the prints and posters line hadn't even had breakfast and was about to pass out from hunger when the woman in front of her whipped a selection of stuff out of her purse:  a Hershey bar, a bag of Cheetos, and a package of cookies.  The hungry woman referred to her as "my angel" for the rest of our slow trip up the line.
Can't wait to see the actual shows when the new season begins.

*Interesting coincidences:  Lowry is a 1990 Cornell alum (Tom graduated in 1986), and has worked as an English teacher. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The bats of August

It began as a slight fluttering at the edges of my consciousness.  At 3 a.m., I was in a deep sleep and the sound filtered in vaguely at best.  The blinds rattling in the breeze?  A mourning dove settling on the windowsill?

Then the pieces fell together and I sat bolt upright in bed.  "BAT!"

The sound alone was enough for me to jump up and head for the door.  En route, all I saw was a shadow circling around the ceiling.

From my refuge in the hallway, I could hear Tom crashing around and saying, periodically, "Bat.  Come on, bat" in a flat tone of voice.  He couldn't seem to persuade it to leave, but eventually it lit on the curtains and he was able to whack it out the window.

This morning, we remarked about how it seemed to be around the same time of year when we last had bats coming into the house--and in fact, the last time we blogged about this was on August 20, 2009.  I think we may have had some last August, too.

So, we're looking for some answers:  why do bats only seem to want to get inside in the late summer?  And is it possible to keep the windows open at night and keep the bats out?  A friend suggested that those noise-emitting devices that keep mice away work for bats, too, so we'd be interested to know if anyone's had luck with that, or any other technique. 

In the meantime, we'll consider training them, as Neil Gaiman apparently does:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Book Writing

All summer long, I've had this bit of proverbial wisdom swirling around in my head: "It's better to break the spine of a man than of a book." Thanks to Google, I'm guessing that I heard Dan Simmons say it at some point when I went to one of his many readings in Colorado, as Google, surprisingly, does not turn it up as a proverb at all.

But anyway, as I've been toiling away at writing my own book this summer (progress report: two chapters of four written; one tough one and one easy one still to go, with a December deadline--uh oh), I've found myself quoting Simmons in my head as I've been writing in books as well as writing on them.

I was always raised not to write in books, and it's taken a long time to get to the point where I feel comfortable writing in books that I own: but the copy of the Norton anthology that I teach from now has writing in several colors of ink as well as pencil, and the notes I make are very useful indeed for finding my way through the dense pages of Norton prose, especially. So I thought I'd blog a little about books that are written in.

First, I want to note that the practice of writing in books is as old as books themselves, and medievalists often treasure the writing in old books as one of the clearest kinds of signs left by early readers. The image at the top of this post, from a 1559 printed book, shows how delightful early readers' comments can sometimes be: the small picture shows a manicule (a 'little hand') pointing out a key passage alongside a highly traditional "Nota bene" cipher: both forms of notation have their roots firmly in the middle ages. The second page from the same book (at the right) shows that this annotator is also interested in adding purley decorative touches his book: I especially like the little face inside the capital "O" half-way down the page (you'll probably need to click on the image to see it).

In recent years, I've marked up some of my own books almost to the same degree as this fellow: below is a page showing part of one of the Chronicle poems from my edition of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: these notes surely have significance only for me, and I despair of any future scholar being able to make heads or tails of my notes. So far, I can still follow them though, at least for the time being.
To my own surprise, this summer, I've even found myself on occasion writing in a library book (a line I once thought I would never, ever cross), and even more shockingly in a book owned by a friend. I try to keep marks in these kinds of books as minimal as possible: a tiny star in the margin, a single vertical line alongside a key passage. But I couldn't keep myself from writing "Hah!" in the margin of this passage from Derrida's Dissemination:

Finally, as a last example, I bought the following book when we were on vacation in Virginia last month: we stopped overnight in Charlottesville, and made out way to a couple of used bookstores. Another Colorado author, John Dunning, has a bookseller character say, at one point, "No one should ever write in a book except the author." But in this book, the author has written in it and the booksellers did as well, and I'm glad they did: I'd have no idea at all who the "Donald" of the inscription is, though I would have guessed that the "John" was indeed John C. Pope, author of The Rhythm of Beowulf.

I couldn't read the bookseller's note, though, but I asked at the desk when I bought the book. The old guy behind the desk pulled out a magnifying glass and took a look at the pencilled note. "E. D. Hirsch" he said. I'll never erase that bookseller's note: it's as important, in its own way, as Pope's notes to Hirsch.

Pope's Rhythm of Beowulf is a book I've wanted to have a copy of for a long time: it's a key book in my field that I might need to refer to once in a while. But Pope's note to Hirsch (and the bookseller's note that identifies it) makes this book interesting in a different kind of way: a record of the reading of one of the most controversial advocates of reading and education in our time. I don't have many illusions that the marks I put into my books (or others' books) will ever be equally significant: but neither do I feel like I need to feel guilty about them.

Write away, I say.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

This one time, at band camp...

The Bexley High School Marching Band, Fall 1979
I opened the door to the screen porch one morning last week and one thought struck me:  band camp.

At 6:30 a.m., it was already 74 degrees and humid, and I could hear crickets chirping contentedly.  It was the crickets, really, that put me over the edge:  I'd forgotten that they were about the only other creatures up and making music so early on an August morning.

Unlike the flute player from American Pie, however, I have very few happy memories of band camp.  She obviously went to one of these new-fangled "camps" they have at colleges, where you stay in a dorm, with air conditioning and television.

No, the Bexley High School band camp, at least my freshman year, was about as far at the opposite end of that spectrum as possible:  latrines, cold-water-only showers in a cement-block building with no roof, and a hog farm across the road from the practice field, so that when we weren't playing, you could hear the sound of squealing pigs in the distance.  All very Lord of the Flies-esque.

I will say that we got a new band director that year who promptly moved the camp to another location, with far less rustic cabins that had indoor plumbing and hot water.  Let me tell you, that made our sophomore year at camp seem like a week at the spa, comparatively.

Despite the material improvements, however, the basic routine was still the same:  up at 6 for breakfast at 7 to be out on the field by 7:30.  Several hours of marching followed by lunch, more marching, section practice, maybe an hour or two off, then dinner, more marching, and whatever "entertainment" was scheduled for the evening.

What really strikes me now is that pretty much all the stuff that constituted "entertainment" would probably fit the legal definition of hazing.  The first night of our freshman year we were all, of course, "initiated," which meant performing some kind of humiliating task at the whims of upperclassmen.  I somehow managed to fly under the radar and must've been let off easy, since I don't remember (or have blocked out) what I had to do.  But my friends Christina and Kristin were given the charming task of cleaning the floor of the dining hall with sanitary pads. 

Thursday night, every year, was invariably "kangaroo court" night, where the rising seniors called out everyone else on whatever indiscretions they'd committed during the week:  being too mouthy, being too funny, not being funny enough, you name it.

At the camp before my junior year, my friend Jay was "initiated," since somehow he'd managed to miss band camp the first two years of high school and was attending for the first time.  He was slathered in shaving cream, and I remember having to lead him to the showers to rinse it all off because he couldn't see.  I also have a vivid memory from that year's kangaroo court of another guy in my class, a drummer, being "sentenced" to stand in a trash barrel full of slop--all the food scraps and leftovers from the previous three days.

I quit band at the end of my junior year, and missed the last year of band camp.  Crazy, right?  Because of course, your last year is when you finally get to be the abuser rather than the abused.

I'd like to say I quit on moral principle, that I didn't want to participate in such a system anymore.  But the truth was, I wanted to sing in the show choir the next year, and my senior-year schedule was too full for band.

Living only a block away from Morgantown High School, we're regularly treated to the marching band practicing its parade formation up and down our street.  And I have to say, despite my less-than-stellar memories of band camp, my memories of marching band itself are sweet enough that I still get a thrill when I hear the shrill, short blasts of a whistle that indicate the musicians are about to play. 

And even 25+ years later, not having to go to band camp makes August mornings like this one--when I can sit on my screen porch with a cup of coffee, listen to the crickets, and know that I can retreat from the heat and humidity whenever I choose--still feel like a luxury.

MHS band on Simpson Street, Fall 2010.  "Watch your files," indeed!  Those lines are pretty sloppy.