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

anxiety, be a better human, judgment, kindness, social media, writing

Being 30 on Facebook

Not long ago, our public library did a large renovation and an entire floor was completely closed and furniture dispersed. This displacement meant that the computers were now in a more central space near the entrance. This more prominent location meant there was far less inappropriate viewing behavior, ie. anything you wouldn’t want someone accidentally viewing over your shoulder. I’ll leave that to your imagination. That said, there are many regulars who tend to sit at the computers for lengths of time. One of them spends his internet time arguing with people in the comments sections on Facebook. Unclear whether he ever knows the people he’s debating, but he gets heated. When he gets heated, he either 1) slams his fingers onto the keyboard, loudly or 2) hums, loudly or 3) hums, loudly and aggressively. When I say loudly, I mean audible from a great distance. He knows he does these things, and library staff (librarians and building monitors alike) have spoken to him many times about respecting the library computers and not disrupting fellow customers.

Another repeat customer I helped with his resume similarly had a volume modulation issue. Upon seeing me when he walked in, he would somehow not knowingly shout “HEY! TEACHER LADY! DO YOU REMEMBER ME? CAN YOU HELP ME WHEN YOU GET A SECOND?” I generally love working on resumes, but always felt a prickly sense of dread and wished that I hadn’t told him that I worked at a nearby school too.

Hip to the noise concerns of many customers, I was not the only one who felt dread and anger rise when certain customers spoke/shouted/watched videos without headphones. But as much as I despise those anxiety-inducing behaviors, one day I was proud of them.

A well-dressed middle aged white woman asked me a question at the desk, and, glancing at the row of people using computers, she asked me with a plain sense of disgust, “what are they doing on the computers?”

Pretending to be confused, I responded, “anything that you would need a computer to do…”

She scoffed. “But, why here? Don’t they have computers at home?”

Now, I didn’t have to pretend to be confused. Did this lady really just ask me that?

As calmly as I could, I said, “maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but we have them in order for people to use them.”

She accepted this, walked away, and I feared my explanation did nothing to pull her from her cozy privilege cocoon.

Some people do not have computers at home. Maybe they have one, but don’t have internet. Maybe they don’t have air conditioning, and don’t want to sit in their home as they apply for jobs for hours. Maybe they are using our databases to do genealogical research, or print out their boarding passes, or print out really anything! I was outraged that this woman had been so blatantly judgmental at the “riff-raff” who sit at the public computers, because it is their right to do so! The public library is for everyone! That is literally the point of our existence!

Now, though I do not myself spend time on Facebook at the library, I spend plenty of time on it at home. Last week, I did something that I ordinarily hate: I wrote about my feelings and shared it on Facebook. My perception of people who do this is that they are attention-seeking, craving validation, and emoting for emoting’s sake. Oversharers.

My intention was much simpler: I hadn’t felt like posting anything in two weeks, when I generally try to write at least once per week, and I couldn’t think of anything to write about except being sad. Didn’t even bother tying it to anything library-related. It was an off-brand, atypically personal post. And, I want to address the phrase “lightly depressed” that I used. I was not talking about the past two weeks of crying over my failed relationship. It had been a while since I was just plain sad about something specific, and I didn’t distinguish it as a separate entity from depression. Being sad can exist away from depression. I used that phrase not to diminish depression, because the point of depression is that it is not finite; it permeates through time and darkens joy. Depression is when you can’t climb out of the dark cloud. When I used the phrase lightly depressed, I meant my tendency of the last two years to say no rather than yes, to stay in rather than do any activity out of the house, to remain stationary when I needed to get up and moving my body. Functional depression, as I could always go to work, make dinner plans with friends and take trips to friends’ weddings. I wasn’t trapped in my bed for days, pondering the meaninglessness of life and futility of love like I have before. I just didn’t want to go to the grocery store or cook.

anx

And Facebook is not the place to be when you are depressed. As a 30-year-old, I see a feed of baby photos, engagement announcements, weddings, pregnancy/career milestones and gorgeous views from hikes and vacations with smiling significant others. As I read in (the fantastic) America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks by Ruth Whippman, people are likely to share the highlights of their lives on social media rather than the struggles, proclaiming their happiness and picture-perfect, filtered lives. The sense of inadequacy I feel when I see acquaintances’ posts is enough to make me want to leave Facebook. The happy is brilliant, blinding, and I can’t help but compare my circumstances unfavorably. And I did so, successfully deactivating for around a month in the fall. (I reactivated before my birthday so I could collect the yearly messages.)

The added nonsense of violated privacy agreements and Russian meddling and all the political posts (of which I am very guilty of sharing with many expletives) has prompted me to legitimately defend to myself why I am still using the site. Once, I wanted to hoard the photo documentation of years of my life, since people my age don’t generally have photo albums that aren’t digital. Now, I am moving toward cultivating non-attachment, so should be willing to let go of this (possibly vain and controlling) desire for a digital footprint.

But, now I have this blog, and I predominantly share it with my Facebook network. As a digital tree in the woods, if a blog is written but Facebook friends aren’t there to click on it, does it have a readership? There are ways to follow my blog (scroll up on the page and the word “follow” appears at the bottom right–click it!), but I want people to read what I write, and so don’t want to deactivate and lose the visibility.

Plus, the reaction I got from friends and family last week was pure and good. Many reached out, because as much as I can turtle and not want to talk about Feelings, I have an awesome support network who are there to help. An analog network, away from the internets.

So, thank you for that, reader-friends/loved ones! After a weekend accidentally spent completely analog and instead with stationery, meals with girl friends, meditation and reading in the park–as well as a brief surprise visit by Spring, I’m back in the writing saddle. And dedicated to using Facebook for its merits: connecting with a broad group of cool people I somehow know.

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.

judgment, kindness, librarians, strangers

Yes, sir / No, sir

As previously discussed, I leave just enough time in transit to get where I’m going on time. Sometimes I run close to the wire. Recently, I was on the opening shift and putting away the day’s newspapers just as the doors opened at 9AM. Two men walked in to the newspaper shelves, reached for their papers, and one walked out. One seated himself and I continued putting up the papers.

The one who took his news to go happens to wear women’s clothing and makeup.

The one who stayed in the room with me announced not quietly and with plenty of distaste, “it’s unnatural!”

I was the only other person in the room. I froze.

He had waited until the first customer left the room, so he wasn’t looking for a confrontation. Why, then? Was this statement for my benefit, somehow? Was he trying to gauge my reaction, or worse, did he assume that I agreed with him? Or, was he just THAT comfortable with airing his views wherever he pleased? And, was I willing to possibly be reprimanded for yelling at a closed-minded customer?

It was a real drag.

Never one to quip quickly or effectively in arguments, I instead simmered quietly over my ethical dilemma. I wanted to tell this dude that what is UNNATURAL is pumping enough carbon into the air that the glaciers are melting and it is 75 degrees for a week in the East Coast in February. Humans NATURALLY wore very few garments, and they were designed to protect them from the elements, not to designate gender or convey status.

Then I reflected a little.

When I started at the library, my initial reaction to the gentleman who wears women’s clothes was to judge him. I thought, “who is he kidding? He does not make a very convincing woman.” And, he really doesn’t. His frame is masculine, his wig is clearly that, and his makeup and clothing are out of style as well as more overdone than ‘en vogue’ women wear today. (I immediately noticed these things critically, which says more about me than about him. I was working three jobs, taking a full course load and was stressed and often bitter.) Then, however, I arrived at a conclusion. He dresses like a woman even though it is clear he is not one. Huh. He must just like it!

A similar revelation came when I listened to Eddie Izzard’s FANTASTIC audiobook about his life: Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens. I know I’ve raved about this book before, but here I go again. I remember Eddie’s standup by several sketches, immortalized on YouTube and burned into my mind because they portray the scenes he talks about using Lego characters. I had forgotten that he cross-dresses. When I started the book, I realized I couldn’t remember if he was gay. He addressed this, for all the similarly clueless people like me: he isn’t. He just likes women’s clothes! Huh.

Maybe this customer had also associated cross-dressing with homosexuality, but that too is a severely backward reason to judge someone. I don’t know. All I know is, I felt conflicted enough to ask my colleague what his opinion was, whether I should have said something to the rude one. His wisdom soothed me, as he thought I could do no more than to enable all customers of the library to feel safe and welcome.

Every other colleague I asked said the same thing, even one who is undergoing gender transition. Gender is a controversial topic with them, but they agreed that as employees and representatives of the library, we can’t be on the cause crusade and must make all customers feel safe and welcome, even if it makes us ill.

Of course, three hours of debating myself later, and through many iterations of “what’s it to ya?”) I thought of what I felt was the perfect, non-confrontational but I-see-you-and-your-unkind-ways response I should have said: “to each his own.”

All of us said that if we weren’t on the clock, we would have SCHOOLED him. About gender theory and human decency. Equally as much as my silence made me cringe,  librarians’ words mean a lot.

librarians, strangers

THE Library

I did not grow up with the library profession on a pedestal, and am not entirely sure when in my adult life I learned that there was a true, physical Library of Congress. My school and public libraries were great–I learned how to pronounce “subtle” when requesting Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife and sobbed while I finished Where the Red Fern Grows in these respective locations. It just didn’t occur to me that someone at The Top needed to decide how to categorize ALL THE BOOKS (and store them for posterity).

Many librarians treat the LoC (as it is – affectionately? – called) as our profession’s Mecca, and my experience was decidedly NOT religious.

Yes, y’all, this is the road trip alluded to in my rant against the concept of “iSchools.” The story you’ve all been waiting for!

I waffled* on whether to go on the “field trip” to tour the Library of Congress. On the one hand, I felt like I “should” go. Librarians are “supposed to” view the LoC with reverence, awe and appreciation for all the organization. Plus, I hadn’t been to Washington DC since my attendance at the Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity back in 2010, which I spent throwing up in a porta-potty, violently hungover, scaring my mom so badly she told me to go to the hospital. (I am NOT a drinker, so I shouldn’t pretend to be.) I needed to wash away that experience and replace it with something far more professional.

And yet. Lester was the one driving the minivan. And as previously discussed, Lester was, in a word, insufferable.

A glutton for punishment, I decided that a behind-the-scenes tour of the LoC would outweigh the social pain. I was not correct, BUT that little circle at the center of the photo up there has a SPIRAL STAIRCASE underneath it from the non-majestic basement and I WALKED UP IT AND EMERGED INTO THAT BIG BEAUTIFUL READING ROOM.

That was the lone highlight.

The trip started at Lester’s house, at 6am. That is never a good time to be awake, in my opinion, but I consoled myself with the thought of napping for the four hour drive.

This plan was thwarted by a full-length album by the dude who sings “Les Champs-Elysees” on FULL VOLUME. In addition to being a jerky driver, Lester was sleepy and needed energy. He turned over the driving to his poor wife after 45 minutes. She was stuck driving the rest of the way, and did not change the music for the entire FOUR HOURS. Champs-Elysees is a grand song for high school French class, but dear lord, the rest of the CD went downhill fast. This early-morning torture was THE road trip party foul of all road trip party fouls.

The return trip was even worse because it was at the end of the following day, so everyone in the car, including the chattiest person in our program who happened to sit by me after we had slept in the same hotel  room the night before, was awake and talking. And talking. And talking. And talking. About what, I have blocked out in the years since, but all I know is I had had enough of these people even before the tour of the Shakespeare Library. The conversation was the only thing I could imagine worse than the French CD. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I have several witnesses who can back me up that on another occasion, as we tried to work on projects nearby during a class work period, this person waxed poetic for THIRTY MINUTES WITHOUT RECEIVING ANY QUESTIONS WHICH IS TO SAY WITHOUT ANY ENGAGEMENT FROM THE “CO-CONVERSATIONALISTS” about breakfast foods they did and did not like, and why. And WHY. Why???? WHY!??!?!?!

It is with people so blissfully out of touch with what conversation is that I have to question: how can someone BE so un-self-aware? I understand that people on the Autism spectrum are varying levels of incapable of “reading” social cues, and many people in the library world hover somewhere on or adjacent to the spectrum. In Lester’s case, how much of the elitism would be his “fault,” if he is or is not on the spectrum? How much is just his personality? Exactly how much can I blame him for his rudeness?

In youthful classmate’s case, when will they learn that beyond middle school, your circle of friends or the brunch table, no one cares at all whatsoever about your affinity for pancakes but deep hatred for waffles. And if they did care, they would show you by asking questions or replying in kind. (Yes, your preference is bizarre and contradictory because waffles and pancakes are the same batter, after all. Yes. We know.)

This was how I learned not to accept rides of extended periods of time from people I don’t like. It was also how I started deciding to do activities because I wanted to, not because I thought I should. Painful learning, but essential.

Road trips are better with friends, family, and audiobooks. And pancakes and waffles are BOTH my jam, IF you wanted to know. Please, tell me your thoughts on the matter!

 

 

*As I am known to do with any decision of any magnitude. Also, LOL waffled.. See what I did there?