Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Farewell to being a public librarian

Years ago, after attempting other occupations I thought were compatible with a writing life, I decided to become a librarian. That way, I thought, I could be around books and help people find information. It would combine the best parts of my previous two jobs, of bookstore manager (being around books) and newspaper reporter (finding information), leaving out the parts I disliked, like near-poverty bookstore wages, and a reporter's irregular hours and intrusive sleuthing.

Two articles strewn across my dining room table this morning prompted me to write about this. The first, It's Still Cleary's World [paper edition title], a celebration of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday, mentions that Cleary became a children's librarian at her mother's prompting because, even though she wanted to be a writer, her mother insisted, "You must have some other way of earning a living."

This is what I envisioned when I went to Chapel Hill to earn a library degree. The vision was grounded in the reality of having worked as a volunteer in the children's department at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library, when I lived next door to it in the early 1980s. After simply walking in and asking if there was anything I could do to help, I was soon reading to children at after-school story hour, and helping organize the Halloween Haunted House. This could be a fun way to earn a living, I supposed, as well as to serve a role in the community.

But working in a public library these days is much more like the second article on my table: Page Turner [print edition title], in which a D.C. Public Library children's librarian must try to use "verbal judo" de-escalation techniques to deal with the belligerent. The article reports that patrons threatening the librarians is not an abnormality, with some of those threats turning violent. Another, related article in that issue describes the main branch of the DCPL as a "de facto drop-in homeless shelter."

When I sought work as a public librarian, I thought I was signing up to read to children, help students with projects, dig up information for inquiring minds. But on my first day at my county's busiest branch, the one closest to a Metro station, I was yelled at by three homeless people in four hours (as a substitute, I hadn't been trained in any de-escalation techniques, so I just stood there while they berated me). In addition, there and at other branches, I endured the glares of impatient adults when I handled long lines at the reference desk by myself while also answering all incoming library calls.

Once upon a time, being a librarian was one of the lovely jobs. There were two or three people on a reference desk, so that if you didn't have the answer, you could confer with your co-workers and so that there would be someone on the desk, to greet people and to answer the phone, if you had to go back to the stacks to find a book or walk into the computer room to reboot someone's computer. There was time on the desk to browse Library Journal and other magazines that helped you recommend new books or find useful web sites. You grew to know the regulars and were greeted in kind. After a not-very stressful shift, you could go home with enough energy to write and do other creative tasks.

Maybe it's still like this somewhere, in other parts of the country. But, though I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., it only occasionally comes close to this, and then only in the smaller branches, during the less busy time slots. When budget cuts were imposed in the last decade, the public library was hit hard. Staff hours were slashed, new books remained unordered. In came additional, cheaper substitute librarians, who move from library to library without gaining much institutional knowledge.

Nevertheless, I probably would have continued working in the public library system, despite these misgivings, if the decision hadn't been made for me. My position was terminated recently due to my taking extended medical leave; thus, my ambition to apply for a part-time position, when I was strong and healthy, was dashed. Appropriately, the news was delivered in a form letter requesting I turn in my badge, no questions asked about my health or well-being.

So, what do I do now, and where do I seek work? I'm not eager to go back to editing, sitting at home by myself for hours in front of the computer, working on other people's words (to then at the computer to write my own stuff is physically stagnating). I need to be out, among people, to walk, talk, be recognized. Are there any lovely (not stressful, fulfilling, happy) jobs left?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Celebrities? Who cares?

I really don't give a crap about celebrities.

This isn't a new thought, from me or anyone else. But I had this particular epiphany yesterday while sitting in a doctor's waiting room, desperate for reading material. I picked up People Magazine (the best choice among some really poor offerings) and scanned it, trying to find something of interest. Except for looking at the book and movie review section, I got to the back of the magazine without much interruption.

Because: I don't care who wears what, or what their kid looks like when they haul them out annually for a grocery store jaunt. I don't care if someone I don't know and will never meet has broken up with their boyfriend or if she (it's always she) has put on some pounds. Why should I or anyone else?

A friend once told me she read People Magazine because it had its finger on the pulse of what America was about. That was back in the days when PM carried stories of real-life heroes and deal-makers. But there was nothing like that in the issue I skimmed through yesterday--unless reality stars are our new everyday-type folks.

Having ignored celebrity culture for awhile, it all seemed, well, silly. I am never going to be able to afford a couture dress, so why should I care who wore Valentino or Dior to a gala? Am I supposed to feel envy, or that I'm in on something, sharing that particular, spectacular moment? Or, am I supposed to feel falsely superior when the scrutinized person fails to live up to a near-unreachable standard?

There is so much entertainment news--on TV, in print, and on the web. It's disheartening that this is what passes as knowledge for many people these days. They can't name the birds or flowers in their yard, yet they can name J Lo's latest love interest. It gets us all nowhere; perhaps it's to keep our minds off melting ice caps or the evolving oligarchy.

Thank goodness my other doctor's office carries The New Yorker...

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The omnivorous reader

In order to pursue my Goodreads challenge this year (a target of 20 books, with a self-imposed limit of books written by women), I neglected to read anything not within the confines of a book cover. Magazines piled up, one story issues remained unopened, newspapers were recycled before I unfolded them.

I love books but I am an omnivorous reader--I like to read anything, especially magazines. I wish there was something like Goodreads that would let me also note significant stories/articles*--not to get credit for it by way of a challenge, but to just remember what and who I have read.

I suppose that's what Facebook or Google+ are for--to link to articles you've read or proclaim the talents of writers you like, but I would prefer something more private and individual. There's the possibility of jotting down notes and names on index cards or even keeping a spreadsheet of everything significant I've read, but it seems like too much work--and I probably would lose track of them. There's also the Pocket app--but it lets you keep track of online articles only.

Perhaps this begs the question: must everything be noted? For me, it's not about tooting my own horn but my need for a vehicle that lets me to remember who I've read and liked so that I can find other works by them, given my poor memory for names.

By the way, I didn't reach my goal of 20 books, mostly because I chose really long books this year. I read more than 6,000 words in 16.5 books. Fortunately, Goodreads allowed me to edit my goal, even on the last day of the challenge, in nearly the last hour, so that 16 suddenly became my goal and my accomplishment.

[The illustration above shows what I read. I tried to choose a mix of popular and more literary books, in addition to one on technique. It was really about the enjoyment of reading versus reading things to boast about.]

* After I finished writing this, I looked around Goodreads and found that a few issues of one story have been listed there (including the Jim Shepard story I noted in a 2012 post). I'm not sure if the Goodreads staff has added them or if readers can add them. I'll look around and update this post accordingly...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Let's hear it for Hugh Grant movies

Hugh Grant movies are a visual Prozac for me. With the exception of Cloud Atlas (which I liked, but for other reasons), they offer a couple of hours of bumbling safety and warmth, and the surety of a happy ending. 

They are good movies to watch in the winter, when darkness comes on quickly and gray mornings offer little respite from the gloom.

In the past I wouldn't have publicly confessed this. I aimed to watch only the best movies--Citizen Kane, of course, and the most highly acclaimed foreign movies. But in the depths of December, I am not going to watch The Godfather trilogy, or Pulp Fiction, or any other film with graphic violence. I need escapism, something that doesn't require my hibernating brain to work too much.

The same applies to the books I have read--or admitted to have read. I once aimed to only read the best literary fiction. This pretense began in college, when I hung out with people who smoked Gauloises and drank too much espresso. No one I knew then would have admitted to reading popular fiction. (This pretense began to fall when I worked in a bookstore in Idaho and, on slow afternoons, binged on Judy Bloom books that I didn't get to read as a child.) Still, even then, with the excuse of being able to recommend popular books to customers, I worried that life was too short to waste on fluff. 

But isn't there room for both The Seven Samurai and Notting Hill? 

I say this also as someone who is finally admitting that nothing I write is ever going to be on a Great Books list. I'm increasingly comfortable with the idea of aiming, at best, for something easy to write and read. I am physically not able to sit down and write eight hours a day (45 minutes writing this post at the computer and now my neck is aching). A great novel takes a lot of BIC ("Butt in Chair, as Jane Yolen describes it in her book, Take Joy) commitment that I don't have the energy for right now, given that I'm still recovering from all the yucky cancer treatments from the last year and a half.

This past week, mostly while washing dishes*, I watched the surprisingly charming Music and Lyrics. It was like eating a well-crafted chocolate--not a heavy, nourishing meal. Maybe by the spring, I can watch Unforgiven or Le Grande Illusion--and be able to write more words every day.

*The only time I watch TV most of the time, on a small TV in my kitchen--another reason to watch easy films that can be watched in segments, without losing track of the plot.


PS: As I was looking for a pic of Hugh Grant, I discovered the not-so-charming fact that he recently fathered three children by two women at the same time, with another on the way. I'm not sure this will affect my enjoyment of his movies since they never seemed all that close to reality anyway...

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A life in patterns

Cleaning out my mom's house this past summer, it surprised me how unsentimental I felt, even though it was the last time I was going to be there. Instead, it was a hurried effort in efficiency--quilts and coverlets in one pile, pillows in another, kitchenware stacked into boxes.

In the closets and cabinets in all her rooms, I found nothing that bore witness to her life beyond what she had purchased and placed there. Yet I wanted to find something that was uniquely hers, and/or that reminded me of my childhood with her.

And then I came across the patterns for dresses she had sewn for me when I was a little girl.  I imagined the hours she had spent at her Singer sewing machine, adding bric-a-brac to the edges of sleeves, embellishing fresh-pressed collars with machine-stitched embroidery. It was an act of love, unseen by me as I played in the woods near our home, unrecognized as I wore out the products of her labor.

I realized this had been how she had expressed herself and began to sob. Nothing else in that house affected me this way--not being back in the bedroom where she had died in February, not the photo albums showing our family as it once was, not my grandmother's frayed tablecloths my mom had saved because, according to a note in the box, she "couldn't bear to throw them away."

Among the patterns, I found the first outfit she had sewn for me. Sadly, it is the only one she saved.

Often I go with my daughter to the store or spend hours on the Internet trying to find a dress or outfit that I am too impatient to make myself. I don't want to stay at a sewing machine, yet I spend hours trying to find something that fits her and doesn't look awful, made by a worker in China or India who has cranked them out, piece by piece. I tell myself that American women have the freedom to be more creative now than they did in the 1950s, when they were mere housewives, without recognizing that I am often a mere consumer, wearing or buying outfits worn by hundreds of others.

Sewing was my mother's craft. The stitches were her story.

The note reads: "First dress I made for Beth after Bret bought my sewing machine."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Women Only

At first it was accidental. I began the year finishing Lila by Marilynne Robinson, then moved on to Mansfield Park (which, I a devoted Austen fan, had somehow never gotten around to), then to Poisonwood Bible.

Then I realized: "I've only been reading women writers this year!" After proclaiming this to my friends, I made an effort to keep it that way. Books by men on my "To-Read" list on Goodreads were pushed aside. No C.S. Lewis, no Colm Tóibín, no Khaled Hosseini.

This was less a feminist statement than an exercise to find and read female authors, particularly those I might not have otherwise looked for. I liked both the limits and the challenge of this task. But I have begun to feel a little confined by it.

Is it really more women-empowering or woman-centric to (currently) be listening to The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, which centers on a male physicist and is read by the voice actor Don Leslie than it would be to listen to Madame Bovary, which centers on poor Emma Bovary, and is read by the voice actress Juliet Stevenson?

I've always meant to re-read Madame Bovary (and read it someday in French), so I grabbed it when it was on sale on the other day for $4.95.  Now I'm starting to feel bummed that I will have to wait until 2016 to listen to it if I keep this (informally made) woman-only vow.

It's been an interesting eight months of hearing women's voices. I'm not experiencing an absence of men. But I really would like to listen to Madame Bovary...

Friday, July 3, 2015

The unexpected flower

For the last couple of years, I've pulled a weed that kept creeping up in my front yard bed. Why was it a weed? Because (ask any gardener) I hadn't remembered planting it.

It was an unremarkable dark green plant that didn't seem to have any purpose. I ripped it from the soil and into the compost bin it went.

But this spring I wasn't so fanatical about weeding. Rainy weather and some out-of-town trips kept me from my yard. It gave the weed sufficient time away from my prying hands, so that it came to bloom.

I think it is a tiger lily I planted in another part of the yard years ago, which never came back. How it came to be in this particular planting bed is a question best taken up with the squirrels or the birds.

Is it not a particularly spectacular plant--it is low to the ground, as if trying to hide from my annual culling. Yet I applaud its determination to survive and put out its small show of pink blossoms.

Now I wonder if there are weeds in my notebooks and writing scraps that might also bloom if I would allow it. Given safe haven from my rigorous inner critic/weeder, a poem might emerge, or even an essay.

It's hard sometimes to know when to be vicious and when to nurture, whether it is plants or words.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The empty streets of Blogville

When iGoogle went away, I lost track of the personal blogs I used to read on a regular basis. (It  was easy to see which blogs had been updated with iGoogle because snippets of their recent posts appeared on my front/search page in Chrome). I didn't easily find another way to keep up with them. But the other day, through with my medical treatments and with more time on my hands, I decided to look up the blogs I once followed. I was disappointed to realize that, without fail, nearly all had made their last posts two years ago.

"Where have all the bloggers gone?" several articles have already asked (just type that phrase or "the demise of blogs" into Google and you'll see what I'm talking about). Writer Mel Campbell, in her article, Should we mourn the end of blogs?, aptly said, "The blogroll in my sidebar reads like an honour roll of war dead."

It's assumed that many bloggers have migrated to Instagram and Twitter. In my case, it's Facebook, where I have a ready and responsive audience. The truth is that it's more affirming (and easier) to write a quip on Facebook and get 50 likes than it is to write a blog post that no one comments on.

And yet I'm still blogging. Sometimes it's the only time I write down what I am thinking at the moment. The posts are Instagram for my brain.

To randomly delve into the blogger universe, I've been hitting hit the "Next Blog" tab (at the top left of this page) and have discovered that, while many once-hopeful storefronts on Blogville have been abandoned, the craft stores, decorating shops and seamier establishments still persist. A typical tour goes something like this: Quilting blog, Quilting blog, dead blog (i.e., no post since 2013), Bad Poetry, dead blog, Erotica, Cheap Chic blog, dead blog, etc.

[Blogger help says that "Next Blog" is supposed to take you "to a recently-updated Blogger blog similar to the one you're currently viewing." But each time I've tried it in the last week, I've gotten much different results. One day it was entirely erotica sites; the next day, mostly quilting. A day later, blogs written only in Afrikaans.]

I've also found several "books I am reading"-type blogs, but I imagine that many of the people who had sites like this are moving or have already moved to Goodreads where their reviews are searchable and probably seen by a wider audience.

The blogs I once followed that have disappeared were written mostly by busy adults. Short of an unseen catastrophe in 2013, I imagine what happened is that they kept at blogging for a while and then got busy with work or with family events. Or perhaps they had said all they wanted to say--especially in a venue that offered no financial or other reward.

I, too, may close this Blogville venue in the future. It's not that I've said all that I want to say, but that, perhaps, I'm trying to say too many things. The blogs that have succeeded or, at least, have persisted are those with a specific kind of focus. Someone asked me to describe my blog the other day and I realized I didn't have an elevator pitch to describe it. "It's about creativity," I vaguely said. And then I tried to explain how I have written about art and books and have also interviewed creative people.

It would be so much easier to say, "It's about shoes" or "It's about vegetarian cooking." (There are lots of these blogs around) "Writing Home" might be a better name for a blog that shares letters people have written home over the centuries. Or in which I write about home and what home means. As a "home for my writing," it looks like I am trying to fill every room and bookshelf. Walking in, one might not know where to go or how to get there. Or one might just walk on by, on to a blog that offers updates on Bruce Jenner or a good dinner recipe.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Too much TV

If only there was a Goodreads for watching TV. If so, I would be a top viewer.

I watched a lot of television in the 11 months I went through cancer treatments. Not just a wimpy sitcom here and there, but dramas that required a certain type of allegiance to plow through them. Every episode of every season, sometimes one, two, even three a day.

Go ahead and call it "binge watching." But I crave a more refined phrase that would signify something important, at least given how much of my day was devoted to it.

In those months, I was catching up on shows I somehow missed or never took the time to get into—"Mad Men," "The Good Wife," "Foyles War." There wasn't much else I could do. The steroids and chemo gave me fuzzy eyesight and ocular migraines, making it nearly impossible to read. I also found that if I didn't sit down and get engaged with a TV show I would be up, trying to get things done, quickly reaching exhaustion. Doing one load of laundry downstairs or cooking dinner was sometimes all I could manage for the day.

So 45 minutes with Don Draper was restive. Wondering how Alicia Florrick was going to fare sans hubby helped me forget about my troubles for an hour or two.

Absent of Goodreads (and because a few friends have asked what I watched), here's a list of the TV series I watched in their entirety: [O] = ongoing series

- Wives and Daughters
- Forsyth Saga
- Call the Midwife [0]
- The Bletchley Circle
- Mad Men [0]
- Cranford
- The Duchess of Duke Street
- Enlightened
- Foyles War
- Freaks and Geeks
- The Good Wife [0] *

* Fun fact: the first 5 seasons of The Good Wife = 112 episodes @ 44 min. ea = 82 hours (gulp!)

I became a little obsessed with WWII and post-WWII Britain during this time. Hence, Foyles War, Bletchley Circle and Call the Midwife (in addition to The Imitation Game in the theatre). I found it particularly charming that no matter how dire things were, or how poor they were, the characters always made time for tea.

I also watched a lot of movies (how did I ever find the time?). Maybe I'll list those maybe another day.

I made the collage above using Union, a smartphone photography app--my first, clumsy attempt, but I wanted something at the top of the page that wouldn't be copyright restricted...

Friday, April 3, 2015

Using the watermark feature in MS Word to distinguish your drafts

Maybe most writers already know this, but I stumbled upon something accidentally tonight that is going to help me more easily distinguish which draft of a manuscript I am looking at.

While trying to insert page numbers in a document, I saw that one of the options under the "Insert" pull-down menu is "Watermark..." I realized I might be able to use a watermark to show which draft I am printing or looking at.

Watermark gives you a "Text" option, which is where you can put the date of the draft. It shows up underneath each page and looks like this (I am printing this without the text underneath so you can better see the watermark/date):

The date of the draft shows up as a faint gray color under the text--or if you want to spring for color printing, you could, I suppose, make it a different color.

One of my problems in going back and editing my stuff is that I will find four different versions of something and can't always tell which is the latest, especially after it has been printed. The filename can include the date of the last update of the draft, but that gets lost in the print-out. Another option, of course, is to add the draft date to the header or footer where the page number is.

The key thing is to use the date of the draft vs. calling something "Version 3" or "Draft 4"--especially if you are working on a longer work in pieces (i.e., and some of those things are actually version 3 and some are version 4), or if you are switching between computers.

For advice on how to find where the latest edits go to, and how to name your drafts, revisit Mary Amato's advice in a 2010 Writing Home post: 56 drafts and three little kisses.