‘Honoring Miss Pietsch’ or how a composer helped me get my house in order, featuring 1886 wallpaper

 

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Composer Edna Frida Pietsch stands in front of her house in 1904, insert is Pietsch at 8, in 1902. The awnings are in the attic, although they’re pretty worn out. (Photo from Wisconsin Women: a gifted heritage©1982, a project of the Wisconsin State Division AAUW

If anyone with a social media presence wants to see their blog stats tank, here’s my advice:

  1. Quit Facebook.

Even though my blog is my gift to me, a place where I write what I want to in order to loosen myself up to write better and more freely and not about how many readers and followers I have, I will freely cop to being a little sad at how dramatically my readership disappeared when I parted ways with Zuckerberg & Co.

But, I’m over it now. (Okay, maybe I am. Or maybe I’m just lying to myself.)

In the meantime, I have made excellent use of the time between blog posts to do something I have not been able to do since moving into my current house. With a little push from the house’s longest resident, Edna Frida Pietsch, and a lot of help from a couple of neighbors, my house has turned into a place I want to hang out in instead of run away from.

Well, the first floor, at least. Which is a lot, given that the first floor includes a kitchen, living room, parlor, dining room and a couple of porches. All presentable, all beautiful.

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The parlor – and music room

What brought on this miracle?

Two things, actually. One was our neighborhood’s annual home tour. Sweetheart and I live just outside a historic district that has hosted a home tour for the past 28 years. When he lived here with Then-wife, they were asked multiple times to open the house up for the tour, but didn’t.

I’d done the tour before. My previous house was inside the neighborhood boundaries, and there was nothing  wrong with it that a cash infusion of roughly $250,000 wouldn’t have addressed nicely. It was 2005’s “house-in-progress.”

The tour prep process resulted in a lovely, tranquil and neat first floor that stayed lovely, tranquil and neat for six months. Then, a car accident rendered me unable to do much of anything involving cleaning up after people who messed up faster behind me.

Still, it was a valuable lesson. I learned I could create and maintain order – something I had not had the chance to know about myself prior.

In the ensuing years, my decision to live in what could diplomatically be described as a pigsty was informed by my priority list.

When Sweetheart bought his house back after By-Then-Ex-wife put it up for sale, I was working full-time and in graduate school. That overlapped with helping Mom move across six states into an assisted living high-rise and then to a nursing home. Good grades, keeping my job and caring for my mother took precedence over housekeeping.

Still, the process of organizing Mom’s house while she was still there to ensure maximum safety and efficiency while she lived independently, then breaking it apart twice more for her moves showed me I had somehow mastered the art of hanging on to the right stuff without hanging on to all of it – or even too much.

There are people for whom housekeeping and clutter-repelling comes naturally. Sweetheart and I are not among them.

So, for almost 10 years, I lived in this house and whenever I had the time to look around, mostly wanted to cry and run away because there seemed no way to get it under control.

Graduating from library school in 2014 freed up time, but by then Mom was in the nursing home. My free time went there until she died.

Then, it was March of 2018, and all I had was a job. No Mom. No school. Just an upcoming neighborhood home tour focused on the arts.

And Edna Frida Pietsch, the neo-classical composer whose father and grandfather built our house. Pietsch spent either all of her life here or lived here from the time she was five – in 1899 – until she died in 1982.  She taught theory and composition at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music for 35 years and composed solo, chamber and symphonic works.

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A cassette recording of Edna Frida Pietch’s “String Quartet in D Major”

Given that, there was no question that her house had to be on the tour. So, thanks to a pair of Sallys – the tour chair and the volunteer chair – we cleaned, and scrubbed, and excavated. (Good people going through rough times –intimate partner violence survivors and people living with brain disorders – will make good use of what we don’t need and won’t miss.)

I took a trip to Madison’s Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin, where Pietch’s manuscripts and recordings are housed. Library Director Jeanette Casey and her staff were wonderfully helpful. After I left, they digitized some of her music so I’d have recordings to play on Tour Day.

 

 

 

Pietsch’s portrait hangs in the Art, Music and Recreation room of The Milwaukee Public Library. Librarians there let me scan reference copies of her music. And an anthology of Wisconsin women published by the American Association of University Women featured a section on Pietsch and photo of the house from 1904.

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Edna Frida Pietsch, painted by Joan Beringer Pripps

Hands in Harmony, a local piano studio, provided three hours of live music from teachers and students, including some works by Pietsch. The house looked fabulous.

The morning of the tour, I was putting the finishing touches on a display board. An empty board was laying on the dining room table.

“Can I use this?”

Sweetheart was cocking his head at the display board, his arms wrapped around a worn-looking cardboard box he’d brought from some cluttery corner of the attic or basement.

He began laying chunks of dusty plaster on the cardboard, arranging them in lines. Some broke apart as he lifted them from the box.

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Chunks of dusty plaster

“Um….what are these?”

Which is how I found out about the second chimney sprouting a leak, causing a dining room wall to buckle. Sweetheart and Then-wife had to remove the plaster and replace it. Underneath the molding, they found the 1886 wallpaper. He’d boxed and kept it, along with a sample of the old-school jute-lined linoleum that had been under the carpet when they’d redone the floors.

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The 1886 wallpaper

We gently wiped the wallpaper with damp cloths. The plaster dust vanished, revealing a floral pattern in deep burgundy, with various shades of pink, almost silver, and gold. I thought – not for the first time – of how lucky I am to have a life partner like Sweetheart.

Recent reading adventures: A “Some-ary”

 Before I was a librarian (by which I mean from the time I was about 3), I read a lot.  As a baby journalist in the early 1990s, I started reviewing books and discovered the fun and wonder of sometimes getting paid to read. Which didn’t stop me from continuing to do it for free.

Since becoming a librarian, I have discovered that what I read has now taken on the weird addition of having some sort of Mystical Librarian Stamp of Approval.

I have noticed this both in and outside the library.

Confession: I like it.

So, without further ado, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been reading lately.

“The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok

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I just finished this and wish I hadn’t, because I didn’t want it to end. I’m probably going to read it again. Soon. Evidently there’s a movie deal in the works, and it’s easy to see why. Bartok’s imagination pantry is a well-stocked place, and she’s a great cook.

Because we tend to like our comparisons,  I’m just going to say that this book is what you might get if you tossed Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Dickens, Phillip Pullman, Garth Nix, JK Rowling,  Charles deLint and an afternoon soap opera into a blender. Perfect for the tween set and anyone who loves getting lost in a good yarn. (My nephew is totally getting this for Christmas.)

“What this story needs is a Vroom and a Zoom” (A Pig in a Wig book) by Emma J. Virjan

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The Grandkid (aka my favorite small person) was over last night and I read this aloud to him. That was after reading it aloud to Sweetheart. Grandkid was riveted, which is pretty impressive given that he’s 19 months old. Not so surprising, though, because the story is about a race and like Sweetheart, he’s a big motorized things fan. Good for car enthusiasts. Also wee people and the people who love reading to them.

“Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots” by Deborah Feldman

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This one is a library weed my sister told me to read years ago. (There are plenty of copies available in other branches). Feldman describes growing up curious in a religious sect that frowns on imagination and constrains its adherents to the narrowest of options. I have a particular bias for these types of books, partly because I’m in the process of work on a book-like object in a similar genre and partly because someone in our own family a generation back made a similar break, although from a far less (though still plenty) restrictive sect.

Being raised by her grandparents after her mother broke away when she was small, leaving her behind, and a father who was part of the community but incapable of caring for her meant she was slightly different and suspect from the start. Growing up, she knew to hide her love of reading and keep trips to the public library secret. As an adult, watching the community protect ideals over exploited and injured community members pushed Halpern to pick a side. In the war between her love for the grandparents who raised her and the chance for her child to grow up whole, she chose her son.

“Miriam’s Secret” by Debby Waldman

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Yeah, she’s my sister and yeah, the book is set in on a fictional farm that draws heavily from our family’s farm.  But this Depression-era story of a kid from New York City who spends a few months with her grandparents provides a kids-eye view of life in tough times without a bunch of moralizing and commentary. Same goes for Jewish ritual and practice. It’s all very matter-of-fact and organically woven in to the story, mostly told through the relationships between Miriam, her grandparents and the hired men who help run the farm. Also, anyone who is my cousins will laugh themselves silly at the grandmother in this story. To say ours was never that tender is a major understatement.

“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

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I’m only on page 23, which is okay because Book Group isn’t until next week. But already I’m looking forward to bedtime so I can read more of this story by a lawyer who has made addressing inequities around mass incarceration and the death penalty his life’s work. And I’m very grateful to Sally for choosing it for us to read. It’s been on my list for awhile, and this is the push I needed to get off my tush and read it.

“Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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It’s very short, only 118 pages, but so very good. Another book club pick, this one thanks to Cynthia, who hosted last month. I’ve never met a protagonist like Morayo, maybe because most of the fictional 75-year-olds are supporting characters who are usually supported. By a cane or a wheelchair or some other old-person marker. Morayo is  single, childless, a retired academic who drives a Porsche and is and living the good life in San Francisco. Well, that is, until she falls and breaks her hip. Maybe it’s because I have a mom in a nursing home. Maybe because I’m getting older and have a slew of friends who are single and childless. But this book really resonated. Also, anyone who arranges their books by how well their characters would get along, as Morayo does – real or not – is my kind of person.

 

Facebook Posts

I should probably spend less time reading these, but there is this one group to which I belong that is feeding my brain-growing side a lot. I can’t talk about it, because it’s a secret group. But it’s very good for my soul. And it’s good for my soul to keep up with the people I value in 3D, given our sometimes way-too-busy lives.

 

My Twitter Feed

Not as much here, but it’s interesting to see what people think and to get information on breaking news stories – bearing in mind, of course that it’s always best to verify.

Twitter is also a good place to remember how little you matter if you are not a brand or a celebrity. Most of my posts are met with radio silence. I might as well be posting on my bathroom wall. But it’s okay. In 100 years, no one will care anymore about most of what’s happening now anyway, and so in at least one sense, my tweets are on the leading edge of a curve!

 

Road Signs

Because I drive. And sometimes ride my bike.

 

“Jonah” by Some old Middle Eastern Storytellers (Translation by the Jewish Publication Society)

Yesterday, in Mom’s room. As part of my alternative Yom Kippur observance.

 

 

“Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens” by Eddie Izzard

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See above about “Unorthodox” and book-like objects. I am a big Eddie Izzard fan, so when I saw this on our “New” shelf, I was all over it. I read it at work and wrote a review for a future issue of the library newsletter. It’s pretty humble stuff for a celebrity memoir, mostly him describing what it was like before and after his mom died when he was six, his decision to live as openly transgender in 1985 and the process that led him to be able to carry that to his onstage persona, which, for years he stuck to what he describes as “boy mode,” and generally his operating philosophy, which is to act as if you’re capable of more than you are. It’s actually a very Jewish concept (not that Eddie said that) – the “engage in action and intent and belief will follow.”

Sweetheart and I have tickets to see him here this coming weekend, and I’m looking forward to it.

“Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay & A Few of My Other Favorite Things”  by Loudon Wainwright III

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I just started this one, too, at work. What I said about “Unorthodox” and “Believe Me.” It’s interesting to read in narrative form about some of what he’s written and sung. You get a bigger picture and context, and it’s fun to be a fly on the wall for his encounters with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Judd Apatow and other household name-type people. Because I’m also a big fan of the work of his singing family members and friends (Lucy, Martha, Rufus, Sloan, Chaim Tannenbaum, Suzzy Roche and the McGarrigle Sisters), reading about them is kind of like getting to hang out with people you know but not so well and learning more about them.
On a separate but related note, I will always have a tender spot for LWIII, who gave me what remains one of the nicest compliments anyone ever has about my writing. I profiled him 12 years ago for a piece in our local alternative paper. When he showed up for the gig, I asked him to sign the story. He said “I read it over dinner, and it didn’t even give me indigestion.” When I told this story to Suzzy & Lucy a couple of years ago, Lucy’s comment was “That sounds like him.”

“Toad on the Road: A Cautionary Tale” by Stephen Shashkan

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What I most like about this picture book is that you can sing it as your own improvised blues tune.  It probably works in other genres, too – punk, jazz, plainsong, recitative, rockabilly. It’s adorable, funny, charming and features a female tow-truck driving working mother. Which is pretty much everything.

Great moments in librarying (yes, it’s a verb now), with illustrations

The best seven months of my work life so far are the ones I’ve spent as a public librarian. Here are a few of my favorite moments librarying and some pictures of the reason I now describe myself as my library’s “Display Queen.” (Yes, I did use “library” as a verb. Thank you for noticing.)

  1. Putting a John Coltrane CD into the hands of an 11-year-old saxophone student. I don’t remember how we struck up our conversation. I asked what was in the instrument case, and when he told me I asked if he’d heard of Coltrane. He hadn’t. I fixed it.
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This display included books and recordings by the musicians listed above. It’s getting swapped out for the incoming class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
  1. Sending two aspiring rappers home with a visual dictionary and a copy of “Hamilton: The Revolution” in addition to the thesaurus they came in looking for. As I walked them over to where it was, I asked if they wanted it for something specific. That was when they told me they were rappers looking to increase their vocabularies. And that it was their first time in the library. It was my first time meeting two aspiring rappers, so we engaged in a beverage-free toast to firsts all around. (They were strikingly good looking – tall and slender with beautiful smiles and great hair.) I suggested the visual dictionary, which they thought was a good idea when they saw it. Then I remembered that we’d just gotten “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a book that includes the lyrics to the musical and also talks about how its evolution from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brain to the stage. THEY HAD NEVER HEARD OF HAMILTON! We don’t have the Broadway soundtrack recording in our collection, but I had my i-pod and a pair of headphones, so played them a few seconds of “Alexander Hamilton” and “Cabinet Battle 1.” Definitely a “Go, me!” moment.
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I asked for – and got! – a display case. This little exhibit is because I had the material. My end game is that patrons with interesting collections will share those.
  1. Something I did not know happens at libraries until I started working at one is that banning is a thing. A sad thing, but a necessary one. Upwards of 99 percent of the people who walk into a library bring their best (or at least second-best) selves. But the 1 percent who don’t? They really don’t. Some bans are short-lived; others can last a lifetime with the ability to appeal at annual intervals. My first experience with a banned patron was one who’d gotten the ban letter and wanted to know what was wrong with his card. When I told him, he left quietly. My second experience started the same way – the patron wanted to know why his card wasn’t working. But this time when the ban notice came up, the banning period was over. So I smiled, because his ban had ended and I was happy I got to welcome him back. He smiled, too.
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    This display was for Domestic Violence Awareness month. I wanted to include information for everyone who might be affected.
  2. In October, our main branch put together the most incredible Halloween extravaganza, including opening up a “haunted” and usually closed-to-the-public floor. It was my job to lead people coming off the elevator from the third floor up to the haunted fourth floor. But one little girl was terrified, and her family wanted to see the haunted floor. So we stayed on the third floor together and joined a group heading out to our green roof, where two telescopes had been set up, one for viewing Mars and the other Saturn. I’d never seen either as clearly and neither had she. We talked about school (hers) and planets (ours) and then I showed her some of the pictures I’d taken of the fourth floor earlier in the week before she rejoined her family.
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This picture was taken from the “haunted” fourth floor, but the window reflected the dome and the a view of the third floor, showcasing another non-public area.
  1. In December, Millie, our library educator (and an amazing librarian), hosted a gingerbread house construction project with a roomful of kids. One, the sweetest nine-ish year-old girl you can picture, wanted a couple of books. It took some doing, but we managed to track down and put them on hold for her. She turned to her mom and told her she wanted to give me her gingerbread house. Her mom said, “I thought you were going to give it to (name).” “But she was really helpful,” the little girl said. It turned out the named recipient was her little brother. So I told her I knew of a way she could give it to me and still take it home to her brother. I’m not posting the picture her mom took of the two of us holding the house because I didn’t ask permission to make it public. It makes me smile every time I look at (or even think about) it.
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This was one of my Christmas displays.
  1. Just before Christmas, a woman about my age came in to print out some papers related to a job for which she was in the process of interviewing. I called on some of my former “helping other people get jobs” skills from my past and gave her a few tips. Two days later, she came in with an acceptance letter!
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This is a close-up of the other one.
  1. One of the scary things about being a librarian is seeing how vulnerable people can be. A recently laid-off man building his profile in the state’s unemployment system (the only way to apply for benefits) turned out to not only not have computer skills, he also didn’t have an e-mail address. My 11 months in my own version of his shoes before getting this job became an instant asset as a result of a counselor named Jeff Armstrong, who’d been affirming and supportive when I’d gone to see him. In another stroke of great good fortune, Jeff answered his phone and the two of them had a conversation in which they arranged a face-to-face meeting.
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This is the rest of the other Christmas display. I was particularly happy about the Bukowski.
  1. The Syrian refugee who came in looking for ESL classes for his wife. A couple of months after she arrived, they came in together and got library cards.
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This isn’t a display. I found it while weeding and thought, “I have the greatest collection in the world!” It wasn’t on the weed list.
  1. The patron who came in to pick up a book that had been on hold for his mother, only to find that somehow the book had gone wandering. After we re-ordered it, she called. She told me about a couple of other books she was planning to read and I found and put them on hold for her. When her son came in to retrieve the found book, he was able to bring her the others, too.
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This was my shortest-lived display. It stayed up a day and a half, at which point a woman came into the library asking for it. She got the book and what was inside of it, which was the New York Times story about Mr. Whitehead winning the National Book Award. I didn’t think Oprah would mind me using her 2004 photo from the car giveaway, given that she was probably at least that happy for the success of her book club pick.
  1. On New Year’s Eve, the library was closed. At the grocery store, three medium-sized kids were gawking in front of the lobster tank. I asked the guy behind the counter if he was okay with me doing something unconventional, and with his approval I was able to resurrect my long-unused lobster-wrangling skills. Three round-eyed kids stared  as I reached into the tank and pulled out a lobster. I did the two-minute version of “Lobster 101” for them (sea cockroach, underside of tail how they swim, if not banded in the tank there’d be fights to the death, claws grow back, can only live in salt water, can grow to be upwards of 20 pounds, encouraged them as they gently touched it).

“Do you work here?” asked one.

“No, I said. “I’m a librarian. Come see me at my library!”

‘Big Brother meets the digital Third World’ or ‘I wrote a paper in 2008. Check it out.’

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I don’t have any pictures of myself writing papers, so this graduation morning photo will have to do.

In summer of 2008, I took an Ethics of Information class. Our final project was a paper on the topic of our choice.

I wanted to look at what I saw as the New Third World – the way on-line information about us could and was possibly already being used to exploit us, make our lives worse, keep us from getting jobs, bank loans and or other essential and quality-of-life goods. The haves got the good stuff, the rest of us would unknowingly become citizens of a borderless Third World nation.

Sunday’s New York Times featured an editorial entitled “The Secret Agenda of a Facebook Quiz.”

I just finished reading it.

My response is to post my paper here for anyone to read, learn from and possibly follow up on and extend. It’s long, but it may be one of the most important things I’ve written. I haven’t updated it, but would be interested in feedback from anyone brave enough to get through it. (It’s not written in academ-ese; my prof said she wanted my own voice.)

Click on the link below.

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Two post-election vignettes: ‘Hamilton’ cast makes most of ‘Carpe Diem’ moment; Ephemeral display lets librarian do the same

This morning, I woke up to the Facebook village and Twittesphere going nuts over what happened when Vice-President Elect Mike Pence went to see “Hamilton” last night.

My first thought was “Geez! If I’d known becoming vice president would have helped me get ‘Hamilton’ tickets, I would have applied for the job.”

But who am I kidding? There’s no question that my political leanings, vagina  and average looks would have completely disqualified me from consideration.

On a more serious note, there were a couple of FB posts calling what the cast did “rude and out of line.”

My question, voiced to those posters, was this: When would they have been able to have that kind of access and opportunity to be heard? And that doesn’t just go for the cast of “Hamilton,” who, once the makeup and costumes are off, are just ordinary working Joes and Janes like the rest of us.

Their 90-second address, delivered by Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Aaron Burr, was a respectfully-delivered request. He spoke to the fear and anxiety many people are feeling about their well-being and that of people they love and care about. He refused to let the audience boo Mr. Pence.

It was a heartfelt speech, a request for reassurance in a situation where it is becoming increasingly apparent that reassurance is needed.

From all I’m seeing, the Trump/Pence administration is going to do everything it can to limit access to anyone who doesn’t agree with everything they believe in or want to do. This includes the press, which they seem to want to keep in the dark as much as possible. That scares the you-know-what out of a lot of us.

So Friday was a singular chance to be heard, and the cast seized its moment.

I’ve been seizing display space at the library, and, because of it was able, yesterday, to seize my own “be heard” moment.

The morning after the election, I cleared out my “He said/She said” display. This (below) is what I put in its place.

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My post-election display. Someone has already taken out the cat book (replaced with another cat book). I borrowed “Comfort Food” last weekend  and made maple glazed baked beans for Book Group. The book next to it is a recipe book for making cocktails. My fabulous manager, Amelia, helped round up books for the display – Cats, Canada and Jamaica were her finds.

 

Then, this past Wednesday, one of my favorite recent reads, Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” received the National Book Award. So Thursday, I made a display. It was an Oprah’s Book Club picture, so I didn’t think she’d mind me borrowing this 2004 shot of her looking extremely happy (she was giving away cars). On Friday, a woman came in looking for the book. I felt just like Oprah when I handed it to her. I also seized the opportunity to recommend “Underground Airlines” by Ben Winters and “The Sellout,” by Paul Beatty, which just won the Man Booker Prize.

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I hope that woman likes the book and comes back for the others, but even if she doesn’t, seizing a moment to share something valuable is a valuable thing to do.

So go out there and seize your chance to be heard. In the face of uncertainty, a little love and reassurance  (in many forms, including between the covers of a good book) can go a long way.

Kudos to the “Hamilton” crew for showing us how to do it with grace and dignity.