Five years ago, my pal Molly and her husband Richard flew in from New York to visit her parents, “Mel” (z”l) and “Sally.” It was their first visit after M&S moved into “Old People Harvard,” the independent and assisted-living community where Mom had been living for two years.
It was a great gift to Mom (z”l). She’d moved from her community six states away, a place where she had deep roots and was both valued and valuable. It was a courageous move on several counts: facing that Parkinson’s disease was making it impossible for her to maintain her independence and leaping into an unknown social scene.
Mel & Sally’s move wasn’t as easy as Mom’s had been. They were uncertain about how things would be. Molly had flown out to help reassure them. We met for lunch in the dining room at Old People Harvard. There, Mom was able to be the old hand, telling and kvelling to Mel & Sally about how happy she was there, how much there was to do and the truth about the adjustments she’d had – and been able – to make. It meant a great deal to her to be able to be of service, and the three of them forged a lifelong friendship.
But, back to that first post-move visit. Old People Harvard takes itself seriously when it comes to providing top-notch programming for its residents. I remember on my birthday when I called Mom to let her know I was stopping by to drop off a cupcake. She answered the phone in that whisper I knew meant she was involved in something.
“I’m in the Rubeinstein Room. Russ Feingold is talking about his new book.”
“Okay,” I replied. “I’ll sneak in quietly.”
When I walked in, he was answering a question about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. I dropped the cupcake into her hands and cruised back to work, where I spent the rest of the day working and passing out cupcakes to people who’d been kind to me over the past year.
Okay, seriously now. Back to that first post-move visit.
Richard is a photographer for the Associated Press. Trish, the programming genius at Old People Harvard, got him to do a “show and tell” with the photos he’s taken over a 50-year span. I could fill up the rest of this post with names of famous people and events he described photographing. His stories about the pictures were as riveting as the photos themselves. I didn’t want the program to end, and I wasn’t alone.
So, cut to two years ago, when I got my dream job as a public librarian and learned that programming was part of my job. Getting Richard to come to the library and share his photos could be part of my job!?
It was, and it is, and this afternoon it is happening. So, that’s the librarianship part of this post.
In accidental landlording adventures, when a known drug dealer looked at the house next door to us seven years ago, I was all “Hell no!”
I had a little extra scratch thanks to a car accident, and used it to buy the house. It’s basically a free-standing one-bedroom apartment in a park – 731 square feet on a 60-foot lot.
I thought Mom could live in it if she wanted to, which she didn’t. One of my offspring lived there for awhile (I joked that we were running a subsidized housing program – don’t ask!). Since she moved, we’d been pretty lucky to rent it to reasonable tenants on a word-of-mouth basis.
Luck ran out when our most recent tenant stopped being sober and skipped out, leaving us with a $715 water bill and all his stuff. Yesterday, someone I’ve known for 10+ years came over to look at it.
Sweetheart and I have a boatload of work to do to get the nasty tobacco smell out of the house (smoking in the house was prohibited by his lease, but drunks aren’t big on rule-following) and get it habitable by December for a mom, a kid and a dog.
I am looking forward to having someone I know and trust and value next door.
I’m looking forward to this afternoon.
I’m especially looking forward to Tuesday, hoping fervently that enough sensible people in this country see right-wing fear tactics for what they are and vote accordingly. Please be one of them.
File yesterday under “What part of their part in this do Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Chuck Grassley, Paul Ryan, Jeff Sessions, Steven Miller and the rest of the administration not see?”
File yesterday under “You can’t spend three years whistling and act surprised when the dogs actually show up.”
File yesterday under: “Thank you to the library system where I work for taking the possibility of an active shooter seriously enough to provide training that may minimize the danger to us and our patrons if we’re ever unlucky enough to be in that situation.”
Pittsburgh is the first time it’s happened to my community. Reading the news as I sat behind the reference desk yesterday, my first thoughts were of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the nine people killed by the white guy who got a take-out hamburger in jail because he told the police he was hungry. I thought of the six people killed in Oak Creek at the Sikh Temple by a white guy who did it because he thought Sikhs were Muslims.
President Dog Whistle mused that had there been armed guards in the synagogue, perhaps the shooter would have been stopped.
He is wrong.
Had there been sensible gun laws in this country, perhaps the shooter would have been stopped. But that would mean standing up to Dylan Roof, Rob Bowers and Wade Michael Pages’ enablers. By which I mean the National Rifle Association, whose bullets include large amounts of cash aimed at legislators for sale.
Newsflash to President Dog Whistle and those legislators: All the guns in the world will not kill what’s coming. Thanks to you, Dylan Roof, Rob Bowers and Wade Michael Page were able to carry out their attacks using real weapons. Cesar Sayet, Jr. heard the dog whistle and was empowered to build and mail bombs that would have killed postal workers as well as people who’ve stood up for their beliefs.
The country is changing. It’s less white. It’s less Christian. People like President Dog Whistle and his ilk are doing everything they can to ensure that real power and the money that preserves it remains in the hands of people who look and sound and think the way they do and have done.
Change is hard, but it doesn’t have to be bad. Banding together for the sake of our shared well-being is our best shot at ensuring any kind of future for ourselves and those who come after us.
Which is why voting on November 6this so important. If you can’t vote because:
you’re not old enough,
you’re on paper,
you’re not through the citizenship process,
your felony record says that even though you’ve paid your debt to society we’re going to keep punishing you…
then be an enabler. Make your voice count by making sure the people in your life who can cast votes, do cast votes.
The future will thank you.
The 11 people killed in Pittsburgh. May their memories be for a blessing:
• Joyce Fienberg, 75, Oakland neighborhood, Pittsburgh
• Richard Gottfried, 65, Ross Township
• Rose Mallinger, 97, Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Pittsburgh
• Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Edgewood Borough
• Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, brothers, Squirrel Hill
• Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86, married, Wilkinsburg
• Daniel Stein, 71, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh
• Melvin Wax, 88, Squirrel Hill, City of Pittsburgh
• Irving Younger, 69, Mount Washington neighborhood, Pittsburgh
Cataract surgery #2 is in the rear-view mirror. I have decided to use the opportunity to don my journalist/ “Enemy of the People” hat and pull back the curtain on how trained reporters go about preparing for and conducting interviews in order to bring readers useful information.
Why am I qualified to do this? The obvious reason might seem to be those two recent cataract surgeries. The actual reason is my history as a professional journalist.
Before the “Social Work by the Seat of my Pants in a Snake Pit” years and my current gig as “The Happiest Public Librarian in North America,” I worked as a reporter and editor at two newspapers and one magazine. I continue to write freelance pieces for a couple of outlets.
Some reporters go to journalism school. My sister falls into that category. Some just write and write, starting at a tiny little publication – maybe their high school or college paper or a local alternative weekly – and work their way up the food chain. That’s how I did it. All my training was on-the-job, with some second-hand wisdom from the good professors in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire courtesy of the newsroom at the Marshfield News-Herald, full of reporters who’d all attended there and regularly quoted their professors in conversation.
By the time I got to Marshfield, I’d already developed my own writing hierarchy, to which I continue to adhere.
Accuracy – If the facts aren’t right and it’s not coming out exactly the way you’re trying to express what it is you’re trying to express, keep trying.
Accessibility – If you have to use big words and long sentences to be accurate, so be it. But if you can say it with small words and short sentences, that’s better.
Cleverness – If you can do those two things above and be entertaining and witty and clever, more power to you!
The pay was terrible, but being a reporter was a great job. News reporters go where things are happening and gather information on it. The major questions in newsgathering are Who? What? Where? Why? When? How?
Let’s say the “happening” is a house fire. Here’s what a reporter sent to the scene of a fire needs to put together a story:
Whose house? Where is it? Was anyone inside? How did the fire start/how was it contained/how did people get out? When did it start/when was it contained? How many firefighters/battalions responded? If there were people in the house, did they get out? Was anyone injured? Killed? Were there smoke detectors? Who reported the fire? When does the fire department expect to issue a final report? What is the cost of the damage? Was there insurance? How much? (The Public Affairs Journalism prof at Eau Claire told his students to “follow the money.”)
The reporter gathers the available information and writes it in a way that anyone reading it can easily follow. Here’s what it might look like:
“Three people, including a firefighter, were injured in a house fire at 123 Broad Street on Wednesday. Captain Edward Schnauzer of the Mayfield Fire Department said the cause is unknown at this time, as is whether or not there were working smoke detectors.
A passerby noticed smoke coming from an upper window and called the fire department shortly after midnight. Two occupants of the house, a 39-year-old woman and an eight-year-old boy, were taken to St. Bernard hospital for smoke inhalation. One firefighter was treated and released for minor injuries, according to a hospital spokesperson. Three other occupants of the home escaped without injury.
Four battalions responded to the fire, which took two hours to get under control. No nearby houses were damaged.”
That’s news reporting. You go to the event, you find an authority who knows what’s going on, you cite that authority in your story (eg: the fire captain), any other authority who you end up needing to talk to as a result of talking to the first authority (eg: the hospital spokesperson). You might also get a quote from a neighbor watching, one of the people living in the house or, if the house was rented out, its owner, depending on their availability and the time between your reporting and your news outlet’s deadline.
This same principle applies to municipal meetings, political gatherings and basically any event in which there is a beginning, middle and end. If deadline precludes you from reporting on the middle/end, you report as much as you can on the beginning and then follow up to write the rest if the event warrants doing that. (Maybe the fire turns out to be arson for insurance purposes, children playing with matches, or faulty electrical wiring. Depending on the cause, the story you write will either be a small thing or something you follow through to a trial and sentencing. You never know, which is part of the adrenaline rush of being a news reporter.)
But today, I am going to be a feature reporter doing a feature on cataract surgery.
That “who, what, when, where why and how” of newsgathering is also going to come into play.
Who gets cataract surgery? Why? How? What happens? Is it covered by insurance? Are there complications? What are they? Those are the questions I’m going to look to answer.
Because it’s a feature story, I’m going to want to talk to (preferably local) people who’ve undergone the procedure. I will look for someone who is happy with the results, and someone who isn’t. I’ll want to interview a doctor who performs the procedure to get his or her take on what happens, what prospective patients should know going into it and about aftercare and followup.
I can’t do those interviews, though, until I’m educated enough to ask the right questions.
I’ve had cataract surgery. But this isn’t just a first-person story, even though I’m going to let readers know I’ve had the procedure. So I will set my experience aside for the moment.
When it comes to background research, Google and Wikipedia are your friends, as long as you treat them as starting points and not final authorities.
Entering “Cataract Surgery” into a Google search box turns up 11,600,000 results in .54 seconds.
The top result is an ad, which I know because of the “ad” box to the left of the URL.
Someone has paid money to have their listing come up first, a big ol’ red flag to anyone in the news or library business. Librarians and reputable journalists share a reverence for reliable, unbiased information. Our goal is for end-users to be able to make an informed decision about whatever it is they’re looking to figure out. The best way to help make that happen is by providing high-quality, objective source material.
Which is why Google is only a first step. I make a point of going several pages in – usually seven to 10 – to get a sense of what’s out there and what people are looking at and for. (Paid ads aside, Google tends to rank its results, so more popular results show up on the initial pages.)
I gravitate toward sites with .org, .edu and .gov as extensions. I don’t rule out commercial sites (.com), but if a site’s main objective is sales, there’s an obvious bias. I can probably do better with a different type of site.
In addition to my Google search, I’m going to hit up my local public or university library (assuming I have access to a university library) and check out their books and databases.
The difference between a search engine and library database is like the difference between your grandmother’s attic and her spice rack (if your grandmother is a great and adventurous cook). The former is full of random stuff that’s been piling up there for years; the latter is orderly, relevant and everything on it is fresh. In other words, it’s highly curated. Library databases contain information that’s been pre-selected by subject experts for reliability and quality.
I select my source material, I read it, I get literate about my topic. Some of that will come into my story, with citations from those articles ( e.g.: “According to a 2018 study by…. ). Other information will come from interviews. I’d want to talk to at least one person who had the surgery before I talk to the doctor, which would inform some of the questions I asked the professional.
The finished story will emerge from these elements.
With all my information gathered and in one place, I look at it as a whole, searching for a starting point. (I call this part “finding my way in.”) If I get it right, my final product will be accurate, accessible and entertaining.
Here’s a completely true sentence that could serve as the lede (journalist-speak for the first sentence) of how I’d start this first-person story:
“If I had run over my glasses three weeks earlier, it would have been a disaster. But cataract surgery rendered it a non-issue.”
If anyone with a social media presence wants to see their blog stats tank, here’s my advice:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
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
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
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.)