Tag Archives: reality

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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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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Ducks rely on webbed feet

Pundits eager to push specific areas of concern ahead on the back of Saturday’s news from UC Santa Barbara represent a varied range: pro- and anti-gun reliance; feminism and humanism; mental health and criminal justice. More to the point, the pundit audience–willing as well as passive, seems in want of having this one story be “theirs,” the essential take away from the event.

While Michael Moore declared himself unable to “respond”, the rain of assertions and opinions about which specific detail of the event requires “everyone’s” attention is playing out as a cultural battle bigger than any of the specified issues. The non-witness news-fed focus on their own reflection of the important, the urgent, and thereby miss the fact that culture is, like life, a web of interdependencies:

  • Firearms intrinsically relate to mental health and to crime
  • Feminism intrinsically attaches to societal expressions of humanity
  • Nothing is alone in its primacy

We can broach societal problems in order–sometimes and some problems–but does that really recognize that the ordering is an artifice contrived to comfort and help us to believe in our power to change others as well as ourselves? Where does a healthy society start? How can we move beyond finding reflections of a cause with which we feel connected to connecting to a reality that is the basis of cause-identification?

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Scarry and Scarry: world making

Back in 1985, I was lucky enough to take up now Harvard literature Professor Elaine Scarry’s first book, The Body in Pain: The making and unmaking of the world (Oxford University Press). It’s just the type of book I would not pick up planfully and am grateful, instead, to the Review Assignment gods for delivering it to me. Scarry’s asserts that the individual experiencing pain–whether as the result of intentional infliction or as a symptom of another condition–undergoes a revocation of the personal construct s/he recognizes as reality. It is not that the subject’s context undergoes objective change and yet, pain unmakes our contextual basis.

Ten years later, my house seemed to be breeding volumes by a very different Scarry: Richard Scarry, an American picture book author and artist, created a deep catalog of books in which animals of every species, anthropomorphically  costumed, engage in every aspect of busyness the conscious body can express. There are books about occupations and books about vehicle use, books set in densely built cityscapes and others at sea. Scarry’s explorations of cheerful, colorful, overlapping busyness give the beholder pause: in fact, to explore Scarry’s busy world, one’s own busyness needs to be paused.

Together, these two Scarry’s taught, and reteach me when I can remember their articulations, that what I call “world”–that is, my reality–calls on me to construct insights that pain alters, and to take pauses to see that world in its busy details. Neither of these activities–recognition and pause–come readily to me as a matter of habit. Another damn good reason to read widely and catch the advisings of so many other constructivists.

 

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