anxiety, be a better human, depression, kindness, meditation, strangers, talking

Stress/Anxiety/Depression & Relaxation/Meditation/Vacation

I really needed a vacation.

Everyone in the US probably does, because we generally work too much and relax too little. For months, arguably longer, I have been stuck in a negative feedback loop about work and where I live and generally doing life “wrong,” or at least not in the way I want to. Turning 30 helped this third-life crisis, but anxiety has a brutal way of sinking its hooks in deep.

Vacation, it was! For a friend’s wedding. And this time, I was doing this one differently, even before I left. Responsible for the planning, my friend/co-traveler/co-bridesmaid told me she was too busy to weigh in on everything. She trusted me. I can just send her links and tell her what to pay. It was great! I like trust! And planning! Whereas in the past, I may have been paralyzed with the responsibility, this time around I welcomed the project and chose lodging, still giving my friend the right to veto.

Now, I like planning because I like having things set, determined. Unambiguous. My anxieties are particularly triggered by transportation and the timing/cost thereof. I proposed a suggested itinerary in February, and when I got the go-ahead for the general dates, I almost immediately booked my tickets, out of fear the price would surge. Because it always does when I wait. Normally, I would have just worked myself into a resentful panic about co-travelers 1/2 and them reserving their flights. I did not want to pressure others or myself, so instead, I did not. I just did what I needed to do and let her do the same. Co-traveler 2 didn’t schedule her flights until within a month of the wedding, but she was also busy and the plans were set up, and eventually it all worked out. It was fine!

This may make an underwhelming story, but it represents a TON of growth and improvement. Many vacations, I bring all my mental crap along with me and am unable to escape and enjoy myself. I can be cranky and wish I had just stayed home and saved the money. My goal for this trip, though, was to be truly present, enjoying the people and places around me. And then I made a plan to travel by myself on the first day, because the rest of co-travelers didn’t arrive until the next day and I had never traveled by myself ever, much less in a foreign land.

This would be good for me, I reasoned. I would see the beautiful sights I wanted to see, and I would be jolted out of my comfort zone (but not sooo far–I opted for a bus so that I would not have to book/catch multiple trains). I would arm myself with offline maps, and I would take responsibility for feeding and entertaining myself for a whole day! (Yes, technically, I do this at home, but that gets boring and tedious, and here I was Seizing The Day and such.) The jet lag would only serve to help me, I reasoned. Meeting a tour group at 7am would be fine, because I would fall asleep early!

Then I learned from my awesome Airbnb hostess that I had to catch a 6:09am bus. Even if arrival times are flexible, I tend to run late and stress myself about possibly being tardy. In this case, I also would have missed my whole day’s plan and flushed a bunch of money as well as my independent-lady-traveler-bragging-rights down the toilet.

I did the thing I was not supposed to do… I let myself fall asleep at 6:00pm–only to wake up at midnight, wide awake and counting down until my 5:00am alarm. Meditating didn’t work, because the anxiety of catching the bus was not letting me go. I was out of bed at sunrise after several hours of tossing and turning, and waiting at the (not-so-quickly-determined incorrect) bus stop at 5:45am. My fear had come true, and I walked past the correct bus stop, walking first to the one farther down and across the street. I did not learn this from the nun, the lone pedestrian who passed me and, kindly, attempted to speak to me though we didn’t share a language. Her, probably the person most inclined to help in the town, I was meek to ask for help. To admit I didn’t know what I was doing. Thankfully, anxiety-earliness meant I had budgeted enough time to miss one bus, and miss it, I did. Not for lack of trying–I sprinted, but to no avail. It was now 6:00. Fifteen minutes is a long time to stand in the cool morning air, hoping I wore the right thing for the day’s temperature, but shivering in the meantime. The sprinting woke me up, and I was not letting another bus leave without me. Not without a fight. I had no more time to spare. The next one didn’t display the same destination and it wasn’t slowing down, but I flagged it just in time. I had to actually speak to the driver, confirming my stop. He said yes! I was triumphant.

The morning was gorgeous, sunny and crisp. The past six hours of sleeplessness had been worth it, just to make this slow and uneventful bus at the nearest to sunrise I had seen in a long time. I looked out the windows at Rome as the locals lived it, away from the city center and the tourist lures. Another man got on, a local, and asked the driver for the same stop as I had–I cheered silently for his good fortune too. I wasn’t the only one who had to ask, plus, I now had a marker for whether I would miss my stop! I had made my plan, and now it was in motion. I would make it! It was destined to be a good experience, because I had already done the hardest part.

Before I started meditating, and actively working to be my best self, I would have been a monster that day. I would have whined and complained about how tired I was. I would maybe have succumbed to the anxieties and just emailed the tour company and asked for my money back because I didn’t want to even deal with leaving. In a nutshell, I would have let my thoughts derail me.

That day was not perfect, and I caught myself being unkind to my fellow tour-goers and to myself, but all in all, I didn’t complain because there was no one to complain to. I shushed myself and reminded myself that I had navigated the public transportation in a city where I barely spoke 10 phrases of the language. I thought with gratitude of my Airbnb hostess and how thorough and kind her directions were, despite my spastic communication. I grumbled a bit when lunch (a piece of fish and an espresso) cost $37, but, the views!! Nothing was bringing me down. This was my day.

So, I saw some marvelous sights: Pompeii in all its historical glory, and Positano, one of the most beautiful tourist traps of all time. It was a roller coaster of emotions, but I recommend traveling solo based on how independent it made me feel. And, I did it with the training wheels of a group tour where I just showed up! More adventurous folk plan trains and hike with backpacks and sleep outdoors! There are plenty of options. Either way, it was a great start to my vacation, made me open my eyes and explore.

The whole vacation did knock me out of my routine and funk…once I got over the post-vacation mini-depression of returning to real life. I wanted to leave being present on vacation, because coming back, I saw the same errors and flaws. Other than my motivation. I was the person who traipsed around Italy by herself: I didn’t let the self-pity last long. I went to a yoga class, and I reached out to an awesome friend who made room in her weekend for me. I wrote some postcards and thought about how lucky I am to have the friends and family I do. I returned to daily meditation. I feel recentered.

And my real life is far from all-bad. Yesterday, a customer came into the library looking for audiobooks by Pema Chodron. As I started to read the titles off to her, I commented to her that I hadn’t heard of her, but now wanted to listen to them! She raved about one, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. We had a lovely chat, she told me to read at least that book. When we introduced ourselves, I put out my hand to shake hers, but she said “I’m going to hug you, if that’s okay!” And she did. And it was. Vacation and meditation have mellowed me enough that strangers* hugging me is okay. In a nutshell, I’m feelin the love from the universe this week. The trick will be to manage my stress and keep the contentment/gratitude going as life sneaks back to normal.

Walking to bus station at sunrise, to Positano… Worth all the pennies.

 

*strangers who have two-way conversations with me about meditation and books first.

community, family, information, librarians, strangers

For Dads About to Rock.. We Salute You

Sometimes at the library, when you are working at the desk and minding your own business, people let you in on some very private matters. So long as this does not involve diseases or obscenity, I’m generally okay with this. One such day, a man approached the desk and asked me about pregnancy books: he and his wife were looking for them because they just found out they were going to be parents. He paused, squinted and looked around inside his brain, and said, “actually…you’re the first person we’ve told.” My standard instinctive reaction is to immediately provide the requested information, like an eager-to-inform robot. But this time, my social graces couldn’t ignore the relevant personal information. I beamed at him like a non-misanthrope and lover of small, poopy people that I am and said “I’m honored!” before efficiently telling him there are books in the adult health/wellness section, and in the children’s area.

This interaction, all told, took under 120 seconds, but it was such a sweet moment. I watched him process this milestone of parenthood, and all the mini-milestones in preparation for it. He was at the library! To prepare! And he was openly sharing his joy.

I try to imagine what my own dad was doing to prepare for becoming a parent for the first time, and I can’t quite picture him at the library looking for What to Expect When You’re Expecting. He reads Rolling Stone and business magazines, not books. Not a touchy-feely kind of guy, he didn’t really “get” me and my brother until we were old enough to at least tie our shoes and more or less write complete sentences. After all, our senses of humor weren’t tuned to “dad joke” frequency right out of the gate; we had to grow into it. Also, before a certain age, we were the aforementioned poopy little people, and we only got cooler with time (until, I think we can agree, bro, we may have plateaued). If he wasn’t tossing us around a pool on vacation, chances are we were being loud and whiny and annoying, bickering and fighting with each other. On our Tuesday nights and alternating weekends together for the 7 years leading up to college, he rationalized us into an equitable system for deciding where to eat dinner. This was a matter of the utmost childish importance, otherwise worthy of much whining and fighting (“he picked last tiiiiiime!!!” “I don’t feeeeel like iiiiitttt!” etc.). We each wrote down a suggestion on a piece of paper napkin, and one person selected, and as soon as Dad started the car, the radio started too. We could pout but we couldn’t audibly complain, because everyone had the same chances. The best way to cope if your selection lost was to cross your fingers a good song came on.

Once we were old enough to dance, he and Mom introduced us to Bob Marley’s Legend, Eric Clapton’s, Tom Petty’s and Bonnie Raitt’s entire catalogs. From middle through high school, aka before Sirius/XM radio displayed the artist and song title, he quizzed us on the artists playing in the car on WONE and WNCX, Cleveland’s Classic Rock stations. We would have been shamed if we had gotten Tom, Clapton, Janis, Neil or the Stones wrong (but we never did). Dark horses we had to watch out for were the ambiguous synth-y Steely Dan and The Who.

Once we spoke the same musical language and I became a real adult with real-world crap to deal with, I appreciated my dad in a totally new way. The dad jokes became hilariously funny. He became my go-to for career and money advice, which means we talk way more than when I was younger. Now that I have lived a little and accepted him for who he is, I see his lack of touchy-feely-ness as a virtue. He is able to rationally weigh pros and cons of my dilemmas without getting sucked in to the emotional/social dynamics like I do. Sometimes this backfires, as when he tried to herd us out of a Tom Petty concert before the encore to beat the traffic (I protested. It was American Girl.) or when he e-mailed a relative newly diagnosed with colon cancer, expressing concern for his “plumbing issue.”

But that’s my dad! (To my shock and amazement, the plumbing joke did not end their relationship, nor even particularly offend. And, the cancer is now in remission, if you were worried!)

He stocks his refrigerator with barely more than the essentials: milk, eggs, shredded cheese and whatever is going on the grill, and reaching dinner consensus takes no time at all. He taught me to make DIY concert earplugs by rolling strips of paper napkin into balls, always carries a nail clipper that I inevitably need to borrow, and mails me gluten-free pound cake with a note that simply says “Enjoy! Love, Dad.”

All in all, my dad rocks.

dad_rocks

anxiety, books, community, kindness, librarians, reading, strangers, talking, writing

Professional Development: Book Edition

It is conference season!!!! Let the record reflect that I possess an Oprah-announcing-a-giveaway level of excitement about attending conferences. I LOVE THEM. This love started when I was a wee junior in college, learning to be an English teacher and I attended a YALSA conference (Young Adult Library Services Association). It was magical. There were BOOKS and BOOK LISTS and BOOK PARAPHERNALIA (bookmarks, so many bookmarks) and evvveryone was talking about books. What I’m saying is, it was a nerd convention and I was among my people.

Well, in the last two weeks of May, I attended three conferences. This means I had to be extremely friendly/social, make some peer-buddies (because I knew no one at 2/3 and I can’t not talk to someone), caffeinated enough to make sense when speaking to strangers (which is extremely caffeinated if I have to wake up at any hour pre-dawn), caffeinated enough to not want to fall asleep in any sessions (because that’s rude, no matter how boring the session is) AND, on occasion, I was required to present myself to non-peer-type-people with some degree of authority and professionalism (which is exhausting and painful if you have social anxiety!).

Three in two weeks was too many too soon. I. Am. Exhausted… and I’ve already had a week to recover.

There was a librarian conference with workshops for specific skills or ideas; Book Expo which is mostly book buzz and ARCs; and a writers’ conference.

It was fun to meet new people at two of the places, and to hang out with people I knew at the other, as we made mad dashes to grab all the cute promotional totes. Seriously, I came home with at least 6 tote bags.. And I was being choosy.

All I will say about the conference with the workshops is that it was a beautiful, blue-sky day on a college campus and I had a lively chat at lunch about censorship and culture shock between the North and South with people relatively new to the library community and people who have been members for 30 years. It was reaffirming that I could sit down with people I had never met before and find common ground (and create a common lifegoal–taking a vacation to operate a bookstore, WHICH APPARENTLY EXISTS !!!!–Mel, we gotta book (sorry, couldn’t resist) this, ASAP). Our lunch table bonded, y’all. It was a billion times better than a silent food-shoveling-adjacent-to-others.

Book Expo is a special kind of madness in an enormous exhibition hall. I like to just ‘wing it,’ or, more likely, glom on to someone who has researched what book stalls they want to go ahead of time. At the end of the day, I left with about 10-12 Advance Reader Copies and many lists of books that will be published in the next several months. Many were added to my Goodreads to-read shelf (cries a solitary tear, but they sounded so good so it had to be done). My most treasured ARC was Nick Offerman and Megan Mulally’s upcoming book they wrote together. The ARC I didn’t get but wish I had was a novel called Ohio. The author was signing books and had a giant line so I looked it up and it sounds interesting. But, NOT uplifting so I decided it was not worth a huge line :/ The people at Book Expo were ruthless in their line forming/cutting. It was a bit grabby for my liking, but I made it through the day not entirely grumpy from the pushy people and my having woken up at 5:30am.

As for the writers…. Wow. It was a lot to take in. There was tons of information about maybe-possibly-trying-to-write-a-book-and-get-it-published. That was overwhelming, but tempered with sessions of varying merit about cool topics. My favorite session had HOMEWORK (we had to read two essays before we got there and one of them was Cheryl Strayed) and the teacher-lady kicked ass. What blew my mind the most was that none of the presenters the whole weekend rolled their eyes at anyone. Even when I thought a story idea sounded entirely ridiculous and un-marketable, the presenters were encouraging and treated the idea as if it were plausible. I shudder to think about the admissions entries for creative writing programs, so, good thing I’m just a blogger and not a writing teacher.

As much as I think I am an extrovert, I am really looking forward to a couple weeks where I don’t have to mingle with strangers, but instead kick back with my cat, a book and read.

 

Image result for oprah reading book

 

Ps, if anyone is keeping track, I’m sorry I don’t own all the photos I post. Please don’t report me to the copyright militia.

be a better human, books, bookstores, kindness, librarians, reading, strangers, talking

Prying book eyes

On a recent library book binge, I brought home a hefty stack of books. My lovely housemate saw the stack, and asked me about one title: Being Peace by Thich Naht Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. She collects quotations and happened to have a few from his writings. She shared this one with me:

“Though we all have the fear and the seeds of anger within us, we must learn not to water those seeds and instead nourish our positive qualities – those of compassion, understanding, and loving kindness.”

Since I’m the Angry Librarian, this interested me, and we had a thoughtful conversation about how life and the workplace may bring out some of these very seeds and how we need to smile and shake it off.

In yet another library, last week I needed to print something before I went to the printer-haven of work, and popped into a public library I’d never visited. In order to use one of the computers, I was asked to provide a photo ID. I watched as the librarian wrote my name and guest pass number on a piece of paper, and brainstormed the many reasons they might wish to monitor who is visiting what sites within their walls. (I could only come up with potential issues arising from illegal activity.)

In my experience through library school and in the public library where I work, though, there is a current, obsessive trend with library privacy. My own library just switched to a different hold pick-up system, where customers can retrieve their items from a shelf and use self-check machines (grab-and-go style). Before this new process could begin, there were evidently many lengthy meetings about where on the book to put a sticker containing what identifying information. Should the sticker display the customer’s full name? Should the title of the book show?

As for myself, I fail to see how this conversation could last more than 15 minutes. And yet, it lasted. (The end result that was decided is the sticker will be arranged alphabetically by full last name and cover the title of the book. I know you were dying to know.)

Let me address, I did not like being asked for my identification in order to use a public computer. The implications did not jive with my knowledge of privacy. I fully recognize the importance of protecting online privacy–our and all libraries use some form of a program called Deep Freeze, which wipes all data from each customer login after they sign out. (Even still, sometimes that doesn’t work, so if anyone out there is worried about their digital footprint and who is looking at it, always manually sign out of your accounts, and under no circumstances store passwords on a public computer, as a principle.)

However, I just don’t think that people in public spaces can expect (nor can those public spaces guarantee) complete and total privacy. This is absurd and paranoid to me, as it seems counterintuitive to expect that no one will see (or that anyone would care) what books people are holding in their hands. And, not to mention, this extreme privacy doesn’t allow for every romance or friendship that started because someone was curious enough to look at what book the other was holding, and then take the bold and vulnerable (and sometimes well-received) gesture to start a conversation about it.

The frenzied desire to block all others out irritates me. I can’t help but feel that anyone in a public library is freely forfeiting at least a tiny bit of their privacy just by stepping into  a public space. How is carrying a book around any building not placing someone “at risk” of revealing its title? And, if someone is truly ashamed of their reading material, why would they request it to be held for them instead of venturing in and selecting it, by hand, by themselves?

I think back to a woman I had in my line at the bookstore when I was 19. This glamorous 30-something placed a small pile of books on the counter, barely raising her lips in greeting when I smiled and said hello. I, observing her gorgeous diamond ring, turned my eyes to the books. All three were about surviving the death of a spouse. I was shocked that such a horrible event could happen to someone so young and pretty, and I hoped I didn’t offend her or make her sadder during this, the symbolic purchase. Unsure how she would want me to act in this minor exchange, I tried not to widen my eyes and tried harder to eliminate any pity from my voice. More than anything, I was proud of her. Here was this young woman, whose own eyes (once I looked up from the ring) I could see were red and puffy. She was obviously not shopping for a gift. She was in mourning.

And she bought these books to help herself heal.

She did not buy them online, preserving her privacy as she sobbed in her pajamas. She very easily could have, and would have, if she were embarrassed of her emotionally vulnerable state, or concerned with how the young, desperate for adult life and love cashier or other browsing strangers would treat her.

Instead, she braved the world. She drove to us, got out of her car, located the section she needed, and from the shelf, handpicked not just one, but three books, in what I interpreted as her sadness and desperation morphing into resolve: a series of clear actions she took towards helping herself. I hope those books and all this time gave her what she needed.

And I am grateful for the spontaneous human connection that books, bookstores and libraries can provide. The fleeting moments with strangers where we mutually reveal something of ourselves.

We deserve to relinquish privacy on occasion. We need to leave room for vulnerability.

books, bookstores, community, coworkers, kindness, librarians, lists, strangers

All in a day’s work / when to call 911

I love my part-time job. It is a bustling public library, and this Saturday there were hardly any open seats to be found. I did not mess up/misinform anyone, and I fully remembered passwords and phone numbers! It was overall a great day full of happy customers, right up until someone had to call the police.

Here is a lengthy list of customers I encountered. It is a lengthy list instead of actual paragraphs because I am lazy.

  • a young gentleman about 8 years old just approached the desk, his eager expression paired with a precocious personality, capped off (hehe) with a safari hat. He was returning a library card he found on the ground outside. As my colleague was calling its new owner (she just got the card today), I recognized walking by me the young man from The Ones Who Call, though his red hair has darkened a fair amount since last I saw him.
  • guy who taught me and another 20-something coworker how to change typewriter ribbons (also the only customer who uses floppy-disk reader)
  • guy who chatted me up for an uncomfortably long time and when he learned I worked at a school, wanted me to tutor his daughter (same guy who keeps newspapers for 4 hours inconsiderately)
  • old guy lawyer who wants me to tutor him in “computers” because I showed him how to get a DVD to play. (Hint: by not having a broken DVD drive, and inserting the DVD.)
  • phone calls, all answered by separate people who remarked about bad connection where we couldn’t hear the customer (x4, very annoying) and when the call finally came through, the coworker who answered knew the woman and talked to her for some time. She was calling for a James Patterson book, and spoke at length with my colleague because her husband has recently died. If I had answered the phone, I wouldn’t have known her or his name–but my colleague did, and shared with her her remembrance of his daily library ritual for 8 years as he picked up her books. She told me we started shipping the books home two years ago, so she hadn’t seen him. She felt for the customer. This coworker is a sweet, gentle lady who once gave me a shirt she bought for her daughter because she “bought it for my daughter at the outlets, she doesn’t want it, but I know it will look good on you!”
  • lady caller who asked if we have scanners: yes! How much do they cost? Nothing! Thanked me profusely when she came in.
  • spotted from across the floor two teen girls trying to eat a croissant (the flakiest of the foods are generally frowned upon, as the signage indicates). One was looking directly at me, head lowered in the international sign of trying-not-to-get-caught, which is the opposite of furtive. Busted. Maintaining the eye contact, she re-bagged the croissant.
  • sweet lady who is in here all the time but doesn’t have a card with us asked for a new true crime book about that athlete who murdered someone also by James Patterson (this guy has eleventy million ghost writers and produces eleventeen billion books a year), and because she couldn’t check it out, she wanted to know how much the book would cost her. I told her how much it would be at the local independent bookstore, and then how much on Barnes & Noble, then Amazon. She thought that a lower price at BN meant maybe it wasn’t selling well. I explained how bestselling authors’ books go directly to the bestseller’s promotional price in the hopes that more people will buy them. Myth busted.
  • gentleman in his late 70s who is friendly with most of the staff. (Long ago, before I was close with him, I helped him print out his legal documents for end-of-life wishes.) Yesterday he wanted to make plans for his out of town guests visiting for Memorial Day weekend and asked for my help in museum-planning.
  • teen I used to see every day when I worked in Youth Services was surprised (or feigning it for the benefit of his girlfriend and her friend) that I remembered his name. He now has a rap name, and the friend had never heard his real name before I said it.
  • lady called asking how to checkout an ebook. She learned that even ebooks have waiting lists / can only be checked out to one person at a time
  • middle-aged woman who asked for help with ebooks, and then for a book recommendation. She was looking for something quick to read, because she had been reading such heavy books–or maybe something funny, preferably fiction. Since I’m only here one day per month and don’t get to recommend books at my full-time job, I LIVE for this question, and her desired genres match up with mine, making her my new best customer. I told her books you’ve already heard of if you read my blog: Vacationland – John Hodgman; One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter – Scaachi Koul; Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng; Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty; My Life with Bob – Pamela Paul
  • Note: little girls being dragged out of the library by their fathers while protesting in French are infinitely cuter than the ones screaming and crying in English.
And then there was our building monitor, who delightedly relayed a tale from the previous night, where a lady who calls to make study room reservations (we don’t take them over the phone, but she evidently badgers) thought the library was the next Starbucks because she was asked not to have coffee near the computers. She got confrontational with him and called 911. As in the case with Starbucks, calling 911 IS NOT AN ACCEPTABLE THING TO DO IN THIS SITUATION. (If you have a grievance with/are being actually harassed by someone, at least google the phone number for the local police, bypassing the EMERGENCY CALL LINE. Because that is for EMERGENCIES.) After calling 911, she apparently couldn’t stand being in the same room as the building monitor, and walked to police station… Leaving my colleague at the library to laugh with the police when they showed up.

Here are some acceptable reasons to call 911: when you hear a loud CRACK coming from our lobby because a 91-year-old lady fell and hit her head on the marble floor. When this happened, I thought she had to be dead, and I didn’t want to be the one to investigate, nor to call 911. When she realized I was paralyzed by fear of this lady dying on our floor, my coworker called and handled the emergency team’s questions. The ambulance came quickly. She did not die on our floor, was only briefly knocked out, and actually walked out of her own accord. Waved the EMTs away.

And then yesterday, two girls were not at the library any longer when one’s mom arrived to pick her up. She spent 30 minutes combing the library for her ten year old who may have walked home with her friend. Then, and only after I made two announcements on the speakers asking for her daughter by name, she called the police. This was fully warranted, but I had many questions.

Did she have the phone number for the playmate’s parents, and a call to them could have put her fears to rest? Also, why do parents continue to think the library is a babysitter? We cannot watch your children for you. There is too much else going on. I hope that these little girls walked safely home, that the mother will forever after communicate with people responsible for her child, and that the daughter is embarrassed and grounded so she doesn’t break plans with her mom ever again.

 

It has been more than three years now since I started working here, and this blue-sky, warmish weather day has made me see how many connections I have made in this town. I’m thankful for my smart, supportive, talented coworkers, and thankful I can work here even as rarely as I do. It is one of two jobs that I have worked at for longer than one year. Of course, it isn’t perfect, but it’s busy, full of (mostly) good people. To love this library is to love informing, sharing with and belonging to the community I’m a part of.

empathy, information, kindness, librarians, strangers

The Ones Who Call

Answering the phone at work is one of my favorite activities. I already like talking on the phone, which is more than many people can say. However, when people call in to the public library (note: I did not say THEIR public library, since we get scores of calls from far, far away), there are good chances the encounter will be positive. This is because:

  1. The caller is likely to be older. Maybe they are physically restricted and can’t make it in, but gosh darn it, they are pleasant on the phone. All it takes is a sweet old lady calling me ‘dear’ and telling me I’ve been ‘so very helpful’ and I am struck with a good mood for at least two hours.
  2. Often, a mobile customer is asking a brief question, ie “are you open?” or “do you have [this book]/a color printer/paper federal tax forms?” and in a ten second interaction, I can provide a solution to their information need. One reason I’m a librarian is that I actively enjoy answering questions and sharing information.
  3. The library employee maintains a healthy amount of control in the event that a customer becomes demeaning or inappropriate. While this does not happen often, in person or on the phone, I treasure the ability to not have to endure verbal abuse for longer than it takes me to say, “sir/ma’am, if you continue to disrespect me like this, I will hang up.”
    • My wise and talented colleague taught me a librarian lesson (our version of life lessons) one day with a customer who wanted to babble with no perceived purpose. She told the man politely, “I’m sorry, I have a customer here and I need to hang up.” And then she did! It was crazy how simple it was to reclaim her time.

That said, phone interactions can go south in many ways. You never know who will call in. There is one frequent caller who asks for various conversions of inches to millimeters and for phone numbers to businesses in the United Kingdom. It is not her questions that rub me the wrong way, but her snappish, pushy tone, and the way she does not believe what I report to her. There are weeks where patients in psychiatric facilities call us and we have to encourage them to call priests or pastors because we cannot answer their questions about sin and forgiveness. There are teens who clearly have not used their cell phones for the purposes of communicating voice-to-voice with other human beings, and people who get angry at us because we can’t hear them due to their poor cell reception.

When I worked in Youth Services, we received many phone calls from one mother whose son visited the library for many hours each school night, and Saturdays, and Sundays. He did not have a cell phone, and she knew to find him there. She called once and asked for her son and when I said sure, I will go get him, she lashed into me. “Why do you know my kid?” The thing about librarians who work with kids is that we get to know them in a safe space: what they like, what they read and what magic makes them who they are. We care about them. This is what makes good youth librarians good at their jobs. I told her that I knew him because he was there every day, and she lost it. She screamed at me about how I was judging her for having to work and not being home with her child. She told me she was tired of us at the library and how if we thought her kid was there too much, she wouldn’t let him go there after school. In between saying that that was not necessary, that of course he is welcome and we all really liked him, she projected all of her guilt and single-parenting issues directly onto me. Though I was conscious I didn’t deserve her misplaced anger, I was still rattled. When she was done berating me, I brought him to the phone to talk to her. Then I took a break to walk it off.

And then there is thank-you-for-taking-my-call guy (TYFTMCG). He earned his moniker because he begins each and every call by verifying the library employee’s name and then thanking us for taking his call. If he is not hard of hearing, he does a very convincing portrayal of someone who is, and he is notorious at our library. An elderly gentleman, he never visits our location. Just calls. All the time.  The first time I had him on the line, he verified my name. “Emory?” “My name is Emily. How can I help you?” “Ah, Emory. Great. Thank you for taking my call.” There is no one on our staff who he does not irritate. After the second call, I memorized the last four digits of his phone number (0241), so I could at least know I was headed into the Emory phone calls, mustering some degree of preparedness.

He asks inane, often un-answerable trivia questions that feel like when your mom asks you “what restaurant did we go to that one time?” or “what is that thing you were talking about that one time when we were at [that restaurant]?” He asks us to repeat our guesses around a dozen times, and often, to spell them, often a dozen times. On one such call, he asked me the name of places where pregnant girls go for counsel. This led to me near-shouting “pregnancy crisis centers!?! Abortion clinics?!!” over and over again. He also doesn’t accept your responses, which means he denies you have found the answer the whole call, and often calls back to try to speak to a different employee.

Many people have competing theories about whether he is annoying on purpose/calls us for crossword clues or Jeopardy questions, but my theory is that he calls us because he probably has dementia and forgets things he has heard about. I believe we are his external memory.

I have been thinking about this man and that boy lately. No one had seen the kid or his mother in a while, and apparently the overdue notices had come back with a forwarding address in another town, where I hope he has a new library with a great youth team. There were many dormant months when we received no TYFTMCG calls. When he called again, I was glad to hear his voice, but I’m worried that we are nearing a time when he won’t call anymore.

The phone is an exercise in kindness, in dedicating your energy to communicating with someone whose body language is absent. One bad customer service call can essentially convince anyone that the person on the other side of the phone is a fool. During my most recent shift, I returned a customer’s voicemail, and concluded my message on her machine by asking her to give us a call back. I started to give the phone number as I have done hundreds of times, paused for an awkward length, and had to conclude by stating I literally forgot our phone number, but she found it before so to try us again.

I aim to grant people as much benefit of the doubt as I hope she gave me listening to that message.

I hope she doesn’t think I’m a terrible employee. I hope she chuckles at my silliness, or understands that everyone has those days. I hope she grants that there are many reasons why the employee could have forgotten. Maybe, for example, she woke up at 6am after 5 hours of sleep, not able to fall back for another couple hours because she is moving in two weeks, breaking up with her lovely boyfriend, and her mind won’t stop, and she was in pain because her neck/shoulder muscles froze from all the tension she’s carrying but she didn’t want to call out to her very-part-time job and she is trying to make the best of the day, though she can neither remember the library’s phone number nor turn her head.

So, yeah. Conversing on the phone is a solid indicator of who a person is in a moment in time. Call your loved ones, call your libraries, call anyone you want to vet before meeting. And be kind.

anxiety, be a better human, empathy, kindness, strangers

Month of letters, What Unites Us & trying

Working smarter, not harder is a motto I didn’t know about until I had been operating under it for roughly a decade. One reason I am the last to know many things is that I am a lazy human. On the yoga mat in my twenties, I was the one who stretched a teensy bit deeper when the instructor was nearby, and the one who glared at all the folks who could clearly afford to attend 10 classes per week. Who were all these people who made this their whole life? Some of us were stressed and underpaid and loved to make excuses!

They tried and worked hard to accomplish their physical goals, and I judged them out of jealousy. Ironic, really, considering everyone is at yoga to become more flexible.

The four months of being in my thirties have made it clear that trying is not for people who can afford it, or for people who are more self-disciplined than I am. Money doesn’t buy flexibility, and it sure doesn’t buy self-discipline. No, I’m realizing, trying is not about your conspicuous displays of effort or finances. Trying is not for your act’s observers, not for weirdos, not posers, nor overachievers.

Trying is for adults.

Prior to 2016, I got away with not trying. Distancing and removing myself from other people, from causes regardless of proximity to my heart, from the goings-on of the world stage. Avoiding painful news and regrettable state of some of my relationships, tucked safely inside a cocoon of disengagement.

A typical weekend saw me sitting or reclining on my bed, watching comedy shows on Netflix (avoid feelings! Avoid ads! Avoid paying for cable!), occasionally screening calls from my parents (avoid feelings and accountability to those who love me!), and writing letters to my friends (avoid the phone!) I interacted enough with humans at work. Let me read my gazillions of books in peace (avoid the outside world!). I was too wrapped up in anxiety and my puffy quilt to attend a Women’s March and all prior/subsequent protests.

My lax, avoidant attitude towards the news has only changed this past year, when a month’s worth of government-induced garbage happens every day. To miss a day is to miss a lot. Most of the time, I still miss a lot, but I sign 324,342,784 times more petitions than I used to. I, oblivious and off doing my own thing, used to wait for my mom or my best friend of 20 years (hi Mel!) to fill me in on what I needed to know, in for the most part environmental/social justice arenas and celebrity/entertainment news, respectively. For proof of my anti-involvement in the news ‘cycle,’ I joined Twitter in November 2016. It feels like I was one of the last people to do so, behind even scores of grandmas and  fake news bots.

2017, Dan Rather, and tackling anxiety make me want to try harder. Dan Rather’s What Unites Us has spoken to me in a profound way. (If you don’t have time to read the whole book, the linked article sums up much of what is gloriously human(e) about Rather’s work.) It is so easy to be critical, and judge, and immediately fly into a rage about someone whose opinions differ from yours or at all the idiots commenting online about issues they have not spent any time actually cranking their brain-gears about. The campaign against human decency that is our current political “leadership” has worked wonders for my involvement in the world. Translation: thanks drumpf, for violently shoving me into my status as an activist and better human.

I have donated more money to more charitable organizations and political movements than ever before in my life. I have stepped up to deal with my anxiety rather than let it rule me. And, I am consciously trying to be less of an asshole to people who don’t deserve it, a noble act for those of us who work with the public.

As a librarian, I can’t stop reading. Instead, I’m trying to intentionally read for better reasons, like learning and self-improvement. What Unites Us has been both. Reading Mr. Rather, one paragraph struck home particularly loudly. He writes about his modest neighborhood during the Great Depression:

The neighborhood tried as best it could to help these families stay alive. If we had leftovers after supper, we would walk them across the street. One of my earliest impressions was taking that short journey with my father. You might think that these families were humiliated by the offerings, but there is no dignity in being hungry. And there was no judgment or disdain on the part of those offering assistance. No one wondered why those neighbors weren’t working, and no one passed moral judgments on their inability to fend for themselves. We understood that in life, some are dealt aces, some tens, and some deuces.

He went on to say their behavior was not heroic, but instead neighborly.

On vacations during childhood, when my family was complete, we played cards. Of course the kid-friendly go fish, but also poker and gin, where I learned either my card showed up or it didn’t, and I had to maneuver my hand to my advantage. The luck of the draw, Mr. Rather states, birthed everyone into their circumstances. What you do with your hand is based on your adaptability and intellect, but what you do with your hand is also connected to what the other players can do with theirs. Empathy means not only considering other people’s perspectives, but at the most fundamental level, acknowledging their humanity and worth. Our culture’s polarization problem desperately needs more empathy, more kindness, more patience, more thinking-before-speaking. Less judgment, less us-versus-them, and less screaming.

So, like, less Fox News.

Adults need to try to empathize with one another. Neighbors looking out for neighbors. (A topic addressed poignantly by Michael Moore’s movie Where to Invade Next.)

As a devout supporter of the United States Postal Service, I will similarly not stop writing letters. During February, I wrote at least one letter per day (with only 2 days off to rest my hand). The Month of Letters was not about hermit-ing and avoiding feelings; it was about reaching out and spreading love and joy. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like getting a letter among the coupons and bills. Doubtful whether I would maintain enthusiasm the whole month, I surprised myself. It turns out I had a lot to say.

IMG_0049
List of MoL recipients; love tweets to Dan Rather not included–those hit the Twitterverse in March

I am trying. I definitely scream less. Maybe tomorrow I will even try to get to yoga.