porcelainandporcupines

Archive for September 2011

One of the most interesting things to come out of my working at Harvard was discovering that I lived right next door to one of my co-workers. Which should tell you something about the interest level of most happenings there; people’s eyes tend to widen in awe when you tell them that you work at Harvard – it never seems to occur to them that there are entry level jobs at Harvard too, and that they can be every bit as tedious as entry level jobs in a school they’ve never heard of.

Mary and I didn’t realize we were neighbors until after my first stint at Harvard – when I was a full-time temp – had ended, when, after completing one of the variety of errands with which I filled those happily unemployed summer days (unemployment only becoming sad when it stretches into winter), I passed her coming out of her house just as I was heading to mine. And even though we hadn’t really even been work friends – which I guess is obvious, since we’d never discussed where we lived in enough detail to discover the answer was “right next to you” – we had a good laugh at how we’d worked together for 6 weeks and only were discovering this now. And when I resumed my employment with Harvard a few weeks later – as a part-time term worker – whenever someone new asked me where I lived (which, now that I’m thinking about it, seemed like maybe it happened more than it needed to), I would always make sure to mention that my house was right next door to Mary’s.

Of course, Mary and I could only play the “we’re neighbors!” card so many times before it got old, and our work relationship usually consisted of greetings in the morning, farewells in the evenings, and not a whole lot in between. One day, however, Mary asked me a question:

“You know the woman who roller skates down our street every morning?”

I’m sure you can imagine how happy it would have made me to respond to that question in the affirmative, but instead I could only express disbelief that Mary, in all of our japes and jests about being neighbors, had never mentioned this before. I gathered what information I could, most importantly verifying that the skater was indeed a skater, wearing old-school white roller skates with 4 solid red wheels and a big red stopper (what some might call a brake) right under the toe, and not simply roller blades, which wouldn’t have been exciting at all. I also learned, after she followed up her claim of having seen the skater “every single day” of her life, with “not every day, but most days”, that Mary is given to hyperbole.

While I obviously kept an eye out for a roller skating woman in the weeks that followed that conversation, my interest in her tapered off as she repeatedly failed to appear, until I forgot about her. This week, however, I finally saw her. She was all that Mary had promised – a woman on white roller skates – but somehow, also, a little bit less.

In my imagination, a woman who roller skates to work – or wherever – would be the picture of joy. Because, obviously, she’s not doing it for the sport or the speed of it – if she were, she’d probably have chosen the less nostagically impressive but more aerodynamic roller blades. Or possibly a bicycle. Maybe, just maybe, a Segway. But to choose old-fashioned roller skates, the kind you wore when learning how to skate, when the safest way to stop was not with the toe brake but by slowly skating into a wall – it would be reasonable to conclude that such a person loves to skate.

However, the expression on this woman’s face was not that of one who loves to skate. Frankly, it’s difficult to look like you love anything when you’re going around in public with your mouth hanging open, whatever your mode of conveyance. Even had her mouth been closed, her expression would have still been. . . blank. Which is confusing. Is someone forcing her into these roller skates? Is she a Hans Christian Anderson story playing out right before our eyes? If not, if she’s merely skated so much that all the fun has been taken out of it, I may have to tell her that it’s all right to stop. Because her lack of joy in skating has robbed me of my rightful joy in seeing a grown woman roller skate. And I was really looking forward to being happy about that.

Discouraging the friendly spirit of a little girl so she’ll likely never say positive things to a stranger again concluded my business at the public library, so I awkwardly gathered up my things and made my way home to call the various emporia of computer repair, the retrieval of whose contact information had been the sole purpose of my library trip. Settling on the one with the most reasonable rates within the most reasonable walking distance from my house, I dropped off my little laptop at a local Cambridge business, then returned home and attempted to fill the empty hours with meaningful activities, like reading and quiet contemplation – and entertaining Oola, of course – but I think I ended up just sleeping a lot and thinking about cookies.

That strange, computer-less existence mercifully lasted less than 24 hours; I got a call the following afternoon, and, in my joy, practically ran to the shop to pick up the probably close to obsolete but still worth repairing machine that is so dear to me (hey, remember when I hated computers and didn’t have one in my house? That was only 5 years ago. And, totally OT, but remember how I used to hate texting? And abbreviations?  Oh, the times – how they have changed me; I wonder if there will ever be a day that I don’t look back on a previous version of myself and wonder at the many different ways in which I sucked).

Unburdened by these thoughts at the time, I noted that the Professional Geek had changed the user icon on my computer, which I had never changed from the default MSN Marigold, to an adorable blue-eyed kitten; this pleased me greatly, as, when he’d enquired who regularly used the computer the day before when I dropped it off, I mentioned that Oola – referred to only as “my cat”  – while a casual user at best, did like to step across the keyboard from time to time. It was nice to think we’d developed some kind of rapport during the previous day’s professional business transaction, and that my needs as a user – someone who uses the Internet, Word, and has a cat – were now fully represented on my computer.

This pleasantness was very soon rent asunder, as PG began to recount the many things on my computer that he’d managed to save. It was indeed a thorough list, and while it made me happy at the beginning, as it went on I began to notice one thing he wasn’t mentioning, one thing I’d failed to bring up the day before, one thing that really, really needed to be saved:

“What about my passwords? Like online?” I asked.

He recitation faltered. “No,” he said. “You didn’t ask me to save those.”

“Crap.”

And let me interrupt myself here to note that the disappointment I was attempting to express was directed entirely at myself. I know there’s a way to make that obvious when you’re actually in conversation with someone without having to make this kind of aside, but knowing something and knowing how to do something are, apparently, two very different things.

Despite my best intentions, this was not expressed as self-recriminatory thinking aloud, but instead as though I had been disappointed by the professional geekery of the young man before me. And so he, as one does, got defensive.

“If you told us that when you dropped it off, we could have backed that up. But you didn’t mention it.”

His expressive capabilities are superior to mine, because this was not in any way hostile, as it might seem on the page. Still, I could tell I’d said the wrong thing and, as I had the day before, attempted to over correct.

“I really need those.” Then it occurred to me that it was nearing the end of the month. “Shoot,” I continued (I don’t like to swear around strangers) “I have to pay my bills soon. I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do that.”

Properly expressed, those words would’ve said “Dude, I’m an idiot; thanks for your efforts, though – but boy, did I hose myself on this one.” They were not, however, properly expressed.

PG could only respond that I hadn’t mentioned that when I dropped off the computer. Because, that was the truth; he shouldn’t have needed to say anything else. However, I believe I mentioned elsewhere my own Repetition Tolerance Timeline – if you don’t remember it, shame on you! But also, here’s a reminder: It’s short. And, if my efforts to communicate to you that I understand are failing and I am consequently exasperated, it gets shorter. And so, after another round of me “explaining” and him defending, this happened:

“Ok, well, when I get my time machine, I will go back to yesterday and do that right.”

There’s no inflection in the world that would have made that the right thing to say. And kudos to PG for taking it like a champ; he simply guided the conversation toward the register, so that our business could be concluded and I could be on my way.

As a post script – at several weeks remove from the incident, it’s quite a relief that the Geeks don’t just take it upon themselves to back-up your passwords – inconvenient though it might be for me to actually have to actually remember something, it would be incredibly invasive for them to do otherwise. Also, apparently it’s possible that Firefox wouldn’t let them? Having been faced with an irrational customer or two in my day, I can see how that might’ve slipped PG’s mind at the time.

One comment that I’ve received in response to my writing a number of times over the years is that I write just like I talk. While I’ve always taken that to be a compliment (and by “always” I mean “all three times”), I’ve felt somewhat like a fraud accepting it. Because the truth of the matter is that I don’t at all write like I talk; rather, I talk like I write.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. There was a time, not too long ago, when I actually spoke like a normal person. That all changed, however, when I started blogging. Writing about what I was doing influenced the way I viewed every situation, and that, in turn, changed that way I spoke about them. From there, it was just a short jump to changing the way I spoke about everything.

Now, so many years on down the road, I couldn’t stop talking like this even if I wanted to. Which has been awkward in some situations. More awkward, however, are the times that I’ve tried to stop; my occasional efforts at normal vocal communications have met with some spectacular failures.

The most recent spectacle occurred a few short weeks ago. Due to some personal computronical issues, I was forced to use the public library computers to find a place where I could take my computer for repair. As I sat there, trying to find a place that would charge me less than my own employer would to fix my computer, I overheard a fellow – a library patron – say to one of the librarians – a fellow – something about not knowing the author of  Into the Wild.

I fought back the urge to immediately jump into the conversation and show off that I knew – I’ve shelved that book a number of times (that number being higher than the number of times I’ve been told that I write just like I talk), and every time made a mental note that I should read it; even if I never do, the author’s name will forever be etched in my memory. But, I hadn’t heard the beginning of the conversation. Perhaps there was some sort of wager in place and knowing the author’s name would exclude him from the prize. Or maybe the guy hated the movie version so much that he was looking for the author’s name so he could track him down and punch him in the face; I wouldn’t want to be a party to that.

Plus, this wasn’t my library; while I have yet to receive my official copy of The Big Book of Librarian Etiquette, I feel confident that Don’t Show Up Another Librarian On Her Home Turf has to be, like, rule #5, after Accept With Good Grace And Gentle Deflection All Comments About Sexy Librarians, Politely Inform Those Who Ask That Plenty Of People Even Read Anymore,  Don’t Shush Your Fellow Librarians Even If They’re The Noisiest People In The Building, and Never Comment On The Size Of A Gentleman’s Book. So I sat quietly at my computer, graciously allowing my fellow Librarian  to claim the glory that was rightly his by providing the patron with the requested information. Except that he didn’t. “I don’t know either,” was all he said in reply.

Over and above any other rule of Librarian Etiquette is Represent Librarians In The Best Possible Light At All Times, which is so obvious that it never even needs to be stated. Telling a patron that you don’t know something is fine; failing to follow-up with an offer to find out, when you are seated at the service desk, right in front of a computer, is unacceptable. I may have been loathe to break rule #5, but he seemed in danger of giving librarians everywhere a bad name; I really had no other choice but to pipe up from across the room with “Krakauer; John Krakauer”. It took a couple of repetitions before they understood what I was saying (I think my mispronunciation of the name – it’s actually Jon Krakauer – proved momentarily confusing), but finally, librarian and patron alike were fully aware of just who was the author of Into the Wild.

I was exceptionally pleased at the job well done, but not so much so that I wasn’t inclined to respond with modesty to the little girl seated at the computer next to me, who looked at me with wide eyes and said “Wow, you’re really smart.” Except that my stated response “Well, I knew that,” came out less of a humble “Well, I got lucky and  happened to know the particular piece of information they were looking for,” and more of a “Yes, I am well aware of how exceedingly intelligent I am, little girl – thank you.”

She looked abashed and returned her focus to her computer screen. Eventually I figured out where I had gone wrong, but it was too late. Over explaining the error didn’t make it any clearer to the child and didn’t make her feel any better, but it did make me feel like a jerk. Probably I should have written her a note; then she would’ve understood what I meant.

It’s been an awfully long time since last we gathered, to meet and read and talk of things. And for that, I am responsible and I do, of course, apologize. Nothing would make me happier than to provide you, my devoted and well-loved readers, with a reasonable explanation for this dreadful lapse on my part, but, while explanations I can provide in abundance, whether or not they seem reasonable is for you to judge; all I can say for myself is that they seemed compelling at the time:

1. The Facebook effect – While it is true that my blog had been a part of my Myspace account, and while it is also true that no one is using Myspace anymore, it is not true that the demise of Myspace is as much a factor as you might think. Rather, the culprit is that a regular post on Facebook is limited to a sentence or two; as one (such as myself) becomes a more regular poster on Facebook, one becomes more adept at succinctly stating things, but the trade-off is that it becomes very, very difficult to think expansively about a topic. At least, it did for me.

It is true that Facebook does have the “Notes” feature that could help combat this pernicious brevity of thought, that is not a feature I am comfortable using; I don’t really need every single person I’ve ever met, plus all members of my family, and several of my current coworkers, to read all of the things we share here online. It might be somewhat ridiculous to lament a lack of privacy in so public a forum, and when I am just about to discuss a lack of an audience, but, as the French say, C’est Moi.

2. Lack of an audience – Please don’t take this personally; you know that I love each and every one of you dearly. And that I do, at times, love writing just for the sake of writing. However, I know that there are only about 8 of you reading this (right now and ever), and I further know that I will be communicating with each of the 8 of you in some other fashion (very likely on Facebook) in the future. Thus, the urgency of blogging is somewhat diminished when I know that I’ll be talking with you sooner and later; additionally, as I am so often in need of things to talk about, I do on occasion like to hold on to things to make sure that, when we are enjoying each others’ company, awkward silences will be kept at a minimum.

3. Lack of confidence – You all may not be aware of this, but there is a LOT of mediocre writing in the world, and while it is easy enough to find examples of it online, please do not be fooled that this is merely an online problem. Old-fashioned books and magazines are home to more mediocrity than you can fathom.

There is no greater example that I can think of of this alarming trend than this book,  an impartial review of which you can read here.  (Incidentally, that book review is probably the single greatest thing I’ll ever write, so you might want to take a second to read it; no, go ahead – I’ll wait.)

(See? Wasn’t that worth it?)

But, one thing that I didn’t mention in that review, but that I could not stop thinking while I read it is that that dude’s friends, the friends of Brock Clarke, undoubtedly think that he is hilarious. And all of the people who are writing online, tiresome writing so overwrought to create illusions of depth when really there is nothing being said at all, they too have friends who think they’re hilarious. And while there are some who would take notice of this phenomena and make a positive conclusion that there must be an audience for everyone, I, personally, as an individual, could only believe that for so long. I really did try, but in the dark of night, as I couldn’t fall asleep and worried about never being able to find a job, there it was: what if I suck as bad as Brock Clarke? Or like all of the other people who have jobs and harbor a fantasy of being a published author and so blog in their downtime of any random thought that pops in their head? Certainly, some of them have hundreds of readers, but it is not the case that whoever shouts the loudest is right, or that just because a lot people like something, it must be good.

Once a thought like that takes hold, there’s no shaking it. And the true beauty of it is that there is nothing anyone can say to help: if my problem is that I only appeal to my friends, assurances from my friends will only perpetuate that belief. Its insularity is unassailable and over-powering – once I started to think that I was only putting trash out into the world, the desire to produce vanished.

But…

So why are we, the 8 of us, here together now? Well, I don’t know. We have a blog at work now, and I enjoyed posting about Oola during pet week (just to reiterate – that there is a work blog; you probably won’t want to read it regularly, and you can’t comment on it). And the new desk schedule for the Fall semester has just been released; I have very few desk hours, but both committees I was on have completed their tasks, so I have a lot of down time that needs filling. And I’m not in school anymore; there’s no specific benefit to that that applies in this particular case, but I do like to point it out. And, every now and then, I will have a thought that requires a little more explicating than Facebook will allow, and it perhaps now, it is time to start moving beyond Facebook’s borders once again.

So we’re here now; I can make no promises when or how often we’ll be here again, or what will bring us together. I’ll do my best. I’m open to suggestions. And you have to do yours best, too; if you see something you like, tell your friends.


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