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:
YouTube Preview Image

And of course there is always XKCD:

All the cool kids are doing it

“It” being responding in kind to this gorgeous piece by Elizabeth Eslami which asked this question: “If you could talk to your 16-year-old self, what would you say?  What advice, warnings, or encouragement would you give your younger self?”

Dale Favier responded in kind.  And then Jessamyn Smyth chimed in.  These are especially poignant to me now because I just signed up for my 25th reunion and I’m remembering that girl.  So here’s mine:

Oh.  Hello, you.  Mom must have just told you that letting your hair fall in your eyes makes you look like your IQ is plummeting.  I can tell because you dipped your head to encourage that shaggy blonde veil further downward.

You think you want to be more bohemian, but your native timidity and small budget means you’re wearing that sparkly, fringed Indian scarf with an inherited bespoke white men’s dress shirt of considerable antiquity, jeans, and boots I would covet even today.  You don’t really understand yet that these half measures of prep and boho actually add up to an individual style.  Or they will.  Eventually.

You probably wouldn’t recognize your dreams in my life.  Your head is full of theatre and art and music.  You’re looking forward to a life on the stage and you can’t imagine any other way to be.  It’s okay: the skills you take for granted today will be seen as unusual assets in the life you forge later.  But go ahead and continue violently rejecting the idea of a life that you would probably see as not for you.  That change will come with surprising swiftness and a sudden load of self-knowledge I am still sorting through to this day.

You’re not as angry as you think you should be.  Stop pretending.  Happiness isn’t weakness and cynicism isn’t intelligence.

I’m sorry you’re feeling that piercing pain of first love lost.  It will take a while to heal.  Let it.  Because decades later that healing will allow you to feel so much joy when he contacts you and asks for forgiveness.  You may find it hard to believe that the forgiveness will flow so easily and make you so happy, but it will.

Listen more.  Speak less.  You will start to like yourself a lot more when you can exist on the periphery of a group as easily as you claim its center.  As an added bonus, other people will like you better too.

Those people who terrify you with their confidence?  They will later tell you that they think you’re the one who has it all figured out.  But here’s the big secret: nobody has it figured out.  Anyone who tells you they do is either kidding or lying.  Avoid those people.

Stop looking around for the love of your life.  You haven’t met him yet, and you’re in for a lot of learning about love and relationships.  That’s okay too.  All that learning means he’s easier to spot when he does show up.

You know what?

Keep doing exactly what you’re doing.  It turns out pretty great in the end.

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.

A disturbing realization

I’m plowing my way through the first in the series of George R.R. Martin’s epic potboilers, A Game of Thrones.  Finally.  Well, I’m finally successfully doing so.  And good grief, but it as actually brought me to a personal epiphany.

I have tried before to read this book and failed miserably.  But John really likes it, and I value his opinion, so I kept trying.  Also, HBO is putting together a series based on the books and it looks really, really good.  Getting it on the Kindle helped (700-page epic doorstop novels are high on my list of things that give equal on the plus and minus sides in entertainment value and repetitive stress injuries).  But for someone like me, this book was sort of like signing up for voluntary sandpapering of second-degree burns or giving Joss Whedon the license to direct the activities of your nearest and dearest for the next few months.  I felt like a petty god was sitting somewhere and saying, “Oh – wait: you like this character?  DEAD,” over and over and over again.

Why so sensitive, Jill?  I don’t know – but I know that I was the person who couldn’t fathom being a divorce attorney because I knew I couldn’t tread the fine line between the empathy required to advocate passionately for my clients and the necessary detachment from their plights to enable strategic thinking.  My emotional balance is wonky that way, even when I read a book.  I read a news report a while ago that talked about people who actually feel pain when they see someone else receive injury – the pain areas in the brain of the person doing the viewing actually light up.  I am pretty sure I am one of those people, and the more I empathize with the person in question, the worse it gets.

This even happens when I read.  Yeah, yeah, yeah – I was one of those kids whose parents said the house would burn around my ears while I read.  About ten years ago I finished The Golden Compass on a Southwest flight in a seat that faced a fellow passenger (a stranger).  When I finished the book and slowly returned to reality this person commented, “I didn’t think you were coming out of that.”  The more I do that deep dive, the more I empathize with death, injury, or loss suffered by the characters I like.  Considering the shelf footage this series takes up, I knew I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to go through that much bloodshed with my nerves exposed.

So, at long last, I realized that I couldn’t read the book with my usual 100% investment.  I had to view it somewhat dispassionately.  Don’t get attached – everyone’s going to die and probably horribly.  When I made that decision, the pages started ripping by.  And I like the book – I really do.  But I can’t love it the way I have loved other books that were also intricately constructed, intelligent, and well-written.

Here’s the disturbing epiphany.  I have been doing the same thing in life with a lot of 2010.  Not in my personal life, but in my reaction to the constant barrage of bad news.  At some point I flipped from the empathetic to the dispassionate to save my nerves.  And somehow I need to try again to sort out a way to walk that fine line.  Because being dispassionate is not the way I want to face the world.  At least, not entirely.

Edit: here’s my real incentive (to read the books, not to step back from the brink of being a completely dispassionate person-analog) – an HBO series with actors like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage? Yes, please.

Overheard on chat

D: so far our last two immediate topics remind me of the book I just finished
me: well, then.
D: The Guinea Pig Diaries, by A.J. Jacobs
the guy who wrote The Know it All?
me: Day one: “WHEEK, WHEEK!”
Day two: “ooh – PELLETS.”
D: groan
oh please keep going
me: Day three: “Wheeek.  ::snuffle:: WHEEK!”
D: um, sarcasm
me: Day four: “OHAI!  LETTUCE!!  My day is WHEEEEEEEEEK, mofo!!”
D: OHAI LETTUCE
hahahahahahahaaa
me: sometimes the pitch needs a windup…
D: can’t breathe
for laughing
oh that’s good
me: glad you like.
D: oh boy

Blowing one’s trumpet

Bear with me, because there are a few threads I would like to draw together here, and they may come together rather messily.

  1. I’ve had a conversation in a leadership class about the difference between actually getting things done and the activities of self-promoting squeaky wheels who don’t actually contribute.  You know what I’m talking about, I am sure: the Peter Principal jerks who get promoted while those who labor quietly and competently get passed over.
  2. But then there is also the difficulty (sometimes) for management to realize who is doing what and the necessity for people to self-promote in a realistic way that helps the organization and themselves.  If you’re doing good so subtly, is management to be blamed for missing your fingerprints on the good deeds?
  3. The perennial issue of libraries in general being given the shaft during bad economic times no matter how foolish that may be in terms of value for money libraries give in terms of net access, help with finding jobs, and other resources.
  4. The historical tendency* of librarians to want to be recognized for the good they and their institutions do by their quiet competence and effort alone.
  5. This post today from John Scalzi’s blog.

Which brings me to the question – are we thinking (or have we been thinking) about what we do as charity rather than a profession?

* I do realize I am oversimplifying, and I do know that libraries are getting better at promotion.  I do think, however, that they are still behind the curve when it comes to proving the economic utility of what they do.

For those about to hunt the job, I salute you.

Some of my library school cohort are graduating now, and I wanted to share some really hard-earned wisdom from old Auntie Jill.

I had to completely rewrite my resume once.  I have never had writer’s block like this before – I would open my laptop, launch the Word file that contained my resume, stare at it in horror for about 15 seconds, quit the program, close the laptop and go off and do… well, anything.

I knew my experience was good. I knew my resume wasn’t reflective of that, and I did not know how to bridge that gap. As a writer, this particularly irked me. Isn’t this what I’m paid to do? To convince people through my words that something is worth doing? Something like… hiring me, say?

So finally, I sat down with a woman at the expensive outplacement center my former employer was paying for and for two hours she had me read all of the bullet points in my resume one after the other. Did this, wrote that, managed the other thing. And to every point she said, “Which resulted in what?” And the truth slowly dawned that showing results rather than activity was the important thing. And that the results weren’t always obvious to everyone, though they were so screamingly obvious to me that it seemed silly to put them down on the page until I was able to put myself in that other person’s shoes.

Anyone can do stuff.  Prove to the world that the stuff you’re doing makes a difference, and don’t take it for granted that the difference you are making is self-evident.  And congratulations, grads.

Marred for life.

I am using the last of my precious winter break Metro time to do some pleasure reading.  Having sated myself on crime fiction, I got Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan from the library (which I thoroughly enjoyed – highly recommended to people who like YA, adventure, steampunk, alternate history, or breathing) and ripped through it in about two days.

Waiting in my pile was a book on writing my wise mother handed to me during her last visit, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  I’m pretty sure she refrained from saying “You’ll love this,” and I think we may have discovered another way around my reflexive filter.  Just hand the thing to me without a deadline for completion.  I’ll happily get to it in my own sweet time.

I have had this book (along with “Writing Down the Bones”) recommended to me at length, and often enthusiastically, which is probably why I hadn’t gotten to either of them before now.*  Predictably, I am loving it.**

As much as I am loving Lamott’s book, one of the charms of getting to read it in the way I did is the scattering of a few tiny post-it notes my mother tucked among the pages.  These notes have cryptic remarks jotted on them which I understand well due to our shared history but might well be written in Urdu for all the sense they would make to a stranger.

Lamott’s book is especially good in one way because it offers you interstitial assignments – they’re not listed as such, but if the reader decided to take them that way, it is very possible to pull literal instructions from every chapter.  In the early going, there is a section on writing about school lunches to break a mental logjam.  Lamott is right when she says that this topic is fertile ground for stories and descriptions.  She herself writes a few humorous paragraphs about the “code” of lunches – what was acceptable and what labeled you as “other” in the eyes of your classmates.  I recognized exactly what she meant, even if the specifics were different when I was growing up.

My lunches, I am afraid, were never up to code.  Mom made lunches that a 40-year-old foodie would swoon over: homemade multigrain bread, real cold cuts (no bologna in my mother’s kitchen), and often bean sprouts.  These were thick, hearty, character-building sandwiches in every sense of the word.  Once, a classmate snatched a tangle of sprouts out of my sandwich, screamed, and flung them away from her as if they were alive.  They stuck to a window high over our heads and remained there for the entire school year, closely resembling the desiccated corpse of a spider.

The other thing I remember about my school lunches were the notes.  Mom’s missives, often illustrated with quirky doodles, were like a quick squeeze of the shoulder or a warm smile.  I remember them as full of love and humor and topical information like, “Christmas Tree decorating tonight!” or “5 more days until vacation.”  Mom’s handwriting somehow manages to be both loopy and strong, so finding this note tucked into the pages of Lamott’s book was like something out of a time capsule:

“Sprouts!  Marred for life.”

I laughed like an idiot on the Metro and didn’t care who noticed.

*See above re: “You’ll love this”
**I only said I have a reflexive reaction to over-enthusiastic recommendations.  I didn’t say it was smart.

Is it just me?

Or is there an entire Ph.D. thesis to be wrested from the use of possessives in Season 2 of True Blood?