One ringy-dingy…

Office phone rings. I answer it.

“Hello, is this Jill P. Smith?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“I’m looking for the Jill P. Smith who worked at [other institution] and [other details].”

Wonder to self – does this person think all Jill Smiths are in a club? Do we have a secret handshake? Did I miss a memo? Do we have special powers of knowing one another’s contact details and whereabouts? Must inquire.  “I’m sorry – while I know there are a lot of other Jill Smiths, I have actually never personally met another person with my name.”

“Well, I’m looking for [more unhelpful detail about this other Jill Smith].”

Refrain from going into helpful librarian mode because I really don’t need to be Directory Assistance.  “I’m sorry – I really don’t know what to tell you. I am not her, and I don’t know her, so I don’t know how to contact her.”

“Okay, well I’m looking…” She suddenly seems to realize that she can tell me stuff about Jill P. Smith forever and I’m still not going to know this person. “Okay, thanks so much for your time.”

“Sure. Good luck!”

Pompous, Petty Pedantry

Occasionally, someone will show me an article, tweet, blog post, or other piece of media where some God of the Mount Olympus of Correctness blasts someone else (or a lot of someone elses) for daring to use language incorrectly.  Such articles run the gamut from smug to downright insufferable, and they are usually written with just enough flashy, stylish confidence that they seem more than superficially clever.  When my friends show them to me or post them to Facebook and say, “Thinking of Jill,” I try to separate what I have to believe (or hope to believe) is a compliment to my love for and respect for language from the apparent belief that I will be entertained by the shaming of some hapless person whose only sin is USING LANGUAGE WRONG.

I hate these pieces.

Here’s why I hate them in two short vignettes from my own life:

First story: Last year, I spoke at a conference to a packed room that was lively and responsive.  They laughed at my jokes, they participated in my unorthodox, somewhat interactive presentation, we all had fun.  There were a couple of hair-raising moments where I had to improvise, quickly sketching out something that would have been demonstrated in a video clip that wouldn’t load.  Afterward, people came up to me and said how much they enjoyed it.  Considering how much time and effort a colleague (who couldn’t join me in the actual presentation) and I had put in, it was extremely gratifying.

Then this gentleman came up to me and said, “I have to tell you how much I enjoyed your presentation, but I also have to say – you said ‘cite to’ – which is redundant. You should have just said ‘cite.'”  The glow of my pleasure dimmed a little.  I felt abashed and slightly ashamed, even though this had occurred during the moments I was covering for the video that did not play and I had been ad-libbing madly, laying the tracks of my speech just ahead of the oncoming train.  His comment, much as I tried to put it in context, stuck in my craw in the way that the one negative comment in a sea of positives always will.

Second story: Today I tweeted:

I was still riding the high of the truly inventive, hilarious show John and I had seen the night before.  I loved that show – I would see it again in a heartbeat.  I want as many people as possible to see it because I think it is Shakespeare for everyone: people who love Shakespeare, people who are afraid of Shakespeare, people who have never thought that Shakespeare could be for them.  Imagine my chagrin when I saw this reply:  

Again, I felt abashed and the glow of my pleasure was dimmed a bit, similar to the first story.  I was also irritated – why the hell does this guy even care?  Then I looked him up and realized, oh – he’s a drama critic.  This definition is crucial to his amour propre as a professional.

Two thoughts on this one:

First thought: If I had been a newcomer to theatre or to Shakespeare, instead of a lifelong participant in theatre as an audience member, a crew member, and an actor, I might have shrunk from ever seeing another show again.  After all, here’s a professional telling me YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.  Shakespeare is scary enough for enough people, after all, that it doesn’t take a lot to spook a person.  But in a context where live theatre in general isn’t exactly booming, I would gently suggest that picking irrelevant nits isn’t the best way to be an ambassador, especially for someone whose livelihood depends on a thriving theatre community.

Second thought: If I am anything, I am a librarian. So after having this grit of pedantry in my shoe for a while, I looked up “opening night,” because I’ve never heard of a more specific definition of this term than “the first night where people pay full price to see a show” (in other words, the performance after rehearsals and previews) and it suddenly occurred to me, “Is this dude even right?” Every single definition that I was able to find (including in the Oxford English Dictionary) was merely this:

opening night n. the first night of a play, film, etc.

Now… was he wrong? I don’t know. There may be, somewhere, a definition of “opening night” that is more specific than the one I repeatedly found  (interestingly enough, my hardbound Third Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for the term).  But the point is, neither was I wrong, and I certainly wasn’t wrong as a member of the audience hoi polloi who might not be expected to know the intricacies of professional usage in a specific context.

People like to treat language like math or a game – there are absolute rules of right and wrong and moreover there are points to be scored.  I find both approaches frankly tedious, but per my first thought above, I also think it’s dangerous.  Similar to experiencing theatre, people need to play with language to learn it and to love it.  If you hem them in and constantly tell them, “YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG” they will cease to love playing with language and that would be a shame.  Or worse.

If you have an age to read something more erudite on the subject, please see Stephen Fry’s essay here, or this kinetic typography video:
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And of course there is always XKCD:

Overheard at work

Me: “There’s a publication out there called Peasant Studies Newsletter.

Colleague: “Really?”

Me: “I suppose Peasant Studies Newsletter is appropriate.”

C: “As opposed to?”

Me: “Something grandiloquent like Peasant Studies Journal, or maybe The Annals of Peasant Studies.”

C: “I was thinking Peasant Studies Trade Weekly would be good.”

Other Colleague: “The title fills me with Weltschmerz. With a moment’s effort, they could have entitled it: Serf, Peasant & Villein, or the Periodical Peon, or (my favorite) De Rustici.”

Take this narrative and…

Making the rounds of news and blogs is this shocking new study: The Generation X Report.

What makes it so shocking?  Well, apparently those of us who were born between 1961 and 1981 are not the “insecure, angst ridden” underachievers everyone expects us to be.  We’re not “detached and melancholic.”  And we are not, as a group, “slackers.”

Here’s the thing – in my experience, we never were.

Insert the standard caveats about how the plural of anecdote is not data and how this is just my experience, but let me lay the early 90’s out from my own perspective.  I, along with almost everyone my own age that I knew, was having a really hard time finding any sort of “meaningful” work – for the values of meaningful that include: interesting, somewhat secure, decently paying, and carrying any sort of benefits.*  So what did we do?  We worked whatever way we could.  We took jobs as temps, waiters, and bartenders.  We often worked two jobs or more.  We added whatever seasonal jobs we could on top of that.  We made every effort to prove ourselves, to wedge our way into something resembling a decent opportunity.*  Some of us, including me, went back to school to try to improve our chances of getting decent work and hopefully to wait out the bad economic times.*

For this, the media labeled us “slackers.”*  I really don’t know if it was because the generation(s) before us didn’t like the fact that we were overwhelmingly employed in the service industry (most of us didn’t have a choice) or the fact that a lot of us resigned ourselves as best we could to the lifestyle we had at the time (we did have a choice about that, but the alternative was to be miserable).  Most of us didn’t seem to react much to the “slacker” label either.  Maybe that irritated the prior generation(s) as well.  But why should we care what names we were called by the very people who pulled the treehouse ladder up behind them?  Or maybe we were just working too damn hard at our 2+ jobs and worrying too much about getting sick and having to declare bankruptcy from our medical bills* to be worried about whether or not the editors of Time magazine thought us lazy.

So, I’m glad that a longitudinal study says that the majority of us are “active, balanced, and happy” these days.  But it doesn’t surprise me overmuch, considering most of us were at least active and balanced and working on happy during the very era we were painted as a bunch of disaffected, mopey losers.

 

*Does any of this sound familiar?  Current, even?

From the rerun file: scary dudes edition

Occasionally, I remember something I posted on the old, hard-to-navigate, version 1 of this site and reproduce it with some edits. Today, I am reminded by my friend Arvind of the epic discomfort that can be caused by men who won’t take no for an answer. So, from the rerun file I pull “Scary Pick-Ups” and originally posted August 11, 2004.
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I believe I have the humdinger of all bad pick-up stories, and I thought I would share. It starts in 1996.

Having immured myself in more-or-less rural fastness for some time, I went to Boston with a “friend.” I put quotes around friend, well, you will see why as the story goes on. We were set to meet some of her friends at a bar downtown. Upon getting to the bar, I was approached by someone with a standard sort of get-to-know-you line (“What’s your name?” or one of its cousins). It was fairly clear that he was on the make from his body language (standing too close, staring too hard), but I’m reflexively polite, and I smiled and made some sort of response that was intended to say, “Not interested.” He tried to continue the conversation – doing one of those conversational gymnastic things some guys do where they immediately tell you that you’re attractive and they want to get to know you better (note: this might work only when more than one sentence has passed between the two people in question, or if the woman just really wants to sleep with a stranger. Neither of these were true in this case).

The actual progression of this dialogue was fairly tedious in a surreal sort of way – he tended to respond to my ramp-up from polite but repressive through increasingly agitated variations on “What part of ‘NO’ don’t you understand?” with standard conversation-starters, as if he was actively trying to fail a Turing Test. One such interchange consisted of me saying that my “friend” (who had been standing by, watching this wacko’s efforts at courtship with ill-disguised amusement and ignoring my intermittent looks of mounting panic) and I were going to go now and look for our other friends, goodbye. He responded (ignoring my full beer) with “Can I buy you a drink?”

“No. Goodbye.”

“Can I have your phone number?”

“NO. Goodbye!”

Further discussion on my part (as he followed me around the bar) went from, “Leave me alone,” to “I will get the bouncer to chuck you out,” to finally “If you don’t leave me alone, I will call the cops.” This last threat triggered a sea-change from pursuit to verbal abuse, which was somehow easier to ignore, especially as the live entertainment had started to ramp up in volume. He finally went away.

Fast-forward to two years later. I was in DC with some work colleagues, at an outdoor bar in Georgetown. Suddenly, I hear, “Don’t I know you?” I turn around and immediately recognize my nut-case from Boston. Semi-frozen, but with enough sense to say, “No,” I responded to his next conversational gambit with, “I’m sorry – I’m really not interested.”

Note to men: “What? I’m just trying to be nice,” is an attempt at emotional blackmail. I don’t go on guilt trips, but I do resent being presented with a ticket. I told him I didn’t ask him to be nice, go away and be nice to someone else. I could see he was on the verge of pursing the sledgehammer tactics with which I had become far too well-acquainted in Boston and started looking around for a bouncer, when my work-colleague Jessica spoke up from my side: “I don’t think you understood – the lady said she’s not interested.”

He turned on her and actually snarled, “What’s it to you?” (I know this sounds like a bad movie script, but it’s the absolute truth).

Jess didn’t even hesitate. “She’s with me,” she said calmly. As our friend the fruit-loop stood back and contemplated the implications of the significance which Jess placed on the word “with,” I leaned over (with body language that was intended to communicate intimacy) and whispered to her that yes, indeed I had met this guy before and he’s crazy as a loon – thankyouthankyouthankyou for helping me out, Jess!

Predictably, uninspired verbal abuse followed (and was ignored). As a post-script, I actually saw this guy in action again, but from a distance. I was at another DC watering-hole a couple of months later, but happened to have the good fortune to be talking with a man when this freak of nature walked into the bar. I pointed said freak out to the man I was speaking with, and we watched him trail around the bar, bouncing from woman to woman (even moving in on one woman when her date went to the bathroom). He didn’t even appear to see me: I presume it was because I had my male friend as an invisibility shield.

I still felt pretty freaked out for a week or two.

Augmentation, not alternative

My mother sent me a link to a piece by Jonathan Franzen in the NYT today, with this quote specifically included (italics hers):

This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

It’s a well-written piece, and the quote my mother cites is lovely, but (unsurprisingly) I completely reject its central thesis which seems to say we can either surf superficially and easily through life with tech or embrace the difficult struggle that is a profound relationship with another person but not do both:

To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

Wow.  It’s like Stephen Fry’s evil twin has come to town.

No. This is not an either-or world. I relate and laugh and disagree on a daily basis with people who are sharing the same air I do. I also am able to connect joyously and articulately with someone who lives in Singapore – a relationship that would not be possible without technology, as Arvind and I “met” one another on Facebook through our discussions on a mutual friend’s Fb wall (and she is someone I initially “met” online in the pre-Fb era and then was able to see in person years later. Rana and I are good enough friends – not “friends” – that she invited John and me to her wedding).

Additionally, I see arguments and hard discussions all over my friends’ walls. I don’t usually engage in them because Fb is something I reserve for fun, but that says more about me than it does about Fb – lots of people go to church to be soothed, only some go to be challenged. But that doesn’t necessarily say much about church in general: it says something about the people who attend it and the reason they attend it.

I see people all over being perfectly likable – striving to be so, in fact – in their everyday lives with colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers. That doesn’t mean they’re false or hollow or emotionally crippled – it means they’re being polite. And the majority of one’s friends on Fb are actually acquaintances. But what was Fb supposed to call them, anyway? They could have gone with the prolix: “People I know,” the sterile: “Contacts,” or the twee: “Buddies.” “Friends” is both largely accurate and brief. And I’ve found personally that people still recognize the differing levels of friendship and layers of knowledge that exist in human relationships both online and off (I know X more than I know Y, but I know Y’s sense of humor and mine intersect precisely in just such a way…) The technology of Fb doesn’t have to characterize those differences – the people involved do that automatically.  The organic human recognition of the subtleties of specific relationships doesn’t have to be perfectly mirrored or duplicated by the technology.

Sites like Fb and “sexy” new Blackberries and titanium laptops are not intended to replace – they are intended to augment.  And I reject the idea that I have somehow sold my connection to humanity by extending my reach to other human beings.

“That’s what she said.”

I’m taking one of those random days off where you get a lot of stuff done that’s difficult to get scheduled on the weekend.  First on the agenda was getting the chimney swept.  We have a pretty good service – one of their best features is that they are very, very punctual.  So the annual drill goes thusly: guys show up right at 8 and get to work on the chimney.  I sit with the dog and feel useless, then write a check.  At some point, they marvel at how gunky our chimney is and I tell them that, yes, we’re New Englanders and we like our nightly winter fires.  Then they go away.  This year included a particularly irritating addendum to the usual routine.

Mr. Chimney Sweep hands me the work order and notes the price.  He asks: “Do you get your chimney swept every year?”

Me: “Yes, every year for the last eight years we’ve lived here.  Like clockwork.  We know we have a lot of fires.”

MCS: “You should get it done every year, because it was really bad.”

Me: “Yeah – we do.  Every year.”

MCS: “The chimney walls look good, but I’ve written here that you should get it swept every year.”

Me: Silently screaming.  “Okay.”

What is it about entitlement?

I don’t have much to say about this – just that it’s both entertaining and baffling.  I’m always astonished by people who are so blindingly egotistical and entitled that they manage to become unwitting self-parody.

Go, see, be entertained.

Preemptive apologies may be necessary for the library neepery.

…..and she breaks her (completely unintentional and oh my goodness how did the time get by me like that?  I know: we’ll blame school) silence.  Lucky you, reader, you get – well, not so much a cabinet of curiosities but a catalog of irritants.  But they’re themed irritants, at least.  They are on the subject of libraries and perception.

Yup – just lost 80% of my librarian and librarian-to-be readers.  We hear this stuff all the time.  We say this stuff all the time.  Well, at least I will have vented my overloaded spleen.

Irritant #1: I recently had a brief conversation (well, okay – it was on Twitter) with an acquaintance.  He moaned about information overload (with the corollary that most of the info he found was crap).  I quipped, “sounds like you need….a LIBRARIAN! (cue triumphant music).”  His response?

“Google is my librarian.”

Let’s back away from that statement for one tiny moment.  Take whatever it is you do for a living – bonus points if you’re passionate about it and think it’s a worthwhile thing to do.  Then, at a cocktail party or on Twitter you find someone who is in need of the services of your profession and they respond that a tool of your profession is your profession.  Just think about that for a moment:

“This pencil is my architect.”

“AutoCAD is my industrial designer.”

“This sledgehammer is my contractor.”

Fill in your own blanks for your own profession.  It somehow manages to miss the point and be rather insulting at the same time, doesn’t it?  Yes, librarians use Google.  They/we use it all the time.  It’s useful in a similar way to Wikipedia – easy, fast, imprecise, with lots of suspect sources.  A pilot trusting to Google’s output for plotting a course might get you to where you’re going efficiently and safely, or they might well be Bugs Bunny: “Dang.  I knew I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque!”

So, Google: interesting tool?  Yes.  Librarian?  No.

Irritant #2: John and I were recently given a copy of This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.  I snagged it for train reading (where I really should be doing homework, but that’s a different post).  It is, I have to say, about what I expected.  Even though the writer takes the public and the media to gentle task occasionally for clinging to old stereotypes about the profession, there is a whiff of Margaret Meade or “Wild Kingdom” about the book.  Watch as Bob stalks the librarian in the stacks – note her colorful plumage, achieved with three colors of Manic Panic, a nose ring, and barely-visible tattoo.  This seemingly shy creature can be found in any urban library when she’s not participating in an ALA Book Cart Drill Team.

Fancy that, librarians are individuals too.  Who’da thunk it.

That part really doesn’t irritate me that much, though.  Yes, librarians can be incandescently weird.  So, I am sure, can the members of any profession.  But the weird does make for better reading and I know that I’m not necessarily the prime audience for this book.  For the most part, I am enjoying the picture of the (mostly public) librarians she paints.  She clearly has affection for those of us who are info-geeks.

The irritant was actually a throw-away bit in the second chapter, where the author describes looking for a copy of Easy Travel to Other Planets.  She finds a copy on microfiche and states, “Though it’s a literary novel, Easy Travel had been stashed on a reel with a bunch of science fiction.”

Excuse me?  A book set in the future with extrapolations based on current science being stashed with science fiction?  Call the cataloging police, because we know that if something is “literary” it couldn’t possibly be science fiction.

Necessity is a mother. So is Nature.

I lived in NH for the Blizzard of ’78. I went to college in Syracuse. I resided in Minneapolis for the Halloween Blizzard of ’91 and the ensuing horrific winter. I know snow.

This, children, is a blizzard.

We’ve been without cable or internet since Saturday. Crews were pulled from the roads in MD, VA, and the District because white-out conditions made it too dangerous to plow. Metro’s only running underground.

Thank goodness for my iPhone.