Monday, August 25, 2014

love letter to libraries

(Somehow I wrote this months and months ago but never got around to posting. Now, on the eve of a new semester which is always hectic and fun and ridiculous in the libraries, I thought it worth posting even if it is outdated -- better late than never?)

CUL (that would be Columbia University Libraries) holds a couple Staff Forums every semester, both morning and afternoon sessions so that as many as possible of us several hundred library staff have the opportunity to attend. (That tidbit of information may seem like overkill, but it plays into my larger narrative here. Have patience.)

I haven't been to one in awhile and so made a point of attending this semester's first forum yesterday afternoon (partly, it cannot in all honesty be denied, for those delicious brownies they tend to serve at these things).

Each Forum generally has three mini presentations, each about fifteen minutes or so followed by a few minutes of question and answer time. Often it's about new technology in the libraries, or new and noteworthy collection development, and so on and so forth. Every once in awhile it's about more controversial stuff (oh, the terrible staff forum that happened in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when CUL was forced to shrink its staff by almost 10%).

But yesterday, while listening to this particular forum's three little presentations, I found myself powerfully moved. What I was reminded of, unexpectedly, is that what I cherish and love about libraries (what so many of us cherish and love about libraries) is their drive to make as much knowledge as humanly possible accessible to as many people as humanly possible

My university co-runs a library storage facility with Princeton University and the New York Public Library. As of now, between these three world-class institutions, there are over 10 million items stored in this temperature- and humidity-controlled preservation-oriented facility, and it's growing every day. Eventually it's expected to hold 37.5 million items, and will be by far the largest print collection in the world.

What struck me yesterday, in part, was the very language that librarians use to discuss their work. They talk about creating storehouses of knowledge, about providing access to those storehouses, about preserving all of that knowledge for future generations.

And the thing is, of course, that though not everyone has direct access to these particular vast print collections, all you have to do (all anyone has to do) is go to your nearest public library and fill out an Interlibrary Loan request. And suddenly, magically, those 37.5 million items (and almost anything else you can imagine) becomes accessible through the vast interconnectedness of the world's libraries.

Oh sure, it can sometimes take a while, but just wait. I haven't had Interlibrary Loan fail me yet. Because, as I've said before, ILL is like a pitbull. And if having all the written words of the world at your fingertips isn't magic, I don't know what is.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

'and we can whisper things, secrets from our american dreams...'

I have a confession: I try to act all tough, but I think pretty much everyone knows I'm basically just a big mush.

Yesterday I went to see Boyhood, the most recent (and possibly the most ingenious) film to come out of the strangely beautiful (and endearingly funny) mind of Richard Linklater. And I've had this song stuck in my head ever since.

I was just talking on the phone with my boy, and of course mentioned my new favorite song.

"It's kind of cheesy," I said, "but it's so damned sweet..."

"That sounds about right for you," he said, an affectionate chuckle hovering just beneath the surface.

And I couldn't help but grin, even through the tears this song somehow induces (no, I'm sure, this has nothing at all to do with those wonderful Boyhood father scenes, with protesting or not protesting, laughing or not laughing with my own father, with being or not being in the world with him) -- because that's what I do sometimes.

Let me go
I don't wanna be your hero
I don't wanna be a big man
Just wanna fight with everyone else

Your masquerade
I don't wanna be a part of your parade
Everyone deserves a chance to
Walk with everyone else

While holding down
A job to keep my girl around
And maybe buy me some new strings
And her a night out on the weekend

And we can whisper things
Secrets from our American dreams
Baby needs some protection
But I'm a kid like everyone else

So let me go
I don't wanna be your hero
I don't wanna be a big man
I Just wanna fight like everyone else...
(Family of the Year, Hero)

Friday, August 22, 2014


I woke up early this morning, well before my 5:45 alarm. I sat up in bed, confused, and then lay back down on my side and that's when I felt it. Something crinkling in my left ear like when you step out of the shower and begin drying off and you shake the water out of your hair, and the water in your ears crinkles and breaks and you feel them open up again and the world comes rushing back in.

Except the crinkling, the tickly uncomfortable crawling feeling, continued and there was no water to explain it, and I had a momentary early morning meltdown.

I found myself shaking and twitching my head about, slapping at my ear, bordering on frantic while the Llama-monster, of course, looked on, unperturbed. (I saw The Wrath of Khan when I was little! I know what things crawling around in your ears can do to you! And just a couple weeks ago, mid-shower, I felt something in my hair as I was rinsing the shampoo out, brushed it aside, looked down to find an itty bitty water bug at my feet. Ick!)

I had the distinct impression that there were only three possibilities: either I had abruptly and inexplicably gone  (as they say) bat-shit crazy, or I was having some weird acid flashback (though flashbacking to what exactly, I couldn't tell you, as my few acid trips were beautiful and flowery and (almost entirely) fun, and definitely 100% bug-free), or there was in fact something in there, tickling and twitching its way toward my brain.

So I got up and made some tea (because in a state of crisis, what else is a girl to do?) and fed the cat and thought about how I would explain this to the receptionist at the doctor's office when I called later in the morning. ("Umh, yeah, I think there might be a bug in my near. No, not a spy device, a bug! Like a cock roach! Help!")

And then it stopped (though writing about it now, fifteen hours later, is making my skin crawl ever so slightly and my ear tingle with just the hint of an itch). And I went to work and dealt with a ridiculous library-documents-move situation for a few hours interspersed with rants to my coworker about my weird ear thing. He of course reassured me that there was probably just some water caught in there, or maybe a slight infection, and some drops should clear it right up.

Even so, though I'm not generally a hypochondriac, I just might call the doctor Monday morning anyway. Or be forced to find something else with which to self-medicate.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


My father's 50th high school reunion was last weekend. He couldn't make it, of course, but I remember the summer he and my mom went to his 20th high school reunion. We were staying with my grandparents in the same house on Myrtle Street that my father had grown up in, with the same furniture and the same wall paper and the same books.  (I always loved that house, with the cherry tree out back, the clothes line perfect for making blanket forts, and especially the attic -- dust motes hanging in the heavy warm air, caught in rays of sunshine slanting through dust-covered windows, and my Aunt Ellen's dolls still tucked away in boxes just begging to come out and play.)

I was little, only eight years old, but I remember watching them get dressed up for the evening -- she in a dress, hair curled, a touch of make-up; he in a suit, awkward and gangly, excited to be showing off his wonderful wife, his professional success (small town boy makes good in the big city, well on his way to academic renown), pictures of his adorable kids.

Some of this may be me projecting backward on to him as I face my own 20th high school reunion, which is happening next month, with a somewhat disconcerting mixture of trepidation and joy.

A part of me wishes I had more of what he had at my age -- the wonderful spouse, the children, the academic career, the house complete with, yes, a cat, a dog, and at various times fishes, turtles, guinea pigs and parakeets -- to show off at this upcoming reunion.

A part of me is relieved that I don't have those responsibilities and am able to focus all my energies on my friends, on my library, on my craft. (Though who at a high school reunion wants to talk about knitting, and the pros and cons of various fibers, is beyond me.)

A part of me is pleased at the opportunity to present my re-invented self, this happier, lighter, less dramatic self in lieu of that somewhat broken teenager so often lingering on the edges of things, in dark clothes, crying sometimes in dark corners.

Transformation can be such a beautiful thing when it's genuine, when it's carefully, intimately shaped both individually and between people who care about each other. I am wishing that my father -- the man he was at his 20th reunion, the man he would have been now, thirty years later -- were here to share our transformations between us, in all the myriad ways that people can change.

(I also wish that he were around for a good post-reunion gossip, but other people I love will just have to do.)

Saturday, June 07, 2014

ancient beads and old friends

We met by the clock in Grand Central Station yesterday evening, in the midst of the rushing Friday night post-work crowds.  She was wearing these beautifully bright and simple beaded necklaces, white and blue and yellow and green and all the colors of the rainbow. I complimented her on them and she just looked at me, surprised, and laughed, and said, "Emma, you made these for me!"

As soon as she said it, of course, it all came rushing back: that year or so in high school of obsessively stringing beads and crocheting skull caps (mostly burgundy and, of course, black). And I couldn't believe that she still had these necklaces, tucked away somewhere safe for over twenty years. She looked beautiful and happy in a flirty summery outfit and those bright and cheerful beads, and it felt indescribably warm -- this realization that she'd saved them all this time.

What's magical and heartbreaking in the world so often revolves around the waxing and waning of relationships. I've written a lot over the years about the waning part of things, have perhaps (some would say definitely) wallowed more than is helpful in the endings of things. But lately, over this past year, these past few months, even just this past week, I've found myself reveling at the pure good fortune of having the people that I have in my life.

Erica and the fact that despite long stretches of little communication, somehow our conversations and letters always feel, to me, deeply connected.

Jill and our sometimes prickly but life-long love for each other.

Nick and his willingness to accompany me to random dinners and random parties and weekly lunches and long walks-and-talks down Broadway or Riverside or Central Park West of a beautiful spring evening.

Lauren and her gorgeous New York brashness and deep understanding of some of my inner most insecurities.

Johanna and our friendship's propensity for being a safe place for endless conversations about grief (though also about silly movies and wonderful books and what's really the best ramen place in this town).

Ari-love and, well, everything.

And Cindy, my friend of the beaded necklaces and flirty sundresses and crazy beautiful curls. Cindy with whom my friendship has been waxing and waning since middle school, but mostly waxing. We two are so awkward, sometimes, in the world and with each other and yet I don't know that it is possible to love a friend more than I love this woman.

So we met up yesterday at Grand Central and headed down to BAM, where we joined her brother and his husband for dinner and wine and the wonderful hilarity that was Ask Me Another.  Afterwards we wandered around Brooklyn, ostensibly looking for the C but secretly enjoying the wandering and the beautiful June night. We got home to my place just before midnight and promptly went to bed, both of us early risers and done in after a long day.

This morning was filled with tea and talk and apples with peanut butter, and then it was time to leave for work. She waited with me at the bus stop and then made her way home, and I've been left with this sense of warmth, this sense of being suffused with love and well-being, ever since.

A woman I knew in college once wrote a piece about her father's death and the "boundless luck" that had exemplified an adventurous and fulfilling life.  I've always remembered that phrase, and peered at it suspiciously, but perhaps in my old age I am beginning finally to understand it. Perhaps not the adventuring, exactly, but the sense of contentment that she also seemed to imply.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

'i've lived in new york for five years...'

"I’ve lived in New York for five years, long enough to understand why some people hate it here: the crowds, the noise, the traffic, the expense, the rents, the messed-up sidewalks, the weather that brings hurricanes named after girls that break your heart.

It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here. But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters. Just remember: Ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you, always say thank you — even if you don’t get something back right away. You will."
(Bill Hayes, Lessons From the Smoke Shop)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

(not) at the bus stop

I've written before about my recent habit of walking in the morning to a different bus stop -- for the bit of extra exercise, for the bit of extra time outside in the light and the air before a day in my humble basement library, for a few extra minutes of looking up at the branches and the sky and feeling the wind on my face.

I catch the same bus most mornings, and the bus driver -- jovial and talkative and funny -- always has a boisterous greeting, a cheerful question, a humorous quip.  Last week for some reason I left earlier than usual one morning and caught a different bus down to work.  I was crossing Broadway at 114th and suddenly the bus that was stopped at the light started honking. I ignored it at first but eventually looked up and realized it was my bus, the one I hadn't taken that morning, and my crazy awesome bus driver was waving wildly at me and grinning and honking his horn.

He hasn't let me forget it yet: the day I spurned him for another driver.

Friday, May 30, 2014

'roland ducked beneath the tape...'

"Roland ducked beneath the tape and then just stood where he was for a moment, listening to the honk and pound of the city on this bright June day, relishing its adolescent vitality. He would never see another city, of that much he was almost positive. And perhaps that was just as well. He had an idea that after New York, all others would be a step down."
(Stephen King, The Dark Tower)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

facial recognition

I found myself chatting with a woman last weekend at Bill's wife's memorial service. I knew who she was -- a friend and colleague of Bill's at ISERP -- immediately, having met her several years ago at Bill's and Jill's wedding.  But apparently she's come in to my library on a semi-regular basis in the intervening years, and apparently I never recognize her.

Context can be everything, I suppose -- bring back the Bill factor and of course I knew who she was.  But I think at some point in the sordid, distant past I stopped looking closely at other people's faces. I was too busy looking at the cracks in the sidewalk in front of my feet, at the sky, at shoes and clothes and bodies hurtling through space. I was too busy obsessing over books or drugs or people I didn't know how to love very well.

Once, towards the end of college, I was walking across campus and eventually noticed a girl laughing and waving animatedly at me. I'd almost passed her by, this girl I happened to be deeply in love with, or crushing on, or whatever the proper terminology might have been at the time.  She finally stopped chuckling at my obliviousness and we went and got coffees and chatted out on the steps as the late autumn dusk settled in around us.

Later she asked me what it was I was thinking about all those times when my mind went wandering off and stopped seeing anyone. I don't think I knew what to tell her.

Later even than that, I think I more intentionally stopped looking at faces when I was out in the world. So many times I thought those faces passing by were people I knew, sometimes people I loved, and so many times I found myself smiling joyfully, longingly, only to discover it was someone else entirely, someone strange and unknown and not who I had thought it was at all.

Eventually it just seemed easier to stop looking, in the hopes that other people would stop looking, too.

I've gotten better about it in recent years. I try to look people in the eye, absorb their faces, remember their names, stop hiding behind my own lack of recognition. It helps to be dating a man who, I know, will always find me in a crowd even when I can't find him.  It helps to mind less about the embarrassment of introducing myself to the same person again and again. It helps to be able to just tell people that chances are I might not recognize them the next time we meet, and that they should just speak up for god's sake and say, "I'm So-and-so. So-and-so's friend. We've met twice before."