porcelainandporcupines

Archive for the ‘judging strangers’ Category

As I mentioned once before, I don’t generally like to talk about Facebook. To me, Facebook is a fine way to waste time at work and regretfully sigh over the boys I was in love with when I was 15; while there are some things on Facebook that I of course find irritating , with the ephemerality of memes and ever-reducing attention spans I know that I won’t be annoyed for very long. At least, not by that particular thing, and certainly not long enough that I’ll have to voice any objection.

Until today, when this started making the rounds.

And while that has been posted by several people who I actually like, it makes me angry. It does. Because, it’s like the religious equivalent of man-splaining; although it purports to show how everyone of all religions are the same, I haven’t actually seen it reposted by any of my Jewish friends. Thus, I feel as though it’s my duty, as the Jew in your life, to discuss why you wishing me a merry Christmas is big deal :

It’s a big deal because I don’t celebrate Christmas.

It’s a big deal because the number of people who are going to unthinkingly wish me a merry Christmas without caring at all that I don’t celebrate Christmas is going to far, far exceed the number of people who are going to erroneously wish you a happy Chanuka.

It’s a big deal because, in fact, no one is going to erroneously wish you a happy Hanukkah. Because all of the Jews in your life know who in their life celebrates Channukah, in the same way that all Canadians in the US can identify their fellow Canadians. So, unless you’re going to go into a store specializing in Judaica to buy gelt and dreidels for your Jewish friends so you don’t gauchely give us candy canes – which, if history is a guide, you are probably not going to do – no one is going to assume you’re celebrating Hannukah in the same way you assume we’re all celebrating Christmas.

It’s a big deal because spell-check doesn’t recognize Judaica, gelt, or dreidels as actual words, even though dreidels are the one thing that literally everyone knows about Channukah.

It’s a big deal because “Happy Hannukkah” is not Hebrew for “Merry Christmas”. It is a Completely. Separate. Holiday. As is Kwanzaa. At least, I think it is; I don’t actually know anything about Kwanzaa.

It’s a big deal because, to some people, these are profound celebrations of their community and faith, and not meaninglessly interchangeable words to be said when it’s cold out.

Mostly, it’s a big deal because it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and not only are you already telling me that I have to be okay with the majority of people congratulating themselves for being completely ignorant of the fact that some people are different than them, you’re telling me that this year, I have to put up with it for two months, instead of just one.

However, I post not just to scold. Are there things that you, as a gentile, can do to better navigate the newly and unfortunately expanded holiday season than posting entitled nonsense on Facebook? Happily, there are! And helpfully, I have a couple of ideas:

Step 1. Take a moment and get over yourself;

Step 2. Make an effort to find out what holidays the people in your life actually celebrate;

Step 3. Find out when those holidays actually fall (hint : they do not necessarily coincide with Christmas; second hint : this information is readily found online, as well as on every single physical calendar printed in the United States);

Step 4. Find out why this holiday is celebrated (optional);

Step 5. On the day that the appropriate holiday falls (see Step 3), express your sincere wishes that the people in your life enjoy their holiday, using the terminology specific to that holiday;

Step 6. On any days that are not the days on which the appropriate holiday falls (see Step 3), or on any day that you are interacting with someone with whom you are not well-enough acquainted to know what holiday that person celebrates, simply tell that person you hope they have a nice day, a good evening, a pleasant tomorrow, or any other non-denominational well-wishes that fit the occasion;

Step 7. Congratulate yourself for being a good and thoughtful human being;

Step 8. Repeat Step 1.

So far, the most interesting thing to happen this week is that a guy fell down on the bus this morning. Actually, there were two guys who fell over; they’d been talking to each other across the aisle and, in unison, rose from their seats as the bus approached the next stop. Neither anticipated that the driver would stop for the traffic lights that came before the bus stop, but he did; and as he deployed the brakes in a completely ordinary and non-dramatic fashion, the two guys in the process of gracelessly rising from their seats found themselves pitching forward in a suddenly dramatic yet equally graceless effort to stop from falling all the way down. Only one of them succeeded.

The one who did not succeed, the one who fell, took an awfully long time to fall completely. He went in curious slow-motion through the stages of falling, first attempting to lurch upright, then falling on one knee, then lurching forward again to crash his face into the legs of the people who’d managed to successfully make their ways toward the door of the bus, and then, finally, landing fully on the floor. It was an effort just to watch. Had I been in a similar position, I’m sure I too would have struggled every step of the way down, but as an observer, it was clear that submitting to the inevitable and just falling already would have been the most elegant path, since only after completing the fall was he able to begin to get back up successfully.

Falling spectacularly in public like that, there are really only two possible ways to react : if you’re embarrassed but overall unharmed, you can dorkily call attention to your situation and subsequent recovery; if you are, at all, in any sort of pain, you immediately start casting blame. Which I say without judgement; after I fell on the ice this winter, I immediately looked for the house number of whoever the fuck would be so fucking lazy as to leave 3 fucking inches of ice on the fucking sidewalk in front of their fucking house, because without that fucking ice, I wouldn’t have bonked my fucking head on their fucking sidewalk. Not that I am holding a grudge.

The guy this morning could only blame the driver, although there were plenty of people who did not fall over or down when the braking happened, so I suppose there was the option to blame himself. Alas, that is not the option he chose, which is really too bad. Because, if he’s anything like me – and one thing I’ve noticed over the past 40 years is that most people are – that fall on the bus was his entire morning : every time someone arrives at work and says “Hey, guy, how’s it going?” he’s going to have to mention that he fell on the bus – again, because that’s what I would do – and I’d much rather spend the morning telling the story of how I looked like an idiot but wound up okay than the story of how I’m limping because of that dumb fucking bus driver.

But ultimately, I’m actually telling you the story of how somebody else fell on the bus because, I’m pretty sure, this has been the single most uneventful 2-week span in my entire life. The only other possible thing I could talk about was some positive feedback I got on a PowerPoint presentation, but you wouldn’t be able to see the presentation, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to read a description of a PowerPoint presentation. So instead, I went with the guy falling down on the bus. And I’m sure that, our positions reversed, he would have done the same.

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.

(Warning : portions of this blog have appeared elsewhere. Like on Facebook. Yesterday.)

I had a weirdly aggressive encounter with a patron yesterday. Although a recent arrival, she has quickly become a frequent visitor to the library; while it’s difficult to make assumptions about people, I would guess, based on her behavior, that she is neither Illustrious student nor faculty nor staff, but instead is of the sort of person who eschews the public library despite being the sort of person one imagines when coming up with reasons to eschew the public library.

Or, I suppose the difficulty lies in accurately judging a person about whom you have already made assumptions. Whatever the case, my very first interaction with this particular woman resulted with her thinking that my answer to her very bizarre question about my bracelet (which I no longer remember, except that it was off-putting) was an invitation to grab said bracelet which, having an elastic band, she then snapped against my wrist. And, while we may go into detail on physical contact in the library another time, the short explanation is : No. Even the great Colonel Mustache, who stole my heart by being the answer to the question “What would Yosemite Sam look like if his great-grandparents on his mother’s side had been Norwegian alcoholics, and his paternal great-great-great-grandfather had been a Lorax, who spoke not for trees but for mustaches?” was invited to remove his hand from my arm as I demonstrated how to use the scanner; there are no exceptions to this rule.

Subsequent interactions with this woman – who so far has not exhibited enough personality to earn a nickname, although perhaps we should start working on something tissue-based – have, now that I think of it, been fairly limited. At least on my watch, her pattern seems to be to establish herself in front of one of the computers, do whatever it is that she needs to do, and then leave, without requesting assistance from the staff. However, before heading over to the computers, she likes to stop by the desk to stock up on tissues. And, to her credit, unlike many library users, she does seem to realize that the tissues are kept on the desk not because we want to be a part of your nose-blowing experience, but so that they’ll be easy to find.

However, unlike most – if not all – of our other library users, when she stopped by the desk yesterday she glared steadily at me as she pulled tissues singly out of the box, as though daring me to stop her. One after another, it seemed like her whole purpose in coming to the library was to prove that she could remove as many tissues from the box on the desk as she wanted. It seems weird to describe anything involving tissues as defiant, but there doesn’t seem to be any other word for it.

And I almost took up her challenge. When she got to 4 and showed no signs of stopping, I inhaled, preparing to say Ok, lady – that’s enough with the tissues. And then I exhaled, wondering if that was really the life I want for myself? Do I want to be a person who restricts access to tissues? Kind of, but under the guise of wanting to ensure adequate tissue availability for all of our library users at all times.

However, that’s not a realistic goal – no matter how many or how few tissues an individual person takes, it is inevitable that the library will one day run out of tissues. On the other hand, there is no shortage of tissues in the world. And as long as there *are* tissues, the library will get more.

It may be, though, that her aggression yesterday was a result to regain some face after the tissue-related ordeal of last weekend. The difficulty then was not because of the tissues themselves, but because she was attempting to take all of the tissues. At once. Using only one hand. I don’t know why she had set this unusual challenge for herself, but I worried for a bit that she was not quite up to the task. As she struggled, unable to get her hand fully inside the box, and then unable to get it out, I wondered whether I should intervene – should I try to help her? She was having difficulty, but then she was trying to take all of our tissues – I didn’t want to encourage that. On the other hand, what she was going through was so very fascinating that it didn’t seem right to try to stop her either.

Fortunately, my conundrum was easily solved by realizing that this very moment illustrated the guiding principle behind the Prime Directive, and since anything good enough for Jean-Luc Picard is good enough for me, I decided to let events unfold as they may. Eventually, as I watched with a rapt expression upon my face, she did manage successfully to extract all of the tissues from the box. It was quite a moment, and I quietly enjoyed her victory even though her face betrayed no recognition of her achievement.

This week, I had momentarily forgotten that Directive, but fortunately, I remembered it in time. Since I did, it is my hope that in the course of proving yesterday that she can take as many tissues as she wants, she noticed that I made no effort to stop her. Because it’s interesting for two weeks, but I am kind of hoping for an end to the tissue-related drama in my life. Unless it’s new life forms coming in to the library – I’m always ready for that.

An apparently annual fall tradition that precedes the beginning of a new school year is the publication of the Mindset List by Beloit College. It may seem at first that the purpose of said list is to provide people with the opportunity to have heard of Beloit College, but the actual purpose of the list, according to the introductory paragraph you probably skipped, is to help keep professors from making dated references to the kids today. Because, despite having the internet constantly at their fingertips, they can’t be bothered to look up something they’ve not heard of before. Because that is totally not the point of higher education.

While I found the most shocking entry on the list to be that, while I was not paying attention, the light brown M&M was phased out in favor of blue (which: listen, M&Ms – no one chooses you because they want to taste the rainbow; have a little dignity and stop tarting yourself up in ridiculous colors), an item of probably greater cultural concern is that 25% of students entering college this year have already suffered significant hearing loss. The list does not go so far as to associate a cause with this loss, which I think might be contrary to the spirit of the list, as it could cause some poor addled professor to chastise their hard-of-hearing students for listening to the rock-n-roll music too loud on their HiFi’s, rather than rightly pinning the blame on the pernicious prevalence of headphone use.

My college graduation predates the creation of the Mindset List,  so it should come as no surprise that I don’t really make that much use of headphones. In fact, it makes me extremely uncomfortable not to be able to hear what’s going on around me. Not just for safety’s sake (although, imagine how many more cars would have hit me by now if I hadn’t been able to hear them coming? I’d be dead. That would be terrible. Especially for you, because you’d be starting at nothing right now, which would be weird and maybe not the best use of your time), but also for entertainment value. Being able to overhear other people’s conversation can be one of the greatest enjoyments in life. For example, on a recent trip to the grocery store I happened to pass two women waiting for the bus. Or, at least, they were standing at a bus stop. As I walked past them, I happened to catch this tantalizing bit of conversation:

“Now, if you’re gonna eat a chicken wing. . .”

Unfortunately, I am not sufficiently brassy to stop abruptly on the sidewalk so that I can listen in on a conversation that may not be, in part or in all, considered my business. And I say “unfortunately” because, as a person who has never eaten a chicken wing, I have no idea how that sentence ends. Is it like what happens if you give a moose a muffin? Because that rapidly becomes chaotic – that moose can not handle baked goods at all and completely flips its lid. Which I hope is a problem plaguing only that one particular moose and not representative of moosedom at large.

Additionally, I had no idea that there were alternate methods of eating chicken wings. Does the company in which you’re eating make a difference? If you’re gonna eat a chicken wing, should you always make sure to keep your pinky extended so that, if you’re invited to dine with Wills & Kate, you won’t embarrass America?

Mostly, though, I’m amazed at the presentation of eating a chicken wing as a hypothetical possibility; I’ve always looked at the world as a place where a person does or does not eat chicken wings, not as a place were the eating of chicken wings is a matter of some contemplation. Certainly not as a place where there is no fixed sequence of events that follows the eating, no possibility that it won’t end, as it began, in fiery discomfort.

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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