Ironic gems of 2014

I’m a big fan of irony, seeing it where many others see truth or silliness. Over the past year, these have been among my favorites (It’s the list-making season, right?):

  • The nice couple I know who now swear by the paleo diet….while also buying a new car
  • The guy in the open air parking lot who reamed out someone smoking a cigarette…while said reamer sat in his single-occupied SUV
  • Getting chastised for being rude….because I no longer gave regular injury updates to the person who greeted each one with “I don’t believe you!”
  • Being told that introverts, of which the speaker identifies as the only one present, can’t cope with nonfamily being present, followed by the assertion that that means me…when I am both an introvert and more closely related than the speaker
  • The innumerable Born Again in-laws posting “Jesus is the reason for the season”…written in glitter on Victorian-era inspired glass ornaments decorating a Druid-inspired tree
  • Authoring a self righteous post….because casual references to these with friends have met with eye rolling

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Growing into Thanksgiving

Americans seem, generally, to have a hard time with official holidays, as though the added pressure of suspending their daily living patterns tips the population into a crowdsourced demand for succor in the form of either consumption or mining family tensions. In my dotage (!), I’m pretty content with playing Thanksgiving as a necessary reminder to pause and simply feel gratitude; no need to go feast it, cheer its football teams, oggle floats and store displays, or make haste to exit the kitchen before the relative who likes to not like me enters it.

For the past 25 years, Thanksgiving has marked a special and grateful moment in my personal life, for it was on this day that I determined myself to be, in fact, pregnant with someone who has turned out to be purty darn wonderful.  But that’s personal, not a blanket experience for society around me, even my own best buddies. They have, each and every one of them, something or another just as personal, and just as gratitude-evoking, from their own years. And some of them are cranky enough to want to bypass that reminder to just pause and remember a moment of lived joy or grace or even bliss.

Which gets to the nub of pausing to feel grateful: I’m not thanking some entity out there or even my various and assorted continent exploiting ancestors, or the ones who, Johnny Come Latelies, managed to find a place of safe harbor. Those happenstances are readily mineable for all their cultural implications of greed, luck, and bad actions taken in the name of a fantasy called by various names for a deity.

And I’m certainly feeling no thanks at all, in a “there but for the grace of luck” way, for being in a safer, healthier place than friends and strangers both who live the fallout of American racism and solipcism and a bunch of other pernicious -isms that barely poke at the surface of what they are up against to simply maintain, let alone enjoy dominant culture’s smugness.

Feeling gratitude, however, is a bit like literacy: it’s something I had to learn and then have to practice, and can continually refine, without need of trappings like a feast or even a collection of others in the room. It’s a day off to remember that possibility exists. And possibility, for me, is the alphabet of the future.

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Border blues

O Canada!

The federal government of our neighbors (okay, neighbours) to the nor

ALA Editions, 2015

ALA Editions, 2015

th has spoken against my wily ways once again. This time, my unexpected–and undreamed–offense falls between the covers of a professional book. I mailed a copy of Libraries and the Affordable Care Act, fully labelled for Customs, and it came bouncing back from the border station near Scarborough, marked inappropriate for import. Okay, smarties, you have government-supported healthcare up there already (although it’s not national healthcare but rather province-by-province assured). Would it really have hurt anyone to be exposed to my admittedly dry prose steering US public library staff through their sophomore efforts with what the US (and 17 states within it) have on offer for those of us who are…well, south of the border?

My intentions in mailing it were pure: no plan to poach either patients or library patrons. I was mailing it to someone–admittedly a former US public librarian–who was beset with curious questions about how this set of 2010-enacted laws work. Heck, if the book’s good enough for library staff here, what could it hurt to share the info–with one person, mailed to a home address–there?

Or maybe I should interpret the official rejection as the book’s very first review. In which case, I am in big do-do beyond my border rep.

It’s almost exactly seven years to the day that my attempt to receive a then-six-year-old computer monitor coming across the border (again, south to north) was met with equal outrage. That time, however, I was on the north side and could be hunted down with the $1000C import fee demanded. Uh, no.

But, Canada, we gotta stop meeting like this: books meant for librarians trying to understand snaggly US insurance laws, antique computer monitors. What’s it gonna be in 2021? Should I start crafting a plan now? I’m thinking origami animals. Who can say no to them?

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Holding pattern(s)

The lacy arms and fingers of newly empty tree branches brushing up along third story bays and wide-eyed attic windows along Boston streetscapes unfailingly warms my eyes. A thousand possible stories lie within those homes, many of them likely beginning with “In late autumn, I looked from my window and….” The houses themselves tumble in crowded rows along short, and usually terrain-hugging curved, streets, not so much dressed for an occassion as remarkably comfortable looking worn robes of clapboard painted a dozen times across parts of two or three centuries, or, alternatively, proud in their pink puddingstone pajamas.  The rise and fall of the land offers the sense of nearly constant activity, blankets shifting and swelling, caught stop action in the morning’s grey light.

Plumbed lines rarely appear–except on brick school buildings, the severity of Bromley Heath Housing, and repurposed cathedrals. Streets rarely pass more than 40 feet without curving, so any intersection where angles approximate 90 degrees are nominated as “squares”: Jackson, Hyde, a restaurant that calls itself Canary.  Walking is so acceptable, and accepted, that a request for directions tends to start with “Walk ova to…” instead of Northern California’s “Drivin’ or walkin’?” or SoCal’s “Go down and get on the 405…”

It’s a good place to roost between one home and the next, soothing in its buzz, undemanding of poses.

The streetscapes do the sitting, the constant readiness for visual capture. They demonstrate endless possibilities for do-overs. Come spring, the bare trees will sprout freshly green again.

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Civic engagement civilly undertaken

The runup to Scotland’s Devolution vote last month included, on this American side of the Pond, an opportunity to witness how civic engagement “over there” could be undertaken with both interest (a voter turnout of about 84%) and social media discussion among those of different stands in which the stand, rather than the shouting power of each discussant, tended to dominate. During the same time period, the case of the peremptory retraction of a signed and sealed tenure position at the University of Illinois-Urbana erupted in what amounted to blazes of emotionally supercharged shouting in the same social media venues. The UIU event, in terms of  no emotional holds barred appeals to human tendencies other than reason, was itself relatively tame when contrasted with daily troll outbursts, putatively addressing a vast swath of concerns, on local news sites all over the US.

Civic engagement, American-style, seems to come in decibels, while, in at least one other place, civil discourse flows from and to the ear and the brain before emerging  as sound walls through the mouth. Civility has that interesting capacity to keep the argument focused on what makes the argument important, while our fractious, post-Puritanical emotional outbursts reduce whatever discourse might have been  to the byproduct of cinders heaped on the quieter, slower speaker.

Yes, post-Puritanical: thererin lies the rub. While we have spent the past 250, 75, 50, and even 10 years outgrowing the rigid demands the Puritan culture winners hardwired into our civic building, we seem to have grown an increasingly untrammeled bulge of emotion-makes-right in the muscle we put to engaging with our civic interests. Instead of building toward community, we seem bent on building away from accepting diversity in member opinion. While anger at injustice can be a good and powerful engine toward unifying for change, we don’t limit ourselves to choosing when to anger for change’s sake and when to blast for the apparent delight of outyelling others. The end result isn’t civic engagement. It’s civil distress.

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Stasis and movement

The time has come to relocate–again. For most of my life, relocation has happened with the frequency Others expect to spend attending levels of scholarship:  high school, university, graduate school–only repeated to that disappearance point on the horizon. Three years at this address, five years at that, four and then less than one at another. Sometimes the moves have been within the municipal limits of one place or another (three addresses across six years in a Boston outskirt community; three across a dozen years in a tiny city demarcating Alameda County, CA’s northern border) and, more often, between coasts (Pittsburgh to LA, for three; followed by LA to Boston; followed by Boston to LA for a year before heading north to Oakland; some years later, across North America to Nova Scotia).

As we all age, those whom I know shed any shyness about interpreting how my moves are either about them or about my personality being deficient. The very longest of time friends don’t–they have become acclimated to where they themselves are geographically and in no doubt that our relationships outlast any address at which I might be located. It’s the ones I think of as “midlife gold” who seem most concerned with identifying me as fools gold: 20 years of friendship and she leaves [again] replacing their expectation that I go along and get along. Nothing I seem able to say brings our viewpoints closer: at our age, you hit the road again and you’re a bounder, not someone to look forward to returning.

And, for me, that is the sadness: the friends who cannot imagine that I’ll return (as I have demonstrated more frequesntly than any of them).  And, given the ages my friends (and I) are getting to see and be,  maybe they know somethng (intuitively) that escapes me: that there won’t be time (for them, for me) to get back.

I’m not them and so I press on: the shore–and whatever it is that promises succor from a friend–behind me only for now, with my every expectation of flipping back, through the waves, and seeing their faces clearly again…in a couple, four years.

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25 On

At a very few minutes past five yesterday afternoon, I was tucked into a window seat at Le Petit Cochon sipping a moderate bordeau and reading an excessively slow novel. This little French cafe-cum-oyster bar is fitted rather like a pocket handkerchief between the entrance to the garage serving the apartment building above it and the blank front of an office on its same street level floor. Twenty-five years ago, the building as a whole was in final design, one of the first of nearly a dozen multistoried, faux-arts and crafts memorials to be clustered downtown.

Twenty-five years ago, at that time and in this town as well as all over the Bay Area, the Loma Prieta Earthquake shook forcefully enough to teach all present of our mortal reality. We all know where we were and what we were doing and I have not yet met anyone who remembers doing anything as seeringly important as witnessing the event itself.

In addition to my own immediate experience of those moments, I remember watching others grapple with immediacy. A coworker rushed into our workplace as we were sorting through the protocols for closing it, perhaps 15 minutes after the quake (The power was out, book stacks had spewed everywhere and there was a general lack of confidence as we saw the amount of cornice work that had dropped from the exterior of the building, framed as that exterior was becoming by clouds of black smoke from the auto tow company fire a block away). She couldn’t locate her high school freshman daughter (This was all so close and yet so far from the era of cell phones and perpetual parental access). They were rejoined within the hour, the daughter is now herself a mother, and I can readily imagine that that toddler’s grandmother still marks the date as containing the longest moments of her life.

Walking home from work–and walking seemed to many of us the only acceptable form of transit as though feeling a bus’s rocking or even a bike’s bump againt the pavement might overstimulate our just-passing cessation of inescapable ground movement–I was stopped by a stranger who screamed in my face that the Bay Bridge had fallen. He wasn’t intending any sort of personal assault on my earspace and probably didn’t even know he was well within the zone our culture dictates as personal space of another. He had simply lost his own boundaries, become detached from the certainty of up, down, beside, and among.

Passing a branch of the same system where I worked, a branch that happens to have been erected on a granite nobble of earth beneath the top soil, I saw that its lights were stil on although we had closed the library system as a whole forty minutes earlier. The granite, we discovered, had so modified the quake hyperlocally that the staff were clueless about why they should be expected to close and get themselves home or off to discover wandering family members. (Again, this happened so close to the borderline of time at which point the when web access would have offered immediate response as to why, but close on the far side of that time border). I explained the situation to the children’s librarian, herself the single mother of a five-year-old. A five-year-old who immediately became, in her mother’s eye, in need of being sought, found, and held. The child was fine, their reunion was doubtlessly fond, and–in a case of irony–the mother, who was abut 35 and appeared to be in perfect health–died suddenly a month or two later, creating an orphan that the earthquake had not.

Twenty-five years is not a long time, and it is a lifetime, and it is both stark and permeable. In our metric-shy country, we accord 25th anniversaries the same reverence that vending machines still accord quarter dollar coins. Somehow we can make sense of 25% of an even hundred. It certainly is easier to do that than to try to apprehend the seismic power that 6.9 indicates.

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Just accept the interruption

A friend of mine has a 20+ year approach to technology’s sometimes mysterious snafus that includes large dollops of worry, outrage, and insistence that the explanation be both forthcoming and parsible in spite of his lack of both techpertise and underlying tech interest. While he was working in an institution with a relatively large and skill nuanced IT staff, disasters like lost connectivity, nonworking passwords (as opposed to forgotten ones), and awkward software updates were handled by his walking away from the situation after placing a phone call for help. However, he’s on his own now and, after a few years of simply ignoring glitches until they became intractable mires, he’s learned to call for troubleshooting help and follow the steps his provider, his equipment vendor, or I (depending on the specific bump) suggest.

However, when the “fix” doesn’t immediately work and yet smooth working order seems to be restored after a (usually brief) lapse of time during which he knows no further adjustments have been made, his demand for law and order sends him into new bouts of need to have the unparsible parsed.

Yesterday I hit upon a successful solution to that post-snafu catastrophyzing. And it startles me completely: I reached into my conversational bag of analogies and went 19th century.

His hardwired internet connection had ceased, although his home wifi was working fine. He had called his provider and worked through their coached steps to no effect. He then called his hardware company’s troubleshooters and worked through the steps provided by that coach, still to no effect. He got mad, abandoned all for a trip to his local, returned and found all in working order. Simply not acceptable! He phoned me to share his arguments about the unnatural order such “self healing technology” suggests.

“Imagine, ” I suggested, “that it’s 1888. You are walking along a country road next to your horse, the two of you just footing along companionably, your hand lightly resting on his harness. Suddenly, he stops abruptly,  jerks his head, and stamps the hoof closest to your own foot, missing it, but giving you a moment’s turn. You let go of the harness and he runs off just a small way, and then parks himself, refusing to budge, even to nibble the apple you offer. You check for fly bites, a sting site, a rock caught between shoe and hoof. Nothing. You eat the apple and by the time you finish it, your pal the horse gives you a nuzzle and is willing to set off along the road with you again. And so you do. “

“The horse is now fine?” my friend asks quietly.

“Yup, and you’ll never know what set him off. And it doesn’t matter. All is in working order, and you even got a snack before you two got home.”

“Got it.”

Well, we’ll see, in the long run. For now, though, it would seem a horse story can address tech anxiety like no tech logic ever has.

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Living formal learning

I

About ten years ago, one of my favorite children’s librarians explained the utility of algebra to me so compellingly that, in all the years since then, I have regularly been grateful both for her explication and the fact that that branch of mathematics had managed to stick upstairs even though I had no appreciation decades earlier when its principles were dinned into my twelve-year-old brain.

“Our entire workdays are solving for X,” she explained (with more patience than I recall Mr. B showing that 8th grade class). “We work our ways through projects with some knowns and the possibility to derive the unknowns from them. And we write out proofs in our evaluations, showing ourselves whether we put the right values in the right places.”

In all the years since that illuminating conversation (which, as I recall, took place as we marched in September’s heat in an annual civic parade celebrating silliness, for which we had had to plan and execute silly costumes for the library contingent), I have found myself willingly turning to rooting out that elusive X when faced by major planning, personally as well as professionally: what do I know for certain? How can what I know be combined to express a path toward what I need to know?

II

Even earlier than that life lesson, I had the great good fortune to be a library school student of Michael Ochs. There are lessons I learned both in his long ago Reference Methods course (circa 1978) and Reference of Literature and the Humanities (same era) that have remained true guides to me in situations that have nothing to do with addressing someone who has put a reference question before me (although plenty of other learning from those classes has been plowed into plenty of years of active reference service).

One such classroom based knowledge acquisition speaks to the need to remain aware that data can reveal only what those who designed the data query used in their collection actually asked. In library resource awareness terms this principle  underscores the fact that demographic conclusions cannot be reached using statistics that did not pose exactly corresponding questions: if drug testing results report how the drug affected those who used it prescriptively, and all the users are over 65, largely white, middle class and covered by health insurance, the data can’t support what may be known about the drug’s effects on children, for instance.

In the personal world, this means that I have to check myself against subscribing to a conclusion based on information derived by someone who didn’t have quite my circumstantial need in mind when developing that information. He or she has, or may have, perfectly good and valid information, and yet I still need to judge whether the information on offer actually fits with the information gap I have. Should I wear a sweater outside this morning? I can ask someone who has already been outside the door. Unless we have similar metabolisms, however, the forthcoming information could be a lousy guide.

That’s a simplistic example, of course. Here’s something more nuanced: I am apartment shopping and take along a buddy to look at three. We discuss the relative merits of the kitchen cabinet set-ups, my buddy expressing concern that two of the places have considably less cupboard space than the third. Before I allow myself to get wrapped up in whether this observation is one I can use in my decision process, I need to think through whether my cupboard needs are in a general way similar to my buddy’s. If they aren’t, then that information, while nice to offer and welcome as an expression of support in the apartment hunt, doesn’t provide me with a C/a to plug into the algebra equation I should have in mind for finding the “right” apartment. (Lest anyone who has ever gone apartment hunting with me be questioning whether I am ungrateful, let me assure you that that is not the case; we are talking evaluating data here, not the reassurance one derives from having a friend along when home hunting!)

Another, and equally lasting lesson I learned in Michael Ochs’ classroom is the difference between translation and interpretation, and how the plasticity of the latter trumps the mechanical and stultifying qualities of the former. When we take possession of an idea, an insight, a question someone else has felt or spoken, we had better interpret it. Otherwise, we are stuck with something that is closer to piracy or stultification. To hear is to interpret. To speak a pure translation is the work of a parrot.

While I am far opposed to the popular conflation of higher education with job marketability, I do stand on my belief that the formal lessons we have had in school can open up worlds to our future selves. It’s just not about passing the qualifying exam by ticking the appropriate boxes. It’s about the very real mind changes those lessons can burn into the way we see our possibilities and efforts.

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A story flies

The well-coiffed and carefully casually dressed middle aged woman seated next to me at a cluster of airport boarding gates had suffered a deep bruise to her index finger hours earlier. The pain was so exquisite, she told me, that she simply needed to share the fact aloud. Neither whiney nor apparently self-conscious about breaking the kind of intimacy barrier between strangers that the setting typically inspires, she began our interchange with no small talk and instead, noting that my own fingers are bound in a clearly post-injury state, confided that she was startled by the level of pain she was feeling and felt so pressed by its force to speak of it that the visual cue of my recent experience with something that must be remotely similar gave her some immediate relief.

This is not how strangers of her age, class and culture typically present themselves to strangers, in my experience, and yet, I could meet her halfway across that peculiar landscape because her very forthrightness carried me there. She was asking nothing of me except to hear her. She had no expectation other than that in her own ability to communicate with another. Both were measures of her assurance in herself and her respectful recognition of another self who could understand.

This is the most essential breath of stories: the nexus of pressing narrative on the teller, the mutual trust between performer and audience, and the listener (or reader) as available to hear more than her own interior monolog. When my own attempts at telling sink on sandbars of audience discontent–“you tell it backwards;” “I want to know the end before the middle”–I have blamed myself. But maybe those particular listeners weren’t able to listen. Maybe my narrative could not broach their own personal space because that space was already too crowded with themselves.

Our separate flights were called. We did not mention any words of parting. No need for that existed. The teller had spoken, the listener had heard, the story had been able to take flight ahead of our embodied travels.

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