Monthly Archives: January 2011

“she has a way with glasses”

Every library has cages or the equivalent.

Take it metaphorically if you wish, but the kind I’m referring to are the cubicle-style basement study rooms you see in academic libraries dating from the 1960s or earlier.  I’m sure they were seen as a more private improvement over the ornate, great halls of the Ivy League and the Carnegie libraries where students lined up at hefty tables and read by the light of little green accountant lamps.  Cages are private, often secluded in the bowels of a library basement,  fortified by the densest stacks and shelves. Some libraries have study carrels instead.  My undergrad library’s carrels looked unfortunately like swastikas when placed back-to-back an viewed with a bird’s eye.

The humanities library at my graduate university had dungeon cells painted in green that resembled army lockers– always full during finals.  I once fielded an online reference quesiton from a student in one of these “cages” who wanted to let a librarian know–without leaving the safety and convenience of his cage–that some poor sap was vomiting in the bathroom nearby and “making a lot of noise.”  What should the helpless patron do? He couldn’t study with all that racket! (I suggested the patron contact a non-virtual librarian at the reference desk in his library if he was worried for the vomiter’s safety. “That’s ok,” he said “It’s just annoying. I think I’ll use headphones.”)

A good library has a place for everyone.  The  classic librarian adage of  “a book for everyone and everyone his book” is now trite.  But even in the digital age, people still need a cozy corner to study in.  Some prefer windows for dreaming, couches for curling up in like a loyal cat-disciple, or cages for enforced focus and seclusion.  The best library furniture I’ve ever seen were  the lipstick-colored womb chairs at Oberlin that offered all three Library Secret Space requirements: seclusion, comfort, and a view out the window– depending on how you spun the great ball of a chair.

Now what I like best is coming upon a study space and reading the tracks left behind by the studier.  Graffiti is my favorite.  As long as it’s not defacing a book, I –scandal and heresy!– don’t mind graffiti.  At institutes of higher learning traces of brilliance, frustration, humor, and empathy are visible on bathroom walls and under study tables.  Yes there is immaturity– penis sketches, phone numbers “for a good time”–but other students rarely let those stand without a wry comment scrawled below.  I’ve seen philosophical dialog about the existence of god or true love written on the ladies’ room walls.  I’ve seen suicide prevention in the stacks.  I’ve seen, like today, a  bucket list of things to do before death or marriage.

Best of all, I love seeing the unshelved books my patrons leave behind.   Today for instance, I found a graffiti-covered cage in a far back corner.  The cages here are white with bluish doors. “Perfect” for defacing yet not as dark and deathly as the name “cage” implies.  There is indeed a little window of chickenfence facing out towards the B section (B821.M34 to B1649.R91 to be exact: Philosophy).  On the desk in this room were three books plus a Nutcracker program and a Spring 2011 Course Catalog.  Graffiti includes: “Think good thoughts!” and “What do you want to do before you die?” with responses in 14 different hands.  People wanted to “enjoy life without pressures,” “apologize to dad,”  “feel content,” and “live beyond this system.”  The books, which I will reshelve, include: the New Cassell’s French-English Dictionary (1965), Ansel Adams “The National Parks” (2010), and a bound copy of The New Yorker, November-December, Volume 38 (1962).  I might have studied here myself in a different space-time continuum.

On page 111 of the November 10, 1962 issue of the New Yorker is this full-page ad straight out of Mad Men for Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin:

Advertisement from 1962 November Issue of the New Yorker MagazineA beautiful redhead in a little yellow shrug jacket adjusts her cat-eye glasses as four suits fawn over her.  She looks just like Joan with her sultry smile, as if Joan were pretending to be Peggy.  The caption reads:

“She has a way with glasses.

Wears them with dash.  Fills them with dazzle…

Now what did they say about girls who wear glasses never having any fun?”

Oh the changing winds of 1962 where even a bespectacled woman could be Jackie Kennedy if she just knew how to make the dryest Seagram’s Gin martini!

It warms the cockles of my own bespectacled heart, makes me grateful that glasses have never been an obstacle to beauty in my generation, and makes me love my library and the patron who left these books here for me to find.  I should be angry and reshelve them without a second thought.  I should sponge away the erroneous phone numbers and final exam prayers scribbled on the walls of this cage.  But to me, this is why we have academic libraries– to give students in a vulnerable and heady episode in their lives a place to pretend to be alone, a place to reflect on French, Ansel Adams’ WPA photography, 1960s advertising, and reconnecting with home and their father.  Students still find a refuge in the library, and librarians still make a show of reshelving abandoned books and erasing defamation of library property.  But some of us are doing so in sympathy, like Tom and Jerry or Elmer and Bugs. We know our role well.  Yet, secretly, we live for stopping by all the cages in the library and finding proof we’re not the only ones who have a way with glasses.

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public sarcasm announcements

New Yorkers get a bad rep for being rude and lacking Southern or Midwestern charm.  I have always been wary of such aspersions cast by polite, boring people who want to justify their mistrust of people from big cities.  The same kind of complaints are lodged against Parisians, and I haven’t found that to be true either.

Since moving here, I’ve received a number of polite courtesies from New Yorkers that combat the stereotype.  People have held doors open for me at Grand Central Station.  When I held a door or picked up a dropped glove for someone, they said a pleasant thank you and did not seem flabbergasted by my outburst of goodwill.  People say “excuse me” when they squeeze by on the street.  A kind woman gave us a parking coupon with 30 minutes left on it because she had to leave her spot early. However, in one respect the New York attitude has shined through, and caught me off guard:  Public Service Announcements.

In the Midwest, PSAs in buses, restaurants, schools, on the radio, etc. are short, to the point, and polite. They use generic language:  “Please move to the rear of the bus.”  “All employees must wash hands.” “Please silence your cell phones.” In New York, these announcements have a sarcastic, snarky edge.

At the AMC movie theater, the show is preceded by a mix-tape of crying babies, phones ringing, annoying laughter, and whispered conversations. Then an announcer says: Don’t ruin the movie by adding your own soundtrack.”   The first time, I chuckled; the second time, I felt dissed.  What is this, a shaming culture?  The idea that you could shame a New Yorker into shutting up is laughable.

In a bathroom at a swing dance club, I saw a sign that said “Please don’t flush paper towels down the toilet.”  In the Midwest, that would be the end of the message.  But here in New York the proprietors added: “…the plumber makes enough money as it is!”

At my own library, a sign on the “quiet” computer lab reads:  “No using your cellphone for a ‘quick call.’  No group work or conversations.  If you can’t be quiet, don’t even think about using this lab!” (I’m pleased to report this has since been removed)

Finally, there’s this notice from the Metro North train regarding “severe” weather conditions. Not only is this PSA available online, it was also tacked to every seat on the Manhattan-bound train, designed to serve as an explanation for recent delays in service:

An Explanation for the Recent Cold Weather’s Impact on New Haven Line Service

This winter’s extreme cold temperatures and large amounts of snow have presented numerous challenges that go beyond clearing our yards, switches, and station platforms. The extreme weather causes the electronic and air systems on our 40-year-old-plus New Haven Line fleet to fail…There are no quick fixes.

I was pondering how four days of snow all winter and two days of sub 20*F temperature constituted “extreme” snows and cold when I hit the brakes at “40-year-old-plus fleet.”  I know New York is in a budget crisis, but has it been a budget crisis for 30 years?  Weren’t there some good times in the  mid-1990s or before the bubble burst when New York City and the State of Connecticut could decide: “You know, maybe train technology has improved since the Moon Landing?”

As you can tell, I’m hardly anti-sarcasm.  But there is a difference between being witty and being a bag of douche.


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on jealousy

My mother has long suffered from house envy.  Other people’s houses were bigger, cleaner,  more spacious, better for entertaining, and most of all, owned by them.  She used to work with doctors with six-figure incomes whose wives had nothing  to do all day but interior design.  She never wanted an isolated place with her Own Land or a parlour or a barbecue pit.  She felt her dreams were modest.  When wistful, she would yearn for a guest room and a porch.  Nothing more specific or extravagant.  House Envy, a term I was surprised to see Al Franken use in an advice book for recent graduates, can be dangerous.  It can ruin social events both preemptively and in retrospect.  It can be productive, inducing home improvements and cleaning binges.  But its real harm is the insidious way it makes the envyer doubt herself:  if only we’d been smarter with money when we were younger, if only we hadn’t moved so often, if only we’d stopped renting years ago…

Ironic that a nomad academic suffers House Envy?  Perhaps, but it shouldn’t be unexpected.  The stability of one address is what my mother really envies.  She doesn’t want a house, she wants a home.  Since a hometown seems to be a cosmic impossibility for our family, she’ll settle for her own house.

Jealousy is not only insidious, it is a pointless emotion.   I’ve only felt true jealousy once in my life.  And it passed when I realized my envyee was even more insecure than I was.  There are some people for whom jealousy is a drug, an outlook, a paranoia, an inspiration.  I’m not one of them.  It never made sense to me.  In love,  your jealousy of the other woman will not win over your unrequited lover.  In money, jealousy will not make your rival less rich.  In academia, envy will not grant you tenure.  It’s a waste of emotional effort.

And yet…

If my mother suffers House Envy, I suffer Writer Envy.  I’m not envious of all writers.   Celebrities, friends who publish scientific research, bloggers, dissertators, and writers of another generation do not irk me.  But when friends and acquaintances my own age publish fiction or poetry, pursue MFAs, and gain attention for their writing, a green flag rises along my spine.  I am happy for them, happy that someone can make a living writing, but my jealousy will not allow me to get close to them.  Gushing and appearing like a fangirl is abhorrent to me.  But nor can I bring myself to act collegial: to share my own work, ask for advice, offer to start a writing group.  Instead, I linger, wishing to be embraced as a compatriot of the pen but never daring to initiate such camaraderie.  If you say “I write too,”  at best you get the gnarled, impossible question: “What do you write?”  At worst you get a dismissive “Oh really?” which sounds like an opener but is actually a door slamming shut on the conversation.

I don’t know what kinds of jealousy people in other professions experience.  Athletes’ envy twists into “competitive spirit,” a healthier-sounding concept that allows friends to be rivals and competitors to admire one another.  But unlike many sports, writing is a solitary endeavor.  Editors and what one professor of mine called “special readers” are vital, but they cannot share your head during the moments of creation.  Published writer-friends often cannot tell you the trick to their success.  Depending on who you talk to, it was either a product of calculated hard work or dumb luck.  And even with constructive advice, Writer Envy does not go away.

Again, jealousy is not something that festers in me.  It is not a raisin in the sun.  It flashes like hot oil and evaporates, making the scalding flashes all the more surprising to me.  I felt one of these flashes this morning when I learned an acquaintance who is perhaps only 2 years older than me published a novel with a major publisher and is going on a reading tour across the country.  He is someone I met a few times at parties, would’ve liked to hang out with more, perhaps even talk about writing with.  But now he’s published, making him more serious than me: a young talent, a great wit.  Insecurities abound, and I am still looking for a way to be a writer and survive.  He makes it look easy, the way it looked when I was eight.  I know it wasn’t easy for him.  Writing is always hard.  It should be.  Thomas Mann said “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I think I knew that when I was eight, but at that age, it didn’t matter.  At that age, I was the only writer I knew.

Identity is either defined by opposition or similarity.  When writing was my “thing,” it set me apart.  Despite the advantages of a welcoming and like-minded group, I (and perhaps other writers too) lament the loss of our secret identity, a necessary consequence of  joining a league of fellow writers.  What I struggle with now is how to reveal that secret identity whose power seems to lie inside its hidden nature.

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Have you ever noticed that you write what you read?  I don’t know about you but my writing style is like a sponge sometimes!  It’s like whatever I read subconsciously comes out in my writing.

Already this piece is cooing with the nasty intonations of a blog entry.  A chatty, pithy driveling tone that makes me think of Amazing Girls who major in journalism and get jobs in PR.  This is the style of people who make Power Points for writing tips.  They’re endless: “Writing for Librarians,”  “Writing Grant Proposals,” “Writing for Businessmen,” “Writing for Success,”  “Writing for Dummies.”

Blogspeak is the same vernacular of E! Channel commentators who have simmered American English down to a series of high-pitched yaps of a neutered Yorkshire terrier. “Vernacular” isn’t even the right term. This language is a self-conscious orchestration of sounds posing as words.  There is nothing organic or populist about it.

Watch America’s Funniest Home Videos sometime, but don’t look.  Just listen.  The wonderbread  voice of a failed newscaster is speaking phrases meant to be interpreted as jokes.  Don’t be fooled.  They are not jokes.  They are verbal doilies, prophylactic coasters that sit under real language in a vain, bourgeois attempt not to stain the coffee table.  You will find neither puns nor irony, insults nor mirth in these “jokes.”  This is the bland biscuit of American vernacular.  It’s the same tenor used on morning talk shows (and parodied by Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri on SNL in the ’90s.)

And this is how most blogs sound to me when I read them in my head.  Newspapers are different, even online. NYTimes, Washington Post, SFChronicle all have standardized newsy styles that feel weighty and authoritative yet timely.  They don’t try too hard to be hip like Jezebel or Huff Po.  Every blog sub-genre has subtle peculiarities.  There’s the nerd blog, tech blog, librarian blog, struggling artist blog, self-aggrandizing artist blog.  Some are fun.  Some are clever.  Some are even unique.  But internet writing has become its own genre.  A genre that was perhaps inevitably destined to be impermanent, informal, and imprecise.

The more I read someone else’s tweets or posts, the more I hear echos in my own speech–and the more I conceive of one-liners and pearls of wisdom in terms of what would make a good facebook status, blog post, or twit.  My hunch, without having read Super Sad True Love Story yet, is that Gary Shteyngart is right: we are all writers but we’re composing our online world in ever-smaller bits and pieces (no I won’t say “bytes and pieces…pun intended! haha ROTFLMAO.” Bad puns are the first symptom of blogspeak.)  Thoughts that used to be secreted away in little black notebooks or scrawled on bathroom walls are now out there in the ether.  I’m not saying this is bad. It’s fascinating, actually.  But we should be worried when we start thinking in Tweets or Facebook updates.  We should especially worry when we write a “blog post” with all the outraged mediocrity of the genre (Much like this one. Oooh did I just get too meta for your asses?).  It’s elitist to say so, of course, but I think there’s a reason not everyone got published before the self-publishing era.  There is also a difference between writing for yourself, losing yourself in language, and writing for an audience be they friends, visitors, or hits.  None of us know how to be ourselves on the web yet, really, least of all Mark Zuckerberg.

So the decision to “go public” to whichever five friends of mine are reading this blog was a hard one for me.  I have a lot to say, but I mistrust the Internet as the best place to say it.  I have a deep-seeded fear of sounding like the author of “A Room of Jean’s Own” the satiric op-ed column in the Onion where a woman blogs about her cats and grout-removal.  I don’t want to write in blogspeak.  This is not my genre, but then neither was Hemingway or Emily Dickinson, and yet, after reading them, my sentences got shorter and more mysterious, while reading Rushdie and Faulkner stretched my clauses to the very limits of logic. I may not be able to help it.  My pen is a sponge or maybe a tiny ink-pipette soaking up styles like Woody Allen’s Zelig.  But some styles, I would rather leave alone.  As much as I’d like readers and as much as I want to share, I am wary of this suckerpunching medium that makes us all sound beige.

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Worst question for a writer: “What do you write?”

Worst question for a nomad: “Where are you from?”

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a writer, a dancer, and a nomad

I have been a dancer since I was 18.  Unexpectedly, it seeped into my identity, my vocabulary, and my muscle memory.  If I do not dance for a while, my body misses it, but so does my mind, which soon finds itself insufferable.  Dancing turns thinking off– or at least turns it into something surprising and free.

I have been a writer, according to and grace à my father, since I was one-and-a-half.  We were on a winter walk, and I saw white snow on a tree branch and said:  “Milk Flower.”  Before I learned to write, I would finger-paint and chatter to myself, making up stories about ghosts and rabbits that were much more fleshed out in words than my paintings.  At that age, I assume, I didn’t need to turn thinking off.  Writing was dancing.  What a slippery age.  I wrote stories with dolls, created villages of Playmobil people.  And I learned to write, and then I started writing stories.  At eight years old, I knew I wanted to be an “author” when I grew up.  It wasn’t something I decided on.  Just something I knew.

Now, of course, I am a librarian, because when we grow up we learn more job titles.  We blindly accept silly terms like “sales associate” and “project manager.”  I wish my vocational vocabulary today was as uncluttered as when I was eight.  Not that I didn’t know what a librarian was at eight, it just wasn’t what I wanted to be, because it wasn’t who I was.   Today, when I introduce myself to new people–as nomads often do–I say “I’m a librarian,” and they nod appreciatively as if to thank me for not saying   “assistant processing manager.” People understand librarian because its one of the Original Jobs they learn about as children.  They smile a little, usually, when I say that’s what I am.  And I am proud to say it and to be it.  But deep down, somewhere, I feel like I’m lying.  Telling half-truths.  Donning a convenient mask.

Before becoming a dancer or a writer, I was a nomad.  I was born a nomad.  Although we didn’t move until I was eight–around the time I started calling myself an “author”– I discount the seven years of the Pre-Nomadic Era because it is convoluted with the glowy memories of early childhood that are pleasant mostly because they don’t see anything above the height of the dining room table.

I’m genetically predisposed to Nomadism.  All my people are nomads. My great-grandparents were immigrants, which is a nomad who makes one big trip and then settles down but always carries a second home in his heart like a summer teepee.  My grandparents relocated from New York to San Francisco, putting 3,000 miles between themselves and TRADITION.  My parents traveled back in the opposite direction and eventually set up permanent camp in the Winter Home.  But we are nomads and skeptical of the permanence of any place.  I have lived in eight cities, four states and two countries. I don’t have the notched walking stick of many other wanderers, but it’s the wandering of the heart that creates a Nomad.  The feeling of being a turtle with your home on your back.  The fore-knowledge that any residence is only temporary and is never Home.  Once I thought I was homeless, but now I have another tribesman with me.  Although his ancestors were real-life nomads along the Mediterranean coast, he has moved less often than me.  And I believe he will always have only one hometown: beautiful Béjaïa, the Candle of the Orient.  I often feel guilty about condemning this man, who is prone to weaving communities about him like a Berber carpet, to my life of wandering.  But without him, I’d still be homeless instead of just nomadic.  Like my great-grandparents, he immigrated, and now there are two of us under one turtle shell.

This space in the inter-web, therefore, is not a soap-boxy kind of place.  It is not a dancing travelogue or a librarian blog (there are enough of both of those!), although I may from time to time discuss libraries or dancing.  My hope is that this will be a public-y version of what I do privately: reflect on being a nomad in America and steal a few minutes  after my dayjob so that saying “I’m a writer” doesn’t need to be followed by “when I grow up.”

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