09 February 2011

I (Heart) You

We are fast approaching one of the more peculiar (if pleasant) holidays on the calendar: Valentine's day. Originated as a religious observance for a brutally murdered church figure (or three separate ones, to be technical), and bearing no organic relation to romance, somehow this feast day was morphed in the 14th century into a celebration of romantic love. And that, my friends, is a testament to the adaptability of Chaucerian chivalry. Ah, those crazy kids!

I still remember grade-school valentine day customs: each hopeful student decorated a brown lunch bag with hearts, and hung them on the wall (the bags). In some years you were allowed to put names on them, in some not. It didn't matter. If your love was true, you knew identifying crayon marks (after a little insider information). Generally, you were obliged to give a valentine to each student in your class. But if you wanted to give that bigger "teacher" one to that special someone, well...

It strikes me as odd, now that I am a parent, that we encourage romantic gift-giving at this early age. I does explain some things, however. These cards, aimed at children, understandably didn't actually use the word "love," and were more likely to say something like, "You're a pal!" or worse, "Don't bug me! Be mine." Hardly the sort of message you might wish to convey to your life-mate. It makes you wonder if this is the genesis of our inability to express ourselves romantically.

We are driven by the problem of what to say. How many times have you stood in the stationary store and poured over the greeting card offerings for an extended amount of time looking for just the right card? I can't begin to know how many gazillions of dollars these guys make because we are wretched at expressing ourselves with our own words. However, if you are one of the sentiment-challenged, don't feel bad. Apparently there are enough of us out there to make the card companies some serious coin.

In some respects, it's a sign of the truly cushy lives we lead that we have "people" who express our affection for us. That may seem a little scary, on the surface. But we labor over these cards because we do have affection in our hearts that we wish someone to express, on our behalf, and we are quite sincere about how the words will sound. We are eager to strike the right balance between humorous and sappy; we want to convey our profound admiration without provoking gagging noises or coming off as weirdly frightening. We would like the reader to laugh because the card is funny, not because our giving it was laughable. Walking-hand-in-hand-on- the-beach cards are probably a better bet than something which uses the words Republican or Democrat, no matter how sincerely felt.

In the end, the true measure of a valentine card is not the pre-printed sentiment written by some hack at Hallmark. It is the little extra something we add with our own pen. For those of you who are seizing up at the very notion of having to add a written message - relax. She (and we know most of you are men) knows you're probably not all that good with words. She will be delighted you even darkened Walgreen's door to get the card to begin with. She will be even more thrilled if you put almost anything more than your name at the bottom. Go for the gusto - draw a heart with your initials in it. For my husband, this is easy since our initials are the same (on the off chance he forgot who I was).

The true art here is to evaluate your target audience. People give valentines for lots of different reasons: I received them from my mother-in-law as though I was one of her children, a gesture which I cherished. I sometimes give them to my grown-up kids. My friends exchange funny-friend ones. If romance is the ultimate aim, however, it is important to balance how much the recipient is expecting a gesture of this sort with the depth of seriousness of the emotion expressed. If this is apt to be something of a surprise, it may be best to keep it conservative (lest the summoning of the cops becomes an issue). And no matter how much you think you know about a person, this is one holiday where tasteful and traditional is undoubtedly best.

This is your chance to put your heart out there, a little paper test-flight of sorts, soaring aloft on carefully crafted words of esteem and affection.

27 January 2011

What Makes a Bookstore Hip

First you must assume that bookstores can be hip. That it's hip to read.  That it's hip to go into a bookstore with the notion of buying a book. That bookstore patronage says more than just "I live over my mother's garage with my sixteen cats and read romance novels all day." (Per the latter, I don't judge. You are probably my most dependable library patron!)

I worked, for an interim between the dehumanizing brutality of airline work and the cool oasis of my current library job, in a very hip bookstore. This bookstore had all the trappings, of course: comfy leather sofas by a fireplace. Flavored coffees strong enough to sprout hair on a bowling ball. Underpaid clerks (mostly PhD lit majors) who were curiously happy to be earning minimum wage. We had a well-read clientele who cheerfully plunked down excessive amounts of money in an effort to reassure someone (perhaps themselves) that they were thoughtful, well-educated and urbane. We had the guy who parked his Humvee across 4 parking spaces. We had the women who bought graphic novel versions of Shakespeare for their four year-olds. We had the guy who looked a little like a vagrant but who was rumored to have inherited a fortune and who certainly bought books in a way that tended to back up that assertion.

I have been in a number of bookstores in my life, from only somewhat bigger than a broom closet (Shop Around the Corner) to mega-emporiums (Fox Books) and can authoritatively state that hipness is more than a glitzy interior design and a gazillion books. Sure, you have to take into account all of the ambience factors, such as the aroma of Arabica , just-right temperature, the faint whiff of printed page mingled with jasmine scented candles (for sale in the stationary department) and lighting which is a genius combination of bright enough to read by but not bright enough that you feel awkward staring at the nude figure-drawing books. Borders and Barnes and Noble both lose hip points in lighting and ambience. And Half-Price Books is definitely too "discount" to be taken seriously on this level. Buying books has to seem elitist, or it loses much of its cachet. Crossing the hip-line has to do with something a bit more illusory.

Having a staff that knows much more than you do about books, indeed much more about current and classic literature than may constitute a dignified social posture, is something of a beginning. Hipness is all about perception, much like the New York Times Book Review is all about actual literary quality. At the tipping point of hipdom, it matters less that you know more about books than whether your public thinks you know. Once you have convinced the consuming public that you are the arbiter of reading standards for the city, you have stepped into the Oprah-light.  The only thing left is to get the reigning local uber-hip, edgy-anarchist newsrag to name you the "Best Bookstore Experience." For some reason, there's nothing like being recommended by the counter-culture to make your rep. Once this starts to happen, baby, you've arrived.

It seems to help, in the bookstore game, if you are family-owned, a one trick pony, a "lone-reed." Corporate conglomeration seems to take all the "sticking-it-to-the-man" fun out of things. However, don't think of successful bookstore owners as readers, one of us. The ones I knew were all about the fancy house in the fancy suburb. They seldom came into the store, and I can't say that I ever saw them actually reading. It's usually best, for the purpose of hip, to keep them hidden away like the embarrassing relatives.

Having established yourself as hip, it takes some diligence to stay on top. It's probably best to monitor who you bring to book-signings. Stick with Martha (oh, yes, you know Martha-who - the Martha that looks good in stripes). Avoid anyone who writes movie-adaptation books. Don't worry about charming, attractive or even human. Sensation sells books.

In addition to promoting books that everyone has heard of, develop the knack for flogging the books NO ONE has heard of and making them sound like to-die-for must-haves.

Don't neglect your stationary department, if you choose to have one. Have items that cannot reasonably be found anywhere else. Book covers woven of real human hair, inkstands made from Lamborghini parts etc. Once you fall into the Yankee Candle trap, you've lost your edge. Go with locally made - the quirkier the better.

The great thing about a truly hip bookstore is that people feel enhanced by having come. Smarter, cooler, smoother, etc. And let's not forget - better informed - which, after all, is the icing on the cake. They get to hang out with interesting, well-read people. They have food they haven't tried. They take home something unique and memorable, both in merchandise and experience.

Not a bad way to make a living.

Character and Black Friday

I confess, I am one of those. The misguided, ill-advised, hopeless types who actually go out to shop in the middle of the night on Black Friday. Even my children have abandoned me at this point. But if I have one claim to fame, it is that I am a born hunter-gatherer. I have dickered in department stores. I have walked away with free merchandise and the store's blessing. I am the yard sale diva. I can barter with the best. I can win the who-paid-less game hands down. So Black Friday is my yearly magnum opus.

When I first started this crazy trek, I was in a position to truly value the economics of the effort. And my first year or two of this was both successful (in a commercial sense) and surreal (in an outlook on humanity sense). I saw some interesting crowd dynamics, suffered discomfort and cold (do they do this in warm climates?), came away with everything on my wish list, and solidified my future strategies.

By last year, the economic necessity was somewhat less, but I was hooked: the socio-anthropologic aspects of this ritual are irresistible. Nevertheless, it is measurably more enjoyable to go out on Black Friday if you remove the desperation aspect, leaving only the mildly competitive element. You'll just have to trust me on this. More, even, than the dollar savings, is that whiff of big-game hunting excitement in knowing you must be the fleetest, or the craftiest, or the cleverest, to claim victory. It is the notion that you are willing to commit something of yourself (your time, comfort, sleep and relative sanity) to the pursuit of the worthy goal: to be finished with THE LIST before December 1st.

Let me say, for the record, that I have heard the horror stories. People trampled in the melee to get those flat-screen televisions (true). People who pull guns or throw punches (also true). I have been in stores swarming with police officers. I have seen the hackles rise on people - gentle people - who have stood in line all night when a line jumper tries to break in line. I will also say, for the record, that many stores do not take sufficient precautions for crowd control.

Do yourself a favor - pay the extra for electronics and/or don't go looking for them on that day. Electronics departments are like entering the lions' den. Leave those deals to the folks who have camped out since the previous Wednesday. Happily, you have a very respectable chance of finding them online for a comparably discounted price.

Don't go at all if you are feeble, timid or in any way less than vigorous. Don't bring the little kids (anyone under 16) or Grandma, unless she's a black-belt.

Vastly more often than these incidents would presuppose, people rise to a level of remarkable decency on Black Friday. My experience this year was a case in point. I waited in line for nearly an hour with very kind women on either side of me - women who offered to help me get things to the front of the line, knowing that I had no cart. Women who sent their extra helpers out on scouting trips and brought back things for me too. The overall mood was cheerful and uncomplaining. When we reached the head of the line, the cashiers were calm and chatted amiably.

I am reminded that the same adversity that creates monsters of the weak, make heroes of the strong. This may be putting too fine a point on it, but if you can be helpful and cheerful when conditions are terrible, you haven't slept or eaten (or even gone to the bathroom), and you missed out on that Tonka truck as advertised,  you are among the truly virtuous.

You may wish a different arena in which to test human nature. I am fast approaching an age when I probably should forego the gladiator life. But in the meantime, I set my alarm and venture out to find some unexpected gifts for Christmas.

31 December 2010

Life in the Margins

My friend is in his 80s; he wears dual hearing aids because he is nearly deaf, having had his eardrums blown out in WWII. He is developing cataracts which make seeing difficult, although he's planning surgery for them. I find this a lovely, optimistic thing to do: his curiosity and love of reading beating back those pesky proteins that would cloud the page. He does love to read and sits over his magazine with a colored pencil, editing the misspellings and poor grammar and incorrect facts. Fred was a teacher in his pre-retirement years. What a guy! I like to think of him as a humble guardian - a gatekeeper of the Mother Tongue - waging war with marker drawn.

Like many older folks, he likes to read things that are reminiscent: histories of areas he knows, stories from periods with which he identifies, and down-home country-isms. He is from down home, you see. He grew up on the Kentucky side in Appalachia, and his wife on the Virginia side. I like to think of them as a Romeo and Juliet meets the Hatfields and McCoys, only much happier, and clearly more sensibly disposed.

I was recently the recipient of some of Fred's hand-me-down periodicals. He was ready to donate them, and this particular publication is popular with local genealogists. I brought them home to remove address labels and to thumb through them before passing them along. As I browsed through Fred's editorial marks, I found a window into his life. For example, I never knew much about his military service, but his comments in the margins of articles written on the subject gave me to understand where he had fought and what he thought about the experience. Cryptic comments, like "tough time," "agree," "even worse," let me know that whatever the writer's description, it could not begin to measure what he had seen.

Specializing in non-urban, non-contemporary country life, these magazines spoke of growing up in remote hollows, drawing well water, no electricity, and barefoot boyhood. I could tell where Fred's bare feet had wandered, and a few things he had seen and experienced every time I came across his emphatic underlining and scrawled observations.

I have had one other such notable experience with margin notes in my life. In high school, a good friend and I shared a history book. I couldn't afford one; we had history at different times so she graciously shared her book and we passed it back and forth in the hall. For the record, I have always loved history but this class was decidedly boring and to enliven the hour we would make notes in the current reading, knowing the other would see it. We drew pictures back and forth, and otherwise communicated across the barrier of time via our extra-literation.  You could say we drew and read between the lines.

I remember once buying a textbook at a college book sale that boasted the following scheme: in the front cover of each book was the grade the student had made in the course (in order to sell your books this way you had to provide grade slips for proof) and you could buy based on one of a couple of strategies: you could buy the "A" student books and know you could probably trust their margin notes, or you could buy the unmarked books of the "C" and "D" students and start completely fresh. I always bought the marked books.

I have since experienced other editorial handiwork, some pleasant and some not. Thesis corrections were painful and occasionally incomprehensible. One undergrad professor often made my day with his sincere and supportive margin notes. As a student, you live and die by the red pencil. I have even experienced professional editing via computer program, although I must say it isn't quite the same. It's like breaking up in a text - just a little too impersonal.

A part of me feels it would open up an interesting new world if we could write a brief comment in every book we read. This is incendiary speech coming from a librarian, I know. And at the risk of creating a host of administrative problems for libraries everywhere, I will refrain, as should you.

Just know that when you buy my books, you get the window into my soul for free.

15 December 2010

Content, Context, Content

We really fail to fully appreciate the miracle by which children learn to speak and, by extension, to read. And how that miracle builds the future.

Probably many of us have seen the movie The Miracle Worker, and have all had the same goose-bumpy moment when Helen finally connects the motion of Anne Sullivan's fingers, and the feel of the cool wetness, with that one word from her babyhood - water.  You think about the hundreds of thousands of repetitions it took to provoke that epiphanal moment, and you wonder how your own children manage it with what seems like far less intervention.

Child-brains are sponges way more efficient that a sham-wow. We know this because they can catalog back to us every rude thing we've ever said when we thought they weren't listening. Which brings us to my theory of how kids learn language.

When our babies are born, we can't seem to resist talking to them. They look as intently at us as anyone ever will in our lives. In a way, they are a captive audience to anything and everything we have to say; we hold their totally dependent selves in our arms in such as way as to maximize communication. Think about it. How many times in our lives will anyone (much less our children) pay such attention to us? I believe this is not accidental - I think it has to be part of the great design of how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.

Even new babies process our speech efficiently and immediately. They identify the sound of our voices: they know Dad from Mom. They know Mom from Aunt Bella. They know when Mom is cross. Soon, they know communicative sounds: singing, the shhh sound to calm them, the funny clicks and buzzes we do to amuse them. Eventually, they match words to results: eat to food to tummy-feels-better, for example. They discover their own ability to make sounds, and learn each sound's different response.

A working vocabulary is built on experience. Bed, toy, cookie, blanket, dog, etc. are the currency of day-to-day living. Well before a child can read, they can express their needs and observations in highly articulate ways. A child has an excellent foundation of functional vocabulary well before school age. After that, the skill becomes recognizing the word visually as well as aurally. Reading and writing, then, enable children to partake of a more permanent and dimensional use of language. Plus reading builds in them a vocabulary that goes beyond material usage. It helps them describe non-concrete situations such as feelings, impressions and ideas.

Once a child's enthusiasm for new language acquisition takes off, it becomes our obligation as parents to see to it that their lexical world is filled with constructive language. More than just the accumulation of vocabulary, children absorb our ideas, philosophies, and perspectives. Unfortunately, they can also absorb our prejudices, our phobias, our criticisms and our cynicisms. Even if we find evidence of these things in ourselves, we can spare our children those burdens.

Providing children with the tools for expression, communication and community is the first gift we give them as currency toward their future. Like clean air and clean water, our legacy should be a vocabulary filled with unsullied observation of their world: words filled with optimism and hopefulness. Much as we would not have them drink polluted water, we can refrain from teaching them words of fear, hate, intolerance, and anger, leaving those tucked away where we hope they never acquire them, knowing that just as toxic chemicals can harm their bodies, toxic words can harm their confidence and their souls.

Consider what Byron had to say:
"But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
  Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."



Isn't it amazing to consider that the the potential of a better world is available in the words we give our children today. 

01 December 2010

Harvest Home

We sang Thanksgiving songs today in church, and one song struck me in a new way. Having sung it for nearly my entire life, I finally understood it:

"Come ye thankful people come, raise the song of harvest home.
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin."

Written originally in a time when societies were agrarian, this song could not have helped having resonance with its singers. Talk of harvest, the quality of the produce, the preparation for harsh weather ahead. In the middle 1800s, people depended on their own labors to ensure food enough; they helped their neighbors in times of struggle, just as their neighbors helped them. But everyone also knew that a blessing of grace, good weather, health, and strength were not to be treated lightly. They desired to bring their thankful song home. To whose home? To their own, of course. But they also raised them to someone higher up. Thanksgiving is supposed to be as elemental as this: we have food, we can be together to share it, and we're thankful. All is safely gathered it. Even us.

Whether our forebears were merely anticipating a cold winter, or whether they feared something more man-made, they took comfort in the earnest effort and trusted that diligent preparation would be enough to sustain them. They had been obedient and had faith in the rest. Modernly, we also build security gathering in life's harvest. For us, the crop can be strong, caring and responsible children-citizens, fiscal responsibility, the good will of our neighbors and friends, the diligent upkeep of our homes. More importantly it is the reservoir of spiritual strength we have stored up within ourselves and our families. We all plan ahead for protection against the cold winds, whether they be natural or the bluster of an occasional hard society. We trust, after all we can do in obedience, that good will stand on our side. We have faith in all the rest.

"Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be."

Corn is a very versatile grain: if it is less tasty to humans, livestock still love it. If it won't work as cooking oil for your cake, it can be squeezed into ethanol to run your car.

It is pleasant to think of ourselves as tall cornstalks carrying bundles of vitally nourishing grain (or renewable and environmentally safe fuel) to those around us, strong and resilient even in poor conditions, tougher than the storms that blow on us and the sun that bakes us, and, in the end, a life-saving resources to those we love. And make no mistake - we do feed AND transport, both bodies and spirits! We are good grain, and we are so thankful.

See us now, green-golden and straight-backed, rustling gently in the breeze.

26 November 2010

Sit a Spell

To have a conversation: Chat. Gab. Chew the fat. Confab. Visit. Schmooze. Natter. Shoot the breeze.

My friends and I try to get together at least once a month to have lunch. We all lead busy lives and this is a way for us to stay in touch. I find that we learn more about one another over a casual meal than we might have in other contexts of our lives. At church or at work we have duties to fulfill, things to see to, and distractions aplenty. At home, we may have a few minutes before the next round of chaos begins. But in the lunch place, using the time we have blocked out, we sit across from one another and just talk.

This kind of talk serves a number of worthy purposes. It gives us a touchstone to measure the normalcy of our lives. If Gayle and Eileen and Vicki are all experiencing the same frustrations, then maybe I'm not alone or abnormal after all. We pass around useful advice: I saw the best sale on mushroom soup, store A had grapes as big as your head. When I used this lotion, my dry hands cleared right up. Try putting a glass of water by the bed... you get the idea.

Our talk is often practical, but sometimes it's fun. We trade stories from when we were young. We weren't young all in the same place, which makes it that much more interesting. By sharing memories, we can almost feel what it would have been like to grow up together.

A friend just moved away. When she first came to us, she hated the place. She was lonely for her family, she felt shut out of the ebb and flow. But some of the outgoing of us drew her in. It wasn't long before our jokes were her jokes and she lent sass and sparkle to our old ways as well. It is the way friendships grow bonds between us. When this friend then had to leave us to go onward, it threw her all over again. I find myself hoping her natural wit and pizzazz will bubble to the surface once more. For that to happen, she needs to talk to like minded people at the other end of the road. People who will re-establish her, and give her a base, and draw her into the new way of doing. And soon she will be at home. It just takes the right table at the right restaurant with the right conversation, and suddenly the world doesn't feel so strange, and we don't feel so much like strangers.