porcelainandporcupines

Archive for the ‘getting to the point’ Category

I should start off with the usual disclaimer that I generally don’t like to talk about politics, because I make a genuine effort to pay no attention at all to what is happening in the political arena and thus have no real idea what I’m talking about. It’s all extremely boring, and even though important things happen sometimes, everyone involved is so self-important and unpleasant that, even if I happen to agree with their stance, I mostly want them to shut up and stop being a jerk. Because, in politics, everyone is a jerk, and never more than in an election season.

And with that elegant segue, I will bring us to the actual point that brings us together today, which is that I very seriously don’t understand why we are still having candidate debates. I know the election is a mind-numbingly long 9 months away, but it’s not like there’s any  nuance that needs to be teased out of a candidate’s stance. At this point, all anyone is saying is “Hulk smash!” and the object of smashing doesn’t need to be clearly defined because whatever you can think of, you’re the Hulk and all you can do is smash it. And that everyone else is also claiming to be the Hulk and that they’ll be the ones doing the smashing is ludicrous because you’re the Hulk and you can prove it by how you’re smashing your opponent. Who you’ll gratuitously insult by calling a female, unless they’re actually a female, in which case there’s no side a woman can be on and not be wrong. Because you can’t be a feminist if you’re supporting a woman if it’s only because she’s a woman, and you can only be supporting her because she’s a woman since she’s the only woman to support.

But a larger issue than the lack of substantive issues is that it’s 2016. Which means that no one needs to travel for days into town to be able to hear what a candidate has to say. We don’t need to be in the audience or even in the same state in order to watch the debate as it’s happening, and we don’t need to watch the debate as it’s happening to find out what was said.  The first debate can be seen by just as many people in just as many states as any subsequent debate, because of technology. And because of technology, there’s no need to trot out the same people to say the same things over and over again if they’re doing it in front of the same audience.

Furthermore,  if the candidates don’t have to travel to each state to make their platforms known, then there’s no real need for staggered primaries. It’s extremely inefficient and serves no purpose other than to exacerbate an already unnecessarily prolonged process. Imagine if, instead of months of debates and polls, we had 1 debate? And then followed the broadcast television live +7 model and waited a week to let everyone catch up, and then had the primaries? Easy-peasy. Simple. What would we lose?

Or, perhaps another option would be to have the same amount of debates, but stagger the candidates who appear in them. Hypothetically speaking,  if there are 12 Republican front runners, you can take a mix-and-match approach to each debate and let everyone have a voice, rather than let 1 candidate run roughshod over every possible discussion. Hypothetically.

Additionally, and this is a little crazy, but since there are so many months and so little to say, why not have a major news outlet host a debate between some of the fringier candidates? It would do nothing to dampen the messages, such as the are, of the major candidates who still have every other media outlet at their disposal, plus it might actually help someone make an informed decision about who they want to be president. And isn’t that the purpose of a debate? Plus, imagine how high the levels of self-regard would rise in this country if one could simultaneously #feelthebern and support an actual Independent candidate.

Obviously, there are many things wrong with the current political landscape; even without knowing what they are, I know that. Fewer debates and simultaneous primaries may not solve all of them, and certainly has the potential not to solve any of them. But shorter seasons has worked very well for television dramas; I’m sure a shorter primary season could yield positive results as well.

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A few months ago, I wrote about two songs that are not particularly good. And while that piece is undoubtedly the best press either of those songs has gotten at this late date in 2014, and is also undoubtedly considered long enough by anyone who actually read it, it does not include a few major points that I’d intended to make but unfortunately left out due to scheduling issues and poor time management on my part.

Point the first is that having a hit song, be it on the radio, the local music video station, or wherever it is music gets played these days (Youtube, I guess? I honestly have no idea where music happens anymore), takes a tremendous amount of effort. Even a truly terrible song represents sometimes years of hard work, of commitment to practice, of prioritizing the band, of just showing up, day after day after day, to play music or sing or perfect a chord progression (those are things, yes? chord progressions?) in front of a small audience of people you know and a handful of strangers who aren’t paying attention but are raising their voices so they can talk over you and all of your hard work. While we, the end-user, might be under the impression that the song we just heard for the first time ever is from a brand-new band, the truth is that the band existed long before we the public ever heard of them, and the fact that we’re hearing from them at all is an exceptional achievement on their part.

I admire the hell out of that. Even when I don’t like the end product at all, I have to recognize that these people have achieved something that I probably never will be able to do. I mean, I fully intended to write this follow-up post months ago, but didn’t get around to it because I’m so lazy. And even today, I’ve already taken about 5  breaks since I started 2 hours ago. Which, for those of you who did not flee to Kentucky to study math, means it’s taken 2 hours to write 2.5 paragraphs. That there are people – many of them! – who can sit still and focus on writing, every day, over and over and over again, is just amazing to me. That what they’ve written is terrible is utterly besides the point, because their terrible actual writing surpasses my brilliant imaginary writing, simply because it exists. Which is not to say that actual things can not be measured on their quality; it is only to say that there are real-world applications to getting an A for effort, just as there are to not living up to your potential.

Point the second is that while I will go to my grave insisting that those songs are no good (in a scenario where I am murdered by a crazed Deep Blue Something fan who, distraught that they can’t secure funding for a shot-by-shot remake of the video starring Avatar-style animated versions of the cast of the shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, holds me responsible for the failure of their Kickstarter but then, in turn, meets their own tragic end when my death at their hands is avenged by Oola, as is foretold), I never actually said that I don’t like them. In fact, the reason Breakfast at Tiffany’s was declared the winner of that particular scuffle is because I happen to like the song quite a bit : it’s catchy, the singer’s voice is pleasant, and I like thinking about breakfast. That might seem like faint praise, and it is; however, the point is, the song being objectively bad has no bearing on whether or not I like it.

In many circles, this would make Breakfast at Tiffany’s my guilty pleasure. Guilty pleasures have become increasingly popular over the past few years, for reasons I can’t begin to suppose although I do imagine some enterprising young cultural studies major will be writing a thesis on it. Guilty pleasures have become a niche market, especially on television, or at least it seems so to me because I read a lot about television, where, every season, some new show is being touted as “your new guilty pleasure”. And while I appreciate the level of effort that goes in to making these shows a success, I must admit it’s to finding it extremely interesting when they fail, as that usually generates at least one “Your new guilty pleasure – why did it fail?” article, as though the answer can not at least in part be found in a marketing campaign that considered the show being so terrible that liking it would be embarrassing a selling point.

To me, though, the concept of a guilty pleasure is a little weird. I’m not embarrassed by liking a particular song, or television show, or movie, or book, or whatever. Enjoying something that is definitely terrible is not the sum total of my taste, and even if that something is completely without merit, if I like it then I like it; it doesn’t make sense to feel bad about it, in the same way I don’t at all regret not liking something overflowing with merit. Which, considering how I don’t like just about anything (like Death Cab for Cutie; talk about your dumb band names), is really for the best.

There was a time not too long ago in memory but perhaps a bit further back as the crow flies when, instead of taking to the internet to share half-formed thoughts however deeply felt, I would walk on down to the Pamplona cafe and write. Not, as many of my friends did, in a journal; I have never managed to quite wrap my head around the thought of writing for no audience – particularly when the alternative is to pass hours upon hours with the same thoughts whirling around my head in a most productive fashion. Instead, I would put pencil to paper to write letters to my friend Naopi, who was living in Greece at the time.

An interesting thing about these letters, or so I think, is that, although I did almost nothing at all in my free time except write to her (then, as now, it took me an exceptionally long time to complete a single letter), I always had lots to talk about. While the overall topics are probably pretty similar to the categories on ye olde blogge here – people being strange, shopping, animals – the specifics of most of those letters have been lost to the hoary mists of time, and possibly the recycling can. Except for one topic, which I remember quite well : what makes a person boring.

There are two main reasons why I remember this topic : one is that, as soon as I mailed it off to Naopi, I received from her a letter dissecting what is was that made a person charismatic; she couldn’t possibly have received my letter before writing her own – the Greek mail system being notoriously slow in the mid-’90s – and I thought it an interesting and symbolically meaningful statement on our friendship that we would both approach the same topic at the same time, but from such very different directions. The second is that there was a cute boy involved.

Said cute boy was Luke, who had been a classmate of mine at the college Naopi attended as well. Luke and I had a few classes together, and he played in a band with a guy who lived downstairs from me freshman year (whose roommate that freshman year, a propos of absolutely nothing, took dreadful notes), so I had ample opportunity to appreciate his classic, Aryan dreaminess.  Luke’s most important quality, it turned out, was that, in one chance encounter behind a Walgreens in Somerville, he utterly obliterated the very boring theory I had spent so many weeks working out.

Then, my theory had been that whether or not a speaker was interesting was determined by energy. It was a simpler time then, I was young, and so it made sense to the optimism of my youth not that any topic would be inherently uninteresting, but that a lack of energy and enthusiasm displayed by the speaker would translate to a corresponding lack of interest in the audience for anything they had to say.

That day on the bike path, though, Luke was interested in whatever it was he was talking about. He was smiling, eyes crinkling, hands gesticulating an amount appropriate to the topic. Also : still very handsome. If we were in a silent movie or being watched from afar through high-powered binoculars, it would not have been unreasonable to conclude that our conversation was of great interest and perhaps some little import. When, in fact, the conversation was stunningly dull.

So boring. It was so boring! I don’t remember at all what we were talking about, but I do remember a peculiar sense of loss as I realized that there would be attractive people in my life that I would have no interest in talking to, and a more profound sense of disbelief as my theory of energy crumpled in front of a handsome face, clearly so jazzed about the topic, and yet, somehow, so, so boring.

I have, of course, been bored many times since then, and even, on a few occasions, by a handsome gentleman. Though I have not had reason to return to my formal studies, I have, through repeated exposure to things and people that are not at all interesting, realized that “boring” can not be reduced to either the presence or absence of one single element, but instead is the complex result of the interplay of several factors:

  • The most sure sign that you are at the advent of a boring conversation is an assumption by the speaker that the audience has knowledge it could not possibly have. This gambit is often employed by the advertising industry, which will develop products to help you sync to the The Cloud, perfect its BB Cream, or list the 10 most tell-tale signs of Imposter Syndrome, without ever having established that the cloud, cream or syndrome actually exist and, further, serve some purpose. They do not.
  • In conversation, this will typically present as an especially difficult part of a task that has not been previously discussed, and, as in advertising, is an attempt to hook the audience’s interest by exploiting the audience’s unwillingness to admit they don’t know something and risk looking foolish. Unfortunately, my typical response to context-free information that sounds like nonsense is not worry that I don’t know what’s going on, but rather to conclude that the speaker is kind of a dick.
  • An addition signifier of a boring conversation is the inclusion of numerous but completely unnecessary details. This one is difficult for me to point out, as there are few things I love more than unnecessary details – it’s kind of my signature. And, indeed, a well-deployed detail can add flavor and depth to a story. However, few are the people in the world who would enjoy an in-depth discussion of each individual vegetable that could potentially top a Subway Sandwich, even if the shredding of the lettuce could indeed be the key to replicating that sandwich at home.
  • A corollary to unnecessary detail is the allusion to other unspecified details. The speaker may reference a previous event as though it had been aforementioned , e.g. “So then there’s that whole thing,” the emphasis on that indicating the potential of interesting, or perhaps even scandalous, information. As with the assumption of knowledge, this is often an attempt to get the audience to ask after that whole thing, thus prolonging the conversation and the speaker’s role as the center of attention. Don’t fall for it.
  • While the speaker might happily digress in a direction of their choosing – revisiting that whole thing, for example – they will not allow for the natural flow and development of a conversation that can occur between two (or more) equal participants. Even if another participant does manage to introduce a new topic, a boring speaker will always revert back to the original topic.
  • Similarly, while it may feel like a boring conversation just will not end, the fact is that is that a boring conversation is actually far, far longer than an interesting conversation. As with the previous point, it is impossible to bring to this conversation a natural end; even if you were to tell the speaker that you knew exactly what they were going to say, and then prove that by going ahead and saying it, the speaker would still continue on the predetermined path of what they want to say. That may sound far-fetched, but I’ve done it.

Some time on a sunny day a few years ago, Naopi and I stood on the platform at Sullivan Station, waiting for the next train to arrive. The platform at Sullivan is outdoors, and as we waited, chatting of nothing worth remembering and peering down the tracks, on the lookout for a train on the horizon, a larger than small furry creature poked its head out from one of the cracks in the wall on the other side of the train tracks. The rest of its body followed, and Naopi and I watched as it snuffled through the litter and the greenery that grows between subway tracks and a cracked cement wall, investigating the area, perhaps in search of something but not in a particular hurry to find it. Rather, I watched. Naopi lost interest in what was clearly a rodent (which, from a source I believed reliable at the time, I thought briefly was a Richardson’s ground squirrel but am now convinced was more likely a groundhog) and started fishing around inside her bag for a white cane which, she narrated, she had been  using as part of her training to become a mobility coordinator for the visually impaired.

Despite the informative narration, I was incredulous. Turning briefly away from the groundhog, I asked what she was doing; an unexpectedly large cane tip  in hand (you don’t expect those things to come in more than one size, but they do), she resumed her explanation, which I again cut short with a very firm “Clearly, I need to be looking at that [nod toward furry creature] right now.”

Generally, I like to cite this episode, specifically Naopi’s condescending response* to my completely inoffensive preference of rodents to her conversation, as evidence of the justification of the dissolution of our friendship and a reason to lament that I did not take a more active role in said amicability abatement. However, what I recently realized is how this incident demonstrates that, contrary to my belief that I’ve gotten astoundingly less intelligent in the past two years, I’ve actually been getting stupider for much longer than that.

Initially, I had feared it was my job at the Illustrious Institute, which began roughly two years ago, that could be held accountable for my newfound stupidity. Not long into my employment, on a day that I had mistakenly taken off due to a misunderstanding of the holiday policy, I realized that the calculations I used to determine the frequency with which I had to attend yoga class to get the full benefit of the monthly membership for which my sister was generously paying contained a very basic error, to wit that I had divided by 3 when I was under the impression that I had divided by 4. And, I further realized, that this was the second time since starting at the Illustrious Institute that I had made that very same error, which was of some concern, as I had always considered myself to be strong in the field of basic mathematics, particularly in regards to 3s and 4s, although I will admit to experiencing some confusion regarding 7s and 8s (56? Come on. And 15? No thank you.).

Embarrassing though it may have been, it seemed likely that, rather than symptomatic of some new ill, this problem with division was merely a sign of the distinguished new company I was keeping : I merely seemed stupider, because the people around me were smarter. Of course, the problem with this theory was that many of the people around me were not smarter, certainly not those around me most often, and definitely not more than those around whom I had often found myself in the past. And, of course, a greater problem with the theory was that it did nothing at all to justify the rabbits.

And the rabbits need justification. Because, like a dog and a squirrel (and also this one, because it’s the best) if there’s a rabbit around, I can’t not pay attention to it. To a degree that I do, on some level, understand is abnormal, because it’s not really a hallmark of maturity to abruptly end a conversation by excitedly shouting “Oh my god – a rabbit!”, and then standing, transfixed as if by a hypnogourd, unwilling to focus on anything else. Even though I can see, out of the corner of my eye, that the rest of the world has not stopped because of the rabbit, that while people may take note of the rabbit, none will be detoured by it, much less frozen, and I know that my response is the weird one, all I can think when I see them continue to go about their business, is “Oh my GOD, what is wrong with you? There is a rabbit right there! How do you not see that? And it’s hopping! Look, its hind legs are longer than the front!”

It’s weird. Ever the moreso because there is no shortage of rabbits on the grounds of the Illustrious Institute. There are so many rabbits that even the rabbits are blasé about them, nibbling grass unconcerned by a person getting too close or a loud heavy truck going past. I see a rabbit practically every day that I walk across campus,  and even though I’m slightly concerned that their abundance is due to some terrible hybridization experiment gone wrong (you guys : I have some theories, but I really have no idea what happens at the Institute outside of the libraries), every time I feel that thrilling zap of recognition – rabbit! – I have to stop and stare until it moves on.

Yet the rabbits were not of concern to me, not really, because it was other people who were too busy and because I had misunderstood the significance of the groundhog from all those years ago. But then a few weeks ago a co-worker brought her dog into work one day and suddenly the groundhog was put in a whole new light. The dog had been in the library before – not my library, but another one on campus not too far away – but I had missed it on every occasion. I knew that there was a chance that the dog would be in that day, which I tried not to get too excited about, but when I got an instant message letting me know that he was actually there, I abandoned any pretense at work to rush to the dog’s location. By “rush,” I don’t mean “hurry.” I mean “ran.” I ran to see a dog. Because, sure, I was excited, but also because I was walking down this really long hallway, and it was taking such a long time, and I thought you know, I bet if I run, I’ll get there faster.

And that, I hope, is the apex of my diminishing mental capacity. Not that I ran to see a dog, which, admittedly, kind of shows poor impulse control even if dogs are rarer in my life than rabbits. But that I actually had to think about running. Running is not a decision that you make when you need to go faster – it’s what you do. It’s instinctual; (most) rabbits do it when danger gets too close, dogs do it to greet you at the door, cats do it because they have an inherent flair for the dramatic and know how to exit a room.  Without comprehension, animals understand that running makes you go faster, whereas I had to take a moment to calculate the effect of running on my travel time. On the bright side, I did at least get that particular calculation right.

*Condescending response blogged separately**.

**Not as of yet, nor on the agenda.

So this is the thing about the internet sometimes :

I know, you’ve probably been thinking “man, it has been a long time since Porcelain and Porcupines* has been updated. Weeks, even. What’s the hold up? What could be so terribly involved?” Only now to discover that the issue is, in fact, the whole entire internet, and you realize “Wow, that is a pretty complex topic; I’m glad some time has been spent thinking about this. And, honestly, I am very much looking forward to having what exactly it is about the internet discussed, because it has been a bit tricky to nail down, I tell you what.”

And I also know, that sounds just like you. But the thing about the internet sometimes, it’s that sometimes, you wake up in the morning and you find yourself wondering whatever happened to Tevin Campbell?

For those of you who are, technically speaking, young enough that I’ve been old enough to babysit you your entire life, and yet still we know each other : Tevin Campbell was like the 1990 version of Justin Beiber. Only better, which I feel confident asserting even without ever having heard a single Justin Bieber song, because Tevin happened first, his hair was actually stylish (you know: for the time), and he worked with Prince who, regardless of how anyone might feel about him or his music, it must be acknowledged, is an insanely talented mother-f*cker. (That video is N entirely SFW, by the way).

So sometimes, in the morning, you wake up and, among the other things involved in beginning the day, you start to think about what music you’ll listen to on your way in to work, and Tevin Campbell pops into your head. Because it’s been the kind of week where you can talk all you want to, but the world still goes around and round, and even though it probably won’t, you can’t help but think that maybe a harmonic expression of insight from a 14 year-old might help you gear up to face another day of it. And so, as you search through your varied musical accoutrements, you take a moment to wonder : What ever happened to Tevin Campbell?

Which is where the internet comes into it. Because the internet obviously knows what happened to Tevin Campbell, either thanks to Tevin himself , someone representing him, or someone only tangentially related to him, which means that anyone, on anymorning, could invest less than 10 seconds and find out exactly what did happen to Tevin, and what he’s up to these days.

But this information is not strictly the provenance of the internet. In the days before the internet there still existed ways to research the formerly famous, or the still famous just less so, but these things – fan clubs, magazines, conventions, other – required far more effort on the part of the fan. To find out what happened to Tevin Campbell, you had to genuinely want to know what happened to Tevin Campbell, because time and money would be taken from you before you could find out. The ease of access to the information on the internet is what’s changed, that almost as soon as you wonder “What ever happened to Tevin Campbell?” you can get the answer to whatever happened to Tevin Campbell, without ever taking the time to consider whether or not you actually want to know.

And that’s the thing about the internet sometimes, is that it’s smudged up the line between wondering and wanting to know. Because, while I’m very happy to wonder about Tevin Campbell, or why soap always lathers white, or what this Higgs Boson business is all about, I don’t actually want to know any of those things; well, maybe the Higgs Boson thing a little bit, but only because it’s in the news so much right now and I feel a little bit of peer pressure there. But honestly, why things have mass doesn’t really interest me any more than the strange trend I see of people going for a run with a tiny backpack strapped to them.

The tiny backpack issue is one, like whatever happened to Tevin Campbell, that I simply want to wonder about; I am quite happy to spend a few moments pondering it, and then letting it recede back into the ether whence it came, and never, ever knowing what or why. There’s a very simple contentment in mystery sometimes, a contentment that can become difficult to maintain when the mystery is so easy to solve. And that’s the other thing about the internet sometimes, is that, if you just for a moment make the mistake of thinking that you want to know, and then you find out? Then you can’t wonder anymore, because you know.

*This is totally unrelated, but I just realized that I don’t have a clever internet sobriquet on this site. Do I need one?  Should I just be myself? That seems weird, for the internet. I don’t think I can do it.

Like Fight Club, I believe that the first rule of Facebook should be that you don’t talk about Facebook. And not just because the movie adaptations of each were directed by the same dude (who apparently also directed Sting’s Englishman in New York video (and, OMG, if you want to feel old, check out how young Sting was in that video)), but because, on the whole, when someone starts talking about Facebook, it’s because they’re complaining about Facebook. And although I myself am about to partake in that very same habit, I’m going to ignore the hypocrisy of telling you exactly why everyone needs to stop complaining about Facebook already.

The complaints about Facebook tend to fall into two camps : there are the complaints made by Facebook users, usually about some change that Facebook has made, how much they hate it, and how Facebook should revert to the previous version that they similarly hated when it was first released. While I can’t claim to be on board with every Facebook update – I have no idea what this “timeline” business is about, and all that grumbling in the past week or so about Facebook email was the first I’d heard that there was Facebook email, and even with that being said, I’m still not quite sure what the controversy is there (and please don’t take that to mean that I’m curious) – I tend not to get quite so up in arms about them. For me, Facebook is currently the best way to let everyone I’ve ever met know in real time that a bug has just flown up my nose, or to make me aware of all of the life choices I’ve made that led me so far astray from the boy I was in love with when I was 14, but other than that I don’t have much investment in it; the technology behind it doesn’t interest me, so as long as it remains easier than sending out a yearly newsletter (which, considering the frequency with which I update this blog, I clearly would never get around to), if the minds behind Facebook want to add frapdoodles to their lippity-barms, or other technical jargon, I am okay with it.

The second category of Facebook complaints tend to take the form of lists compiled for the benefit of Facebook users, letting them know which of their status updates no one cares about. While these tend to be humour-based lists, uninteresting Facebook posts are apparently so rampant that Time Magazine itself had to take up the cause. Topics to avoid will vary depending on the list, but the important takeaway from all of them is that, whether you’re sharing a picture of dinner, or that you’ve completed errands, or that your child has reached some milestone in toilet-training, nobody gives a shit.

This conclusion, however, is totally untrue, and it’s untrue because the only way to arrive at this conclusion is for a person to believe that everything posted on Facebook is directed entirely at them, which, astoundingly self-centered a thing to think as that is, is an easy enough mistake to make : if most of your time spent on Facebook is spent talking about yourself – and it is- it would be natural to conclude that everyone else is talking, if not about, then at least to you. But they’re not; once one takes enough of a step back from their position to realize that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe, one can see that even though they themselves may not care about something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that no one in the world does. I, for example, love just about every picture of food I’ve seen posted, with the notable exceptions of fast food, food intended to look disgusting, and  anything involving bacon; and, although on the whole I tend not to be super enamored of the parental comments I see, some of my friends have such joyously happy children that being involved even peripherally in the occasional poop in the bathtub or some particularly sassy comment is actually quite special.

Of course there are comments that I don’t like : I’m probably never going to update my status to show my support for awareness of a cause, and if you’re being intentionally vague in the hopes that someone will draw the rest of the story out of you, I am not your girl. However, while I believe that Facebook is no place to be coy, I don’t believe that the solution is to insist that everyone put an end to online enigmas; a better solution, I think, would be for everyone to take a deep breath and consider the possibility that, if you don’t care about someone’s status, maybe they’re not talking to you anyway.

In real life, it’s pretty easy to understand this : if you happened to find yourself in the same restaurant as someone you worked with 8 years ago, you might take a minute or twelve to catch up with them, but, after an appropriate amount of time had passed you’d return to your own table and your own dinner. Or lunch. Or maybe even afternoon tea. The meal itself is not important; what is important is that you would not, most likely, continue to pop back over to that person’s table intermittently to insist that they talk only about things that interest you, or order food that you find aesthetically pleasing. Instead, you would show this acquaintance of yours the same respect you would a stranger, and allow them to eat their meal in peace.

Even though I very firmly believe this is the correct thing to do, I have, recently, found it difficult to show that respect to a stranger. (Yes, all of that was just introduction; can you believe it?) What happened was this: on a very lovely evening not too long ago, I found myself strolling down the sidewalk of Cambridge, as one does when one is headed out for the evening. Walking too close behind me were two or possibly three girls, one of whom was holding forth on a gentleman of their mutual acquaintance who, the last time she’d run into him, greeted her with the wrong name and then, when she corrected him, responded in a vague sort of voice “Oh, that’s just a formality.”

The conversation went on from there, but, concentrating as I was on not turning around, grabbing her by the shoulders, looking her straight in the eye, and telling her “Oh honeypants. No,” I couldn’t really pay attention to it. Restrained as I was, I couldn’t  explain to her that her name is not just a formality, nor just a way of ensuring that the underpants you get back from the camp laundry are actually yours; it’s a way of identifying who you are in the world, what sets you apart, what makes you special. It is, at its core, the very simplest way you have of defining yourself, and even though it was given to you by someone else, you can make it mean whatever you want.

I also could not tell her that dismissing her name as “just a formality” does not, as she went on to claim, make a gentleman “so weird.” There is a lot of misunderstanding about weirdness in the world right now, but since that, sadly, was not the time nor the place to set down some basic ground rules regarding the weird, I couldn’t just say that if a gentleman genuinely is weird, instead of just acting weird, that does not excuse him from learning your name. Particularly not once you’ve made the effort to tell him what your name actually is. Weird is a definite thing that some people are, but it does not give them free reign to be inconsiderate – or worse – of your stated preferences.

I couldn’t tell her any of these things; instead, I could only hope that somewhere out there on the internet is someone not sufficiently aware that she’s not talking to them and so can tell her, over and over again if necessary “Oh, girl; No.” Because, seriously – “your name is just a formality”? NO.

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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