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.

15 November 2010

What Your Child is Reading - Addendum: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

I haven't seen the movie, but I read the book (the first one in the series, anyway). I am speaking not of the latest John Grisham novel, but of the rage of your children 12 and under: Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I will admit at the start that I may not be the demographic author Jeff Kinney was hoping to reach. However, when a book takes flight like this one did among the grade-school set, a self-respecting children's librarian needs to check it out (pardon the pun). 

I realize that what I am about to say may be beyond the point, since my opinion is hardly the one that counts: I find I am not anxious to recommend the book to parents who ask. I am not suggesting it be banned in Boston. I am not planning a boycott of Abrams. I am definitely not withholding it from the eager hands of the grade-school set who come (in droves) to find it on our shelves. My objection is not so great as to offset the fact that children are reading who may not otherwise read. But my overall impression is that it lacks affection

Greg Heffley behaves badly. I recognize that good little children who wouldn't think of doing the same things get a little vicariously illicit buzz from reading about the character's escapades. Most children know that kids aren't supposed act that way. They experiencve books the same way we adults do - as a sort of way to allow our id to go outside the norm for awhile. It is less troubling that Greg is the architypal underachiever, the one who makes our own foibles seem more normal. It is that he seems so content with his mediocrity, and kicks it up a notch with deception and carelessness. His parents are adversaries. His sibling is a nuisance. He is even mean to his best friend. I question whether it is morally responsible to publish a book in which there is no redeeming quality. Which reinforces a certain ethical neutrality in children, especially with regard to willingness to try, to be productive, and most of all, to love family members enough to at least occasionally think about their needs. 

Have I, once again, read too much into this?

07 November 2010

Reviewing Uncle Shelby

I have always had pleasant memories of Shel Silverstein's verse. On a recent reread, I have to admit I gained a little perspective as well. 

I knew, of course, that these were not your average Disney-ized children's poetry. Shel dispensed some pretty radical stuff, like the babysitter who sat upon the baby, and Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout who (we are led to believe) was buried under her accumulated garbage, etc. Nevertheless, with some light editing, I read these to my children. One daughter can recite the fable of Peggy Ann McKay for you; another has the Falling Up child tattooed on her shoulder. We read lots of things together, but my children remember Shel warmly. 

Once, I was verbally attacked by an irritated bookstore patron who thought Shel was teaching immoral ideas to her young offspring. I shrugged her off as a kook at the time. Her problem: the Giving Tree seemed to her to suggest that one is not virtuous or caring until one has been totally depleted. I guess at the time I assumed it was a wealthy suburbanite feeling a little defensive about her dough. 

Recently, I reread The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece, and I'm afraid I am starting to see her point. The Giving Tree can be construed to condone the selfish and grasping little boy who takes and takes and never gives. It could be  read to illustrate how some people sacrifice much with little appreciation. Granted, it can also be thought of as a story of ultimate redemption and unconditional love. It does seem to suggest a certain passive willingness to be abused. 

And I had contemplated giving The Missing Piece to a newlywed couple as a sort of sweet token of finding that one right person. I think perhaps I read it wrong; at the very least I scrapped the idea of the story as romantic. The dot, sans piece, goes on a pilgrimage to find the part to make itself complete. Upon finding said part, it decides it was less free and less content: it decides that the extra weight of the piece was cramping its rolling-stone style, and casts it away. Oh, sure, it says all this with gentler and more self-affirming speech. But I do wonder if the not-so-subtle message is that we are better single and that wholeness has little to do with accommodating a spouse and family. 

I still love Shel of course. He teaches us that childhood doesn't have to be all baby-talk, and gives us access to the practical-radical (read: socially aware) idea. When you enjoy Silverstein remember: there is always a point to be made, and the protagonist doesn't always have to win. It is generally in the consequence that we find the charm. And if we are not always charmed by the message, we can find the perspective refreshingly frank. After all, the fun begins in the extraordinary place where the sidewalk ends. 

Why I Do What I Do

At work one morning, I was working on what we call a request list (or a pull list). This is a list of all the books patrons have requested over the last 24 hours, either in person at one of our service desks or at home via our website. It's a nifty and convenient service. Usually first thing in the morning we go around with the list and pull
the books requested. When we scan them into the computer, it knows someone has asked for it and prints a slip accordingly. We then send the book and request slip up the the circulation department where the patron can pick up the item(s). 

On this particular morning I was going down through the list when I became aware of a child singing. I tend to be so focused, at times, that I block out what is happening around me - sometimes much concentration is needed to ferret out a wandering book. So on this occasion, she was well into her song before I started to pay attention. 

The child was no more than 2 or 2 1/2 years old. She was building with a toy we have in the department and was singing as she worked, a Sunday School song called I Am A Child of God. Her voice was crystal clear, and she remembered the words remarkably well for her age. Her entire attitude was one of peaceful contentment and exquisite confidence in her world in that moment. I stood spellbound, hand outstretched to pick a book, but unable to complete the motion, lest by moving I break the spell. 

As a laborer among children, one is elaborately careful not to invade children's safety zone. I did not move closer to hear, nor more than glance at the child, lest I make her uncomfortable or self-conscious. Even had I been inclined to come nearer, her aura of almost sacred purity would have forbade it. This, I thought, must be how angels sound. And the goosebumps on my arms must be how folks like me would probably react to an angel in the room. 

I recently applied to another department in the library for a job for which I was (false modesty aside :-) overwhelmingly qualified. I was disappointed not to have gotten the job. But over the next few weeks, several things occurred which have made me reevaluate my disappointment: a child, exhuberantly happy about the book I found him, rushed up and hugged my leg. Another offered me his hand as we (including his mom)  walked to the place where his book would be found. An older child who had been in some minor mischief in the department in the past began talking to me - short conversations, to be sure, but talking! Even outside of work, children approached me or spoke to me in department stores and other public places. Ever careful to note the presence of parents, I was  totally charmed that these children found me approachable. 

One young lad, shopping with his parents, indicated that he had a nifty new hat and waited for me to express my admiration; of course, I obliged. After a few seconds of discussion about the superhero who appeared on the said chapeau, he went over to his parents, and I continued shopping. But shortly he came back to me and  said,  very matter-of-factly, "It's my birthday soon and I am having a party. Would you like to come?"  I am not sure I have been more complimented by an invitation in all my life. Of course, I had to very politely decline with the fact that I must return to work. But I assured him it sounded like great fun. (I could, at this point, sense his parents relax a little.) It was a totally charming exchange, and I have to say it made my day.

I find myself feeling that I belong in my present job, at least for sometime longer. There are things I need to do here, things I need to learn about the virtues of simplicity, generosity, kindness and goodness that are your children. 

I feel changed. After all, I have heard the voices of angels. 

06 November 2010

Being There

I am reading Eat, Pray, Love. I haven't seen the movie; I like to have read the book first because, being a librarian, I start with the premise that the book is always better. (Sorry Hollywood.) Sometimes I enjoy the movie very much, as it turns out. Still, I find that having read the book seems more fair to the author's point of view and that the movie should be judged against the book and not the other way around.


I am at chapter 24. I find that I am moved by a passage in which the author (the book is written in the first person) describes her progress in learning to speak Italian. She is speaking with her tutor and they are exchanging idioms. She is teaching him "I've been there" as an American way of saying "I sympathize with what you are feeling." Being a word-geek, I liked taking that moment with the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, to contemplate the nuances of this phrase. It's an exercise we should take from time to time.

"I've been there," has a couple of manifestations: simply saying "I've been there" is a way of saying "I have walked along in the same unmarked path of grief, sadness, discouragement, or pain and I am letting you know that up ahead you will pick up a trail again. Up around a big bend on the trail, you'll finally come to a road and it will lead you back to a big sunny place." Thankfully, we don't have to say any such awful, bulky, ponderous thing. We just say "I've been there." The American person we are addressing then understands that we have felt pain similar to theirs and adds in all the rest of the meaning. Isn't commonality of expression a wonderful thing?

Sometimes, in lighter situations, we say "Been there; done that." Or even "Been there; done that; bought the T-shirt." The first meaning that we have had a similar experience, the second meaning we have done it more than once, or done it in such a big way as to have earned a sort of membership.

Ms. Gilbert's tutor is, at first, mystified by the idea: you've been where? The phrase suggests, in his practical approach to English, that there is a physical place. And, in a way, she explains, it is. It may be a place in your head, but it resides somewhere that both speaker and listener understand.

The tutor then offers his own version: "I have experienced that on my own skin." Like a burn or a scar, Ms. Gilbert clarifies. How wonderfully expressive! Instead of a geographic image, as in the American version, Italians offer the place as themselves in an equally present and physical (and painful) metaphor. The difference is fascinating. In the American version, one sympathizes with the lost feeling, with the sufferer's environment of separateness. In the Italian version, one experiences the personal, visceral pain as a trauma to the body.  What does this reflect about how each of us sees the world?