porcelainandporcupines

Archive for the ‘a few thoughts on aging’ Category

The most frustrating thing about aging right now is how much it makes me think of Milan Kundera. I spent a good solid chunk of the ’90s, maybe ’93 through ’99 – just absolutely hating that guy. It was so bad that I was planning to write abook about it, entitled “Why I hate Milan Kundera,” with the first chapter being “Because He Sucks.” It’s a compelling argument, I know, which made it all the more astonishing that it should need to be made in the first place. Milan Kundera clearly sucks, so why was he so popular?

At least in part, the answer to that is because everyone’s first exposure to Kundera was via a charming turn by a young Daniel Day Lewis in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In a larger sense, though, the two halves of the equation are more intertwined, and the thing that makes him so popular is the very reason that he sucks so bad, and that reason is the clear and incredible contempt he has for his female characters.

This is not simply an issue of an author writing unlikable characters. While I generally prefer to like the characters I read about, in much the same way I prefer to spend time with people whose company I enjoy, it’s not 100% necessary. I understand unlikable characters have their time and place; holidays, for example, or other family gatherings. But the series of embarrassing or tragic calamities that befall so many of his female characters ends up having no lasting impact on the story. So a pregnant nurse accidentally takes a poison pill – the real surprise is that the crabby old man wasn’t lying all those years about carrying a suicide pill with him at all times. Or the woman, despondent over an unworthy man, who attempts to end her own life but instead takes a handful of laxatives and suffers not just the expected bathroom embarrassments while her uninterested beloved stands on the other side of the door, she, desperate to flee her humiliation, must then run out of the bathroom without pulling her stockings all the way up, causing her to trip so severely that she falls face forward on the lawn, exposing her bare ass to the world.

Now, I have not had occasion to have first-hand experience of the stockings that could be gotten under Communism, but from decades of Democracy stockings I do know both that even in an intestinal emergency they don’t take that long to pull up, and that if you are in such a rush that you don’t pull your stockings all the way up, that will present such a serious impediment to travel that you will not get far enough out of the bathroom to run outside, trip, and expose your bare ass to the world.

Such are the calamities that befall young women in Kundera’s novels. Should a female character manage to avoid both accidentally being poisoned and accidentally not poisoning herself, she can still in her old age look forward to being ridiculed by Kundera for having aged. And in this case, instead of acting through his characters or the role of the omniscient narrator, in Immortality (or maybe it’s Identity; I read all of those books such a long time ago), Kundera inserts himself directly into the story as Milan Kundera, sitting poolside as an older woman climbs out of the water, pausing in her post-pool toweling off to wave girlishly at someone.

She’s probably not waving at Kundera; even if she doesn’t know him, she can probably tell he’s a dick. But Kundera was there to catch the wave and can’t help but notice the incongruity of the girlishness of the act with the advanced aged of the actor, and is stunned to be witness to this older woman not knowing that she’s not beautiful anymore. Which, honestly, shouldn’t be such a terrible surprise to him – or maybe it should, because, despite his many years, he seems to have no awareness that he himself is a terrible prick. Regardless, he is so amazed by it that he goes on to repeat that this woman is no longer beautiful at least 1,000 times on just that one page if I’m recalling correctly; as I said, I read it a long time ago, so it may have been more.

This has always been my problem with Kundera – is that it’s impossible to believe that the extremely negative portrayal of women in his works is due to anything but him. Which is always the case with authors, that everything that happens is due to them, but the purposelessness of the malice directed at his females, that doesn’t add to the story, that doesn’t provide any commentary on the role of women in society, Communist or otherwise, or on the difficult and changing relationships between women and men; by the process of elimination, we can only conclude that the only purpose women serve is to show how much Milan Kundera does not like women.

And that, in my opinion, is what accounts for the disproportionate popularity of his books here in these United States. Writing as he was behind the Iron Curtain, Kundera provided assurance that, should American have lost the Cold War and been crushed under the heel of oppressive equality, men would still have plenty of opportunities to act like immature and terrified little prats toward women, benefiting from their accidental and completely avoidable deaths, or causing them disgraceful embarrassment simply for not being their ideal. So, that we may have won the Cold War, in that we just waited while the other side collapsed under its own weight, we have the comfort of knowing that, even if we had failed (or they didn’t), the State would have begun to do terrible things to those who acted against its interest, but crimes against women would still not be considered crimes against the state and could therefore proceed unobstructed, in the usual fashion.

Eventually, in ’99, I let go of my plans to take down Milan Kundera. Partially because writing a book would have meant learning a lot more about Milan Kundera than that I hated him. Partially because “because he sucks,” is a lot harder to turn into a whole book than you might think (although, at this point, you may have an inkling). Mostly, it was because I realized that when I gave up trying to convince the whole world that Kundera was terrible, I would not have to subject myself to him anymore.

And so I put his books down. I still remember closing that last one – Immortality, or possibly Slowness – on my desk at work. Under the bright florescence my coworker Matt asked “What are you reading?” And I replied, with a calm smile and a pleasant shake of my head “Nothing,” certain that the moment would be as cinematic in my memory as it was in reality. Eventually, I got rid of the books that I’d been lugging around from house to house; physically and mentally, I left Kundera behind.

And so I lived, happily ever after for 15 years without thinking of Milan Kundera at all. But here we are together now, talking about him which means, obviously, that has ended. Not because of his new book, although it’s fitting that Kundera, too, has forgotten that he’s not desirable anymore. But a year ago, as I stood in the Grove with my brother and sister on a sunny spring day that wasn’t as warm as it should have been. It was the first time we were all together in more than a decade too, and we stood in this crowded outdoor shopping complex overrun by tourists, like us, who, like us, had come hoping to spy a celebrity and who wouldn’t notice us anything other than a group, like them, of middle-aged tourists, standing around and squinting into the sun.

It was sad in that moment to realize that I too was a part of the anonymous throng of overweight Americans, that, until that moment, I’d been living like Kundera’s foolish old woman at the pool, living on as though I had value despite the cruel march of time. Perhaps somewhere in that crowd at the Grove there was a writer witnessing that moment who would be so inspired by the momentary despair that they, too, would use it as the springboard for an unrelated story that reinforces for the world what a cock they truly are.

At the same time, from the viewpoint of Kundera’s ridiculous old woman, I understood – in a way Kundera could not – that she wasn’t so ridiculous after all. She may not have been beautiful in the moment Kundera hoped to preserve (an observation which is entirely suspect because why would anyone trust Milan Kundera on these things?) but even he himself can recognize that she had been beautiful at one point. This may not be valuable in his opinion, but it is not merely the shadow of beauty that persists. Her beauty (which, it should also be noted, is not her most important quality, but again, we are limited by Kundera’s framework) may no longer be that of youth, but it continues to be visible for the people who know her. The woman herself, other people, people who are not assholes; rather than lamenting its absence, they still see her beauty, made all the more remarkable that it can still be seen despite her foolish old face.

Too, there are the people of the woman’s life who don’t know she is no longer beautiful,those who knew her before the moment Kundera felt was so important to preserve. The moments they witnessed – of beauty of otherwise – also endure, as much as Kundera’s moment, if not more because they are not insufferable twats, most likely. And, even if they are, the version of them that the old woman knew still exists, as she remembers a place where she was beautiful in the company of someone sufferably charming; her eyes alight with mischief while he stands up straighter and wonders if in the future they’ll still be together. Those two people, who managed to be lively even in the face of Communism, will continue to matter as long as anyone continues to think of them, in the present as a fond recollection or a promise of a future that will never be realized.

But the most important thing – the MOST important thing I have to occasionally remind myself about that day in the Grove, when I notice my eyelashes have vanished, or as I wait at an intersection for a beautifully upright horse to trot past while I sit in the car feeling like a melting candle, is not just that, even if only in photos or on Facebook, I will always be young enough to enjoy the sun and believe it will always be shining on me; that my brother will always have a dopey grin and a bowl haircut even as his crew cut becomes saltier; that our sister will always be taller than us because she’s older, and her feathered bangs will never go out of style. The MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember is that Milan Kundera will always, ALWAYS be a dick.

As I’m sure is typical among the kids today, I first heard about Sting’s new album The Last Ship when I caught the music being performed on PBS. I was immediately intrigued. Not only does the music fall into the very specific sub-genre of Songs About Ships Being Built and On the Water that I love*, it also, as I discovered after buying the album, seemed to be a sequel to The Soul Cages. Which, truth be told, is the last of Sting’s previous solo albums that I was interested in; everything after it, though skillful, was a bit too committedly Adult Contemporary for my tastes. It was nice, then, with The Last Ship, to hear Sting return, if obliquely, to some of the more interesting diversions of his youth. Or perhaps it is simply that, in the intervening years, I have become more of an adult. Which, while there are a lot of things about aging that I disagree with, that I am now a contemporary of Sting’s is an unrestrained positive.

Either way, when I  legally purchased the cd, again following in the footsteps of today’s kids, I discovered that The Last Ship was not just a concept album but was also the basis of the stage show. Which was a little exciting, even though I am not generally a fan of the theatre. Primarily because embracing it would mean having to leave my house, but also because it tends to be expensive. It also takes a lot more planning than staying in, or even a trip to the grocery store, which requires a list. Too, what comes to Boston seems primarily to the Lion King, which I did not care for as a movie; or The Book of Mormon, which always has discounted tickets available so it seems like a good idea, until I remember that it’s probably going to be incredibly smug, and then I lose interest.

The Last Ship, though, does not suffer from being either of those things, and so, despite my aversion to the thea-tah, I decided to see it. Fortunately, because I am an overwhelmingly lazy person,I did not act on that decision for quite a while, a delay which allowed me, when I finally got around to purchasing the tickets, to see the show with Sting himself in the cast. And so it was that I took a bus to New York last weekend (as opposed to a plane to Chicago several months ago, as originally planned) to see my peer, Mr. Gordon Sumner, fret and strut his weary hour upon the stage. Oh, and also sing.

And the man can sing. Not that, at this point in time, anyone needs me to point that out. He actually opens the show, singing the very first line of “Island of Souls,” which was delightful and unexpected; when I read that he had joined the cast, it said that he was taking a rather small part. I don’t know if that reviewer, being a more experienced theatre-goer, has different definitions of “small” and “large” than I do, or if perhaps Sting had changed roles since that article was printed, but the show was basically the two leads, and then Sting. So I got an unexpected abundance of Sting in matinee, and that was unequivocally great.

So the show starts off on a high note (pun unintended but not regretted), and throughout, the music is quite good. I was familiar with most of the songs from the album, but I still appreciated the novelty of seeing them fleshed out with perhaps a bit more of the stories that inspired them. “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance,” already a favorite, was especially well-served by the context of the play, and vice versa; while “August Winds” was just so lovely as sung by a woman whose first love has finally returned that I actually payed attention to all the lyrics instead of just the chorus.

There were also a few original numbers included in the production. Far and away, the best of these featured the aforementioned woman. The first, “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor” was a fiery rebuke to her returned first love about why she’ll never trust a seaman; the second was the lovely “What Say You, Meg?”, sung to her, which succeeded as an earnest and heartfelt declaration despite being sung by someone with an almost complete lack of charisma. Although, as the third leg in the central love triangle, and the sensible option at that, perhaps that was a deliberate actorly choice.

Despite it still being stuck in my head almost a week later, “What Say You, Meg?” points up the major, and considerable, problem with The Last Ship, which is that the story itself is just not very good. Tonally, it was a bit all over the place: many of the scenes played like they were straight out of the British sitcoms that I’ve also seen on PBS (I swear this blog is not sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and though they were actually quite funny – Sting himself lands a very good punchline as the head of the shipbuilding crew who has serious seasickness – the play itself is not a comedy, making these scenes seem jarring when juxtaposed with those of the young man who ran away from his abusive father, or the woman he left behind and returned to, who has maybe not entirely moved on with her life.

I understand not wanting to make an overwhelmingly bleak show. The album, according to the liner notes (which I finally read after returning from New York and before I started writing this, so: just about a week ago) was an attempt to portray a more balanced view of the shipbuilding life than in The Soul Cages, an attempt to capture the joy and successes in many people’s lives, even if those things were absent from the Sumner family itself. And while that effort comes across very well on the album, I think the play suffers from trying to integrate too many disparate stories into one cohesive telling. In my mind, the play would have worked much better as whatever would be the theater-equivalent of a series of stand-alone short stories. The son who ran away and then returned 15 years later can have his story, but make it separate from the father who teaches his teen-aged son to dance; and maybe allow someone who had not been absent for 15 years to speak at the priest’s funeral. Not just because the kid who ran away still returned as a bit of a brat, but because, if you want to present a picture of life in an industrial town – a dying industrial town, at that – show us more about the people who actually live there, instead of focusing on the one who’s just passing through.

That being said, I am very glad that I saw the show, even if it is now closed. There were a lot of very impressive things about the staging of the production – which I feel like sounds like faint praise, to say that the sets were impressive after busting on the story – and maybe people who see more shows would not be as impressed as I at the use of lighting to make it seem that the last ship they build actually sails into the sea. The songs were very good, and the cast – even those with both a first and last name – are obviously very talented. Mostly, though, I’m very glad that, after all this time, I’ve found some new music from a(n slightly) old(er) favorite. It’s comforting to know that, even as we both mature, Sting and I can still find things to talk about.

 

*I tried really hard to make a reference to my wheelhouse here, but it just couldn’t work. Please don’t think I cast aside a nautical pun on purpose; I would never do that.

There is no polite way to ask someone if they’re about to eat an unreasonable amount of hot dogs. That’s not specific to hot dogs, actually; no matter what a person is eating, a comment on the quantity is going to be a judgement. Many is the time I heard “Wow, you sure do eat a lot of salad,” as though having eaten an entire bowl of lettuce that was not topped which chicken was remarkable in comparison to the half a bowl of lettuce left over by those who had also eaten several chickens worth of tenders. That the relative insubstantiality of lettuce plays no factor at all in deeming the quantity of consumed lettuce excessive underscores how very impolite a similar judgement regarding hot dogs – whose substantiality is well-established even as the actual substance of which they are composed remain a mystery – would be. To question someone on the number of hot dogs they’re eating is to question their judgement, and questioning their judgement is akin to questioning their worth as a human being.

This question of what constitutes a reasonable serving of hot dogs came to mind around lunch time, when I was struck by an aroma as I entered the break room and, upon further investigation, discovered 6 hot dogs quietly baking in the toaster oven. There was only one other person in the break room, but her office is also in the break room, so there was an outside chance that the hot dogs were not hers at all, much less entirely hers. I could not, however, ignore the possibility that all 6 hot dogs were intended for just that one person. Which, frankly*, seemed like a lot.

But, as previously stated, there was really no way to determine this. “Wow, that’s a lot of hot dogs,” is maybe appropriate talk if you work in a carnival hosting a hot-dog-eating contest, but a carnie I am not. I did note a lack of buns in the break room, and so considered that the seemingly excessive number of hot dogs was a purposeful counterbalance to the lack of buns. I almost considered that the excessive number of hot dogs compensating for the lack of buns might be indicative that someone was on the Atkins diet, but then I remembered that it’s not 2003 anymore and everyone loves carbs now, just so long as they’re whole grain, local, and gluten-free. Unless they’re following the Paleo diet, but I don’t want to think of what the world might be like if I knew people who followed the Paleo diet, even if just casually through work, so I abandoned that line of thought pretty quickly and returned to a slightly modified version of the original line, that, even without buns, 6 hot dogs is a lot of hot dogs.

Even determining ownership of the hot dogs was tricky. “Are these your hot dogs?” could go a lot of ways, depending on inflection, and I wouldn’t trust myself to sound non-judgmental on an inherently judgmental issue. Without ever considering that I was putting far too much thought into an ultimately trivial matter, I finally settled on “Hot dogs for lunch?”, believing that the statement-in-the-form-of-a-question was my best hope for neutrality, even if it left the greater issue, that of the Ideal Number of Hot Dogs and How it is Most Likely Less Than 6, unanswered.

The answer, it turns out, was yes. And this is how I discovered that there are some people who consider 6 hot dogs to be a perfectly reasonable lunch. However, instead of focusing  how myself and this person differ dramatically in our approaches to diet, I focused rather on the tremendously inane question I had just asked, how little it contributed to a genuine exchange of knowledge, and how very happy I was about it.

Because, as I’m sure you can imagine if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation that involves coworkers, the Hot Dog Situation was not my first interaction with this person, nor was it my first awkward interaction with this person. On one previous occasion, she had gone in to quite a bit of detail on the excellent rapport between herself and her chiropractor, ending with “My chiropractor thinks I’m hilarious; she said I should be a stand-up comedian;” and while I did intrinsically understand that “Oh, are you funny?” would not be the right thing to say, how to respond to a person extolling qualities that I’ve never seen manifest has always eluded me. In this situation, I responded with a couple of my favorite sounds that can pass for language, the tried-and-true “Ah. Huh.” Another time, I remarked on the temperature in the room, which caused her to launch into a lengthy discussion of an attempt to get tickets to an event that required costumes but was not Halloween, and although she was generous enough to pause occasionally to allow me to speak, I was thoroughly confused about how this talk of costumed adventure was going to swing back around to be about the temperature, which was noticeably colder than it should have been, and so could only fill the silence with quizzical looks and more silence.

From her perspective, I’m sure that looked like a failure to hold up my end of the conversation. But for me, in between not understanding that there was no connection between temperature and costumes, and that none would be forthcoming, I was looking across a generational divide, steep and glorious as the Grand Canyon.

For her, these are the years to spend swearing your life will be free of workplace banalities like “Hot dogs for lunch?” Your life will be meaningful, it will involve costumes and hard to get tickets, and you’ll stupidly fall in love with guys who refuse to wear watches because they refuse to live their lives by someone else’s schedule, and not because they’re an inconsiderate asshole who’s always late. You will be someone who has something to say.

For me, though, what I understand is that sometimes, I’d rather politely end a conversation than engage in one that doesn’t interest me. That having something to say is quite a bit different than wanting to hear myself talk. And that, while the meaningless inanities could certainly indicate that the person talking is not interesting, there’s a greater chance it means they’re not interested in talking to me. Just as it took me an unfortunately long time to cotton to the dude without the watch, I did eventually come to realize that the true and lovely meaning of utterly mindless chit-chat is that we find ourselves together at this place and time, so why don’t we just leave it at that.

(*Pun intentional and without apology.)

While I would not argue that my most defining quality is excessive laziness, I have not yet gotten, and hope never to get, to a point where I wear sweat pants in public. Partially this is because I don’t really like to wear sneakers, and heels with sweatpants strikes me as trashy in a way you have to be truly exceptional to pull off; additionally, the effort it would take to find a pair of sweatpants that don’t have something written across the ass seems in violation of the entire spirit of sweatpants.

So on those days when I can’t be bothered to put on clothes but still must leave the house, I wear overalls. Overalls capture the same laissez-faire attitude of sweatpants, but still get you credit for actually having gotten dressed.  The overalls I have are particularly fetching, because they are the striped sort (which you should be mentally pronouncing with two syllables – “stry-ped”), of the kind associated with train engineers, and with tiny children pretending to be train engineers.

It was these overalls I wore last Monday. I’d had some fancy plans – and a correspondingly fancy outfit – all laid out for the day, but these went astray due to an incredibly terrible sore throat. This would have been unfortunate in and of itself, but it was made ever the more unfortunater by a lack of planning ahead, which left me in the house with no food with soothing recuperative powers, no medicine, and, most importantly, no cat food for Oola’s breakfast the following day; though I most likely would have survived the discomforts caused by the first two, I can’t even imagine the havoc Oola would wreak if denied breakfast.

And this is why I and my overalls shuffled through the streets of Cambridge, first to the vet to buy Oola’s prescription cat food, and then to the new Whole Foods. Which, thanks to some spectacularly convenient urban planning, is directly across the street from the vet’s office. Never have I have I been so glad for corporate machinations and the slow death of Main Street.

As I made my way home, burdened with 4 cans of cat food, three cans of soup, and a two turtle doves, I heard someone call out “Miss!” behind me; tired though I was, I still turned around, and beheld a gentleman, arm stretched out toward me, holding, as though I had dropped it, a stry-ped engineers cap.

“Oh, that’s not mine,” I responded, hopefully appreciatively.

“But it matches your outfit,” he replied, stretching his arm even closer.

To him, this was a clear indication that the cap was the rightful property of mine.

I, however, was skeptical. “Are you sure?” I asked, somewhat curious about why he was apparently walking around with an engineer’s cap he didn’t want, and how he might have disposed of it had I not walked past him right then.

“Yes. Here, it’s yours.” And so he gave me the hat.

I think a lot of people are going to go through their entire lives without getting an engineer’s hat from a stranger. It took me nearly 40 years to get one, but, having done so, I can tell you for sure : it is absolutely worth the wait.

One of the stories I plan to include in the memoirs I will realistically probably not get around to writing is the tale of the time I saw a rooster on the way to yoga. I don’t want to give to say too much now for fear of spoiling the story for you when it eventually doesn’t come out, but I think there are a couple of salient points we can safely discuss now without affecting your experience for when you never get to read the whole thing.

Without giving everything away, I’ll just tell you that one time, I saw a rooster on the way to yoga. Which is to say that it was me who was on the way to yoga, and that I happened upon a rooster while en route, and not that I saw a rooster that was itself headed to yoga. However, even without any avian theatrics or mysticism, the unexpected appearance of a rooster in one’s path can lead a person to certain realizations that that person may not be prepared to face. To wit:

  • There is no previous experience in your life that you can call upon for guidance on how to behave in this particular situation – not even having seen a seal several months prior;
  • That number for the Marine Animal Rescue League you’ve been carrying around in your wallet for the past several months will not help you now;
  • Your life has gone astray if calling on the assistance of a someone who still lives at home with his parents reveals you to be the weaker party;
  • Although you have no association with the rooster outside of this one interaction, people will think you’re weird because of it.

Obviously, not everyone will think you’re weird for having seen a rooster on the way to yoga; not at first, anyway. Your friends will probably have some questions, the most harrowing of which, you suddenly understand, will be “What did you do?” Because the true measure of a human being is not the number of unusual situations they face, but how they behave in the face of those situations. Having seen the rooster is not a defining characteristic of who you are any more than the color of your clothing is a defining characteristic of who you are, unless you’re wearing textiles that borrow from mood ring technologies and/or you’re the sort of sullen high-school student who can only fully express the futility of algebra by composing poetry on your arm.  In the long run, though, while your friends will probably remember that you saw a rooster, that’s not a way that they would describe you to a third party – as “saw a rooster one time,” – although they might describe you as having a weird obsession with poultry.

But the people you will immediately encounter after the rooster encounter, the ones at yoga with whom you will likely be most eager to share the story in response to their perfunctory how-are-you’s :  these are the ones who will think you’re weird, because they have little to no other frame of reference for you in which to store that information. “Saw a rooster one time” is all they’ll be able to say about you, until their memory of the actual event starts to degrade and the information changes in their brain, metamorphosing from “There’s that girl who saw the rooster; weird,” through “There’s that weird girl who saw the rooster,” and then pausing briefly at “Every time I see that girl, I get this weird craving for chicken,” before finally arriving at “That girl is just weird.” And that seems unfair to me : just because you sometimes find yourself in a place where weirdness is happening, that shouldn’t necessarily mean that you’re weird.

One of the major drawbacks, though, of constantly planning a story that you’ll never get around to writing, is that you still do a whole lot of revising, which can lead to drastic changes in the resolution. In the early drafts, I was just the poor, unlucky girl who happened upon a rooster, a victim of people’s poor memories and misunderstanding, doomed forever onward to be uncomfortable in the presence of the sharply kitten-faced gentleman who was staffing the check-in desk at yoga that day, thwarted from ever responding to his usual “Can I get your name?” with the grandpa-esque “Will I get it back?”

Now, however, older & wiser (although I should like to point out that I was at least wise enough at the time not actually to tell anyone at yoga about the rooster, nor ever to zing Kitten Face with my quippy comeback), I understand that being repeatedly exposed to weird things does in fact make you weird. Not in the same way that exposure to radiation will alter you at a cellular level, but in the way that, if the only common factor in every situation is you, there must be something particular about you that is contributing to these situations. Which is very easy to understand in terms of other people : people who are constantly complaining about work, their neighbors, drivers, people in the library or in the grocery store; whatever they are bringing to these interactions is somehow contributing to whatever it is they’re complaining about, even if (or especially if) what they’re bringing is a simply a lack of understanding how to resolve the situation amicably.

When it’s you, though, it can be difficult to see what makes up your negative contribution. But, with maturity, I have come to understand that, if you don’t want people to think you’re weird, a simple thing you can do is simply stop telling them how fucking weird you are all the time. And this, finally, is one of the major reasons that the memoirs will probably never get written : it’s difficult to write a story about yourself in which you’re not the hero, you’re not the victim, you don’t transition from one to the other even once, never mind back again. You’re just a person who saw a rooster one time, and watched it walk away.

Of all my recent birthday-related escapades, the greatest was someone trying to sell me a $425.00 watch. This was not, I should clarify, some back-alley deal, conducted under the cover of night out of the trunk of a car, with shady characters trying to unload some ill-gotten gains; rather, it was simply the result of a salesman, shooting for the stars, maybe new to the job and unable to recognize some key signs of financial well-being, or possibly confused enough by recent trends in women’s wear that, to him, holes along the seam of every garment a person is wearing is a deliberate fashion choice, rather than a hint that, say, the coat was actually picked up out of a pile of things that didn’t sell at a yard sale.

The watch I was looking to replace was in much the same shape as my wardrobe that day. Purchased an unknown number of years ago at a mall cart from a bored-looking young woman, that initially inexpensive watch had reached the point where it could no longer be repaired : despite several upgrades to the band; a constant infusion of fresh batteries; and replacing the cracked not-crystal crystal, the hands of time were winding down for that watch (yup : I said that). In fact, that watch stopped for good at 12:40 Saturday afternoon, which I noticed at 3:13 when I looked at the clock on my computer and suddenly realized that I did not have quite as good a handle on the day as I’d thought. Or on the passage of time in general, as I had earlier that afternoon greeted the student employee who I knew was scheduled to arrive at 2 o’clock.

Now, however, is not the time to discuss how I seem to keep getting dumber (although that is on the agenda), but how I need a new watch. A less urgent need on my actual birthday than today, to be sure, but what better occasion to treat oneself? And what better place to buy a watch than a watch store? A store would be a nice upgrade from that mall cart. And what better watch store than the only watch store in the world whose location I actually know, is within walking distance of my house, and is conveniently located just a few blocks from the tea store I planned to go to anyway?

So it was that someone tried to sell me a $425.00 watch. Which would have been a nice upgrade indeed from my cobbled together mall watch, but, as I informed the salesperson, wildly outside of my price range. Although the salesperson expressed a willingness to negotiate, he was not, alas, in a position to lower the price by $400 dollars, and so I exited the store, with no watch and, thus, no birthday present for myself.

*     *     *

Although I typically enjoy buying myself a birthday present just as much as I enjoy taking the day off work, the lack of a present this year was not a terribly big loss – 39, as an age, doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. Sure, it’s a multiple of 3, so it’s got that going for it, but it’s also a multiple of 13, and that I don’t particularly care for. Not because of superstition, but because I find it offensive when a prime number is a factor of another number. Why do you get to have it both ways, 13? Jerk.

Obviously, that does not apply to prime numbers less than 10, or that have 4 or more digits.

The selfishness of 13 aside, what 39 is most remarkable for is what it’s not, and what it’s not is 40. A multiple of 5 and loaded with cultural significance, 40 dwarfs 39 – as well as 38, which, thanks to the natural supremacy of even numbers, has no factoring issues – to such an extent that 39 as an age doesn’t actually exist, but instead is just a lie that you tell when you don’t want to admit that you’re 40. Which presents a problem if, like me, you have no problem admitting to 40. Unlike 29, which is clung to desperately and filled with the dread of 30, 39 is just a place holder, one last scenic overlook from which to gaze at the view of 40 and wonder why you’re not there yet, because you’re ready to round that turn and start the slow, easy coast downhill. But, before you can do that, you have to get through the next year, which will feel like a lie even though it’s true.

*     *     *

I did, however, get several lovely birthday presents from other people this year, most of which were tea related. Which I appreciate, because I do love the tea. In fact, before I realized that my watch was on the way out, I had toyed with the idea of getting myself a gift of tea, such as an unnecessarily fancy tea set for which I have no use whatsoever. Which, before ending up broken, would probably not get much use, since most of my tea drinking happens at work.

The thing about drinking tea at work is that it requires a cup out of which the tea is drunk. That’s actually probably a thing about drinking tea anywhere. But, the specifics of dishware at work means that the dishes need to be washed, and the thing about, washing dishes at work is that it just doesn’t seem like they really get clean. It could be because the choice of soap is not up to me, because the dish scrubber is used by multiple people, or because the scrubber is used to the point where just touching it is enough to make your hands smell or infect any small cuts you may have.

The solution to this dilemma is to bring the cup home to wash at the end of every day, then bring it back to work in the morning. And, since there are cups designed specifically to be carried around, it’s actually pretty easy to make tea at work. Yet, somehow, the process falls apart for me, specifically, in getting the cup home, not because of forgetting the cup, but because, no matter how empty the cup is or I believe it to be, it will inevitably end up spilling beverage all over the inside of my bag. And, if I’m having an especially good day, I will discover this not when I reach into the bag and find a puddle of tea, but when the tea seeps onto my pants where the bag bounce against my legs.

*     *     *

And so, despite the dishonesty of 39, I have, this year, decided to accept a hard truth : I will never be a person careful enough to check if the cup is really empty, and, despite years of evidence to the contrary, I will apparently always believe I can prevent it from spilling simply because I want it not to spill. This is a problem that I can not fix alone, and so I have accepted the help of design experts and engineers, as I should have years before when the technology first became available, and bought myself the gift of a  spill-proof travel mug, although I, obviously, bought mine at Tealuxe rather than Amazon, because I support independent business, and because my pants had tea on them and I needed to fix the problem right then and there. Because I can not be 40 with tea on my pants.

And if I do, it’s the mug’s fault.

Although I can’t quite put my finger on why, I’ve noticed that any patron interaction that begins with the patron exclaiming how long it’s been since last they visited the library tends not to end well. The very first of these instances that I can recall went south due in no way to the elderly alumnus who announced himself at the desk in a voice loud with age, one impervious to shushing as the gentleman in question was most likely unable to hear exactly how loud he was talking, “I graduated 40 years ago!”

I welcomed him back to campus and nodded politely as he described the things that had changed since his day, and then watched, pleased, as he shuffled further into the library to continue his trip down memory lane. A fine beginning to the morning it was, and a lovely memory it would have been had it not been followed by an irritating interaction with The Patron Who Takes Forever to Ask You What He Wants.

This is something you learn about in library school, the tendency of people to dance around the actual topic in which they are interested and to ask several questions, warm-up style, before getting to what they want to ask. There’s a good chance you yourself have done this, although perhaps not in the confines of a library – if you’ve ever responded to the answer to a question you’ve posed with “Well, the reason that I ask is…” before lengthily introducing a topic that is at best tangentially related to the topic about which you first inquired, then congratulations: you may also have tried the patience of someone who was already not having a very good day.

Of course, the first time TPWTFtAYWHW asked his question, he was, in fact, unrecognizable as A PWTFtAYWHW; he accepted my response with thanks, and then returned with his son to the public access machines. However, somewhere between this first question and his fourth, I had gotten into a disagreement with my manager of the day (the library I was in at the time is one, of a hopefully soon-to-be-increasing-number, in which I no longer work), who for some reason felt like she needed to insert herself into the opening procedure of the library even though she never actually opened the library, which threw off my opening routine, and who then felt it necessary to discuss with me the importance of opening the library on time, when what she’d done was attempt to open the library 3 minutes early. Thus, when TPWTFtAYWHW returned to the desk for his 4th go-round, despite my best efforts to get him to tell me what he wanted in an earlier encounter (“active listening” does not always work, take it from me), only to be rapidly followed by the older alumnus who heralded his return to the desk with a booming repeat “I graduated 40 years ago!” the most I could do was stifle my congratulations for having eluded death for so long, before quickly calculating that, assuming he was a typical early to mid-20s on graduating, these 40 years later would put him in his 60s, and making it to your 60s in this day and in this country is not really anything to crow about, so, clearly, he should just shut up already.

So, yes: my first interaction with an alumnus did not go so well, although I will readily admit that was in almost no way the fault of the alumnus. However, what is interesting (to me, and probably to you if you’re still reading [which, btw, if you’re wondering “Why the heck is this so long?”: blame Devin; he’s the one who said I was overdue for a longer entry <hi Devin!>]) is that subsequent interactions with alumni have required no such convoluted circumstances to go sour.

Sometimes, they go wrong right out of the gate, as was the case with a fellow who called the library (a different library than the one mentioned above), who wanted to know “if the maps are still on the 6th floor of the library?” a question illustrative of one of 2 major problems I have with the alumni. Because finding out if the maps are still on the 6th floor of the library is not the genuine reason anyone has ever called the library; if you’re interested in our map collection in and of itself, do you give even half of a tiny rat’s ass what floor it’s housed on? No; you do not. The purpose of this call, in my considerably cynical opinion, was so that I – or whoever answered the phone – could marvel at the profound memory of this alumnus, and perhaps feel a small swell of pride that the library was so very important a part of his educational experience there at The Illustrious Institute in Which I Work that he remembered not only that we have maps, but even a tiny detail like where they’re located.

The problem with this effort on his part is that, even if I wanted to, I cannot marvel at the length of his memory. Having worked there for just over a year and a half, all I can confirm is that the library has maps; I can’t compare the depth of our current map collection to that which he used, nor can I confirm that his memory of their 6th floor location is accurate, since, as long as I’ve known them, they’ve been on the 2nd floor. Have they ever been elsewhere? Perhaps. But even if they were, it does me no good to know that, since apart from this one particular alumnus who is perhaps a little too impressed with his own memory, no one who’s come to the library in search of maps has ever asked me where they were; what they always want to know is where they are.

And the alumni’s interest in the past does not stop at the location of certain collections; they want to verify the whereabouts of the staff they remember as well. One such staff member, Dr. Sharif, was particularly beloved by students, faculty, and staff;  I never had an opportunity to know him, as he died in an accident in the T station a few weeks before I started.

For some reason, this is unusually difficult to convey to the visiting alumni. “And Dr. Sharif,” they ask; “Is he still here?”

“No, I’m afraid he’s not.” I used to stop there, but they always press for more details, wondering if he quit and if so why because he was such an important of the library, so now I continue “Dr. Sharif passed away about a year and a half ago.”

Obviously, I adjust the time for accuracy depending on in which month the conversation is taking place.

“Oh my god! Was he sick?”

“No. Unfortunately, he was involved in an accident in the T station.”

“What? What happened?”

I have to tell you, I really hate this conversation about Dr. Sharif. To start with the most minor thing, that the graduates of this Illustrious Institute, those behind some of the most startling innovations in the history of mankind, are unable to intuit “was hit by a train,” from “accident in the T station” is absolutely astounding.

This directly results into the thing of medium minority, which is that, for reasons upon which I also cannot place my finger, I am constitutionally incapable of saying “He was hit by a train,” without sounding like I’m kidding. It’s terrible, actually, because I find nothing at all humorous in the death of Dr. Sharif, and yet regardless of the solemnity I try to imbue into the statement, it inevitably sounds like I’m delivering the punch line of a particularly tasteless joke.

The worst thing, though, is the  entire conversation; I especially hate that I cannot satisfy their curiosity without giving away personal details about the death of Dr. Sharif, which is, in my opinion, none of their business. That he was an integral part of their experience, both at the library and at the institute at large is touching; even without having met him, I am sure that he was immensely pleased at playing so vital a role in the education and lives of so many people. But his death was not part of his job; it belongs to his personal life, as it belongs to the personal lives of the friends and family who mourned him. That these alumni were not sufficiently in contact at the time of his death with either him or the university, which did react publicly to his death, would seem to indicate that, much as they may have valued Dr. Sharif as a part of the library’s collection, they were not a part of the man’s life; while they certainly are entitled to react to his death, they weren’t a part of that either; their interest in the whys and wherefores of his passing seem more like curiosity, along the same lines as wondering why the map collection was moved to the 2nd floor from the 6th.

Yet, even if their concern for Dr. Sharif is genuine, there’s little they can do about now, and that is the 2nd of two major issues I have the the alumni. While, in my experience, no one has come to the library explicitly to consider their own mortality, there’s always a wistfulness in an alumnus’ visit: they marvel at how much everything has changed, at how much everything is the same, but the real marvel is how everything has continued to exist even though they themselves are no longer stopping by on a daily basis. In the face of the ephemerality of their own existence; they dig in their heels and become just like any other outside user, but, whereas the super-users insist that what they’re working on is very important, what the alumni crave is an acknowledgement that it is they themselves who are important, just as much so as when they were a student, if not more.

Coincidentally, not long after I began writing this entry on Saturday (while at work! The scandal of it all) I had what is undoubtedly my most negative interaction with an alumnus yet. The gentleman in question entered the library while I was attending important business in the ladies room; if he made any introduction to the student covering the desk in my absence, I can’t say. What I can say is that as soon as I returned to the desk, I overheard someone speaking in a deep voice to a woman up on the 3rd floor who, from my vantage on the 2nd,  looked very much as though she were posing for a picture; although the library was mostly empty, violations of our photo policy, which stipulates among other things that no students may be photographed within the library, have been a bit of sticking point in the past, so I hurried upstairs to familiarize the photographer with the basic outline, as well as to ask him to be a little more quiet.

When I arrived on the 3rd floor I noticed immediately that no pictures were being taken, and so adjusted my approach to begin immediately with my standard speech to louder patrons, beginning “Hey guys, I’m going to have to ask you to keep it down a little bit.”

Generally, this is an effective opening, but then I made a mistake. I don’t know what happened; in retrospect, I imagine it was because of an unpleasant look cast at me by the man, but whatever it was, I continued “Your voice,” which was wrong. Not only was this a deviation from the standard script, it was unnecessarily accusatory; at the outset, there’s no need for recriminations – just a friendly word in your ear that sound carries pretty easily in this library. Later, if they continue being loud – that’s when you start pointing fingers.

I caught my error quickly, but was a little thrown when I began again “Sound carries really easily in here, due to the architecture, so conversations can carry between floors.”

Usually at this point there’s an “Oh, sorry!” from the patron, or at least a nod; rarely have I been met with a dead-eyed stare accompanied by silence, but it’s happened. For instance, it happened this past Saturday. Ever so slightly daunted, I chirped an “Ok!” that managed to be greater parts friendly than unnerved, I think, and then returned to the desk.

I don’t remember exactly what I was doing, but it was interrupted by the man, who paused on his way out of the library (the woman trailing behind him; she remained silent throughout both encounters) far enough from the desk that, if you’re feeling generous, you could say was an effort to be unthreatening, to ask “So was I bothering you or her?”

This was not said in a friendly way. It was clear that he was angry, although I could not at first figure out why. Certainly, I misspoke when I approached him earlier, but this level of anger seemed a disproportionate response.

“Excuse me?”

“You or her? [‘Her’ indicated a woman using the computer across from where I sat at the desk.] Which one of you was I bothering?”

Ungenerous as I am, I believe that he deliberately stationed himself far from the desk so that he would have an excuse to once again raise his voice in the library.

He continued: “It’s unbelievable that you would be so rude. The library is empty.”

“That’s irrelevant.” I sounded exceptionally calm during this entire exchange, which was gratifying, but inside I had that same queasy feeling I get whenever someone starts unexpectedly flinging their feces at me.

“No, that is exactly the point.”

It isn’t. What I will tell you is that the guidelines for use of the library are in effect as long as the library is open; the reason to be quiet in the library is so that you don’t disturb other people who are working, yes, but the guideline itself is that you be quiet. Just like you are still prohibited from smoking in an empty library, being naked in an empty library, or pissing on the floor of an empty library, you are likewise encouraged not to speak loudly in an empty library. Similarly, the reason that we have people return books is so that other patrons can borrow them; however, if no one else ever  expresses an interest in that book, you will still be required to return it to us after a predetermined amount of time.

More to the point, the library was not actually empty. In indicating “her”, he acknowledged that there was someone else in the library; it wasn’t empty, and therefore he knew very well that he may have been disturbing someone. That it might have been only one person is also irrelevant; it is not up to the patron to decide what critical mass must be present before he lowers his voice; nor is it up to him to determine that his conversation is far more important than whatever work might be underway by the lone person in the library. It is not up to this guy to decide that some of the rules do not apply to him; if he wants to stay in the library, he will abide by all of them.

Furthermore, that there was only 1 other person visible in the library does not mean that there was only 1 other person working in the library; the library is 6 floors, and sound travels between all of them (well, not the first floor, but seriously – acoustically, this building should be anything that isn’t a library and that it’s an architecture library just makes the lack of harmony between function and form all the more hilarious). I don’t know if he walked through the entire building to verify that the only person in the library was the one woman whose work apparently didn’t matter at all (and the guy reading through the journals, and the guy sitting over by the window using his laptop), but there existed the possibility that people were up there; it was partly with them in mind that I approached him.

Finally, even if there were no other people working in the library, I was still in the library. Though an employee of the library, I do still come to the library believing that it will be a quiet work space; just like anyone working in the library could come and ask me to keep it down, I can ask them.

What I told him, however, was simply “No. It is not.”

This was not what he wanted to hear. “I have NEVER been treated so inappropriately in a library. When I used to use to this library,”

And that was how I learned he was an alumnus.

“, when I used to use to this library, I was never treated so inappropriately. You have no reason to behave like that.”

“I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate about asking you to keep your voice down in a library.”

He grimaced, and made a grasping motion with his fists, one that expressed his mounting frustration with my obstinate refusal to accept logic. I have made that same gesture a number of times over the years, but in this moment I merely stared at him with a placidity I didn’t feel, then exhaled shakily as he stalked out of the library, the silent woman following silently along behind him silently.

Although unpleasant, I did at least learn something from this encounter, and what I learned was this: while overall the issue with alumni is that they need reassurance that they’re still important, sometimes the issue is that they’re just dicks.


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