Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve Day

So, today is the last day of the year. Wouldn't this be the perfect day to reminisce about the past year, about the first year of this, my blog? We could maybe even have the top ten highlights of events in the blog from its inaugural year. There was that time that, the time where, I mean when, it was, well, maybe there wasn't. And it didn't. Maybe I just write, and sometimes you read. And maybe nothing ever happens. Not in a bad way. Not in a good way. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about this. I have been waiting for it to erupt into a really good blog post. But sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes it just gets in the way of blog posts that can't get around it and I just have to start talking.

The first blog posts I ever wrote were on an electric typewriter in the mid to late seventies. They were extremely short novels. I showed them to one of my older brothers who liked them very much. I liked them too. They were written in that voice I use here sometimes, where I am possessed of an overwhelming, detached from all evidence, confidence. Let me try and recreate one very roughly. I think I will find this falls very short of their original magic, as it will be a mere facsimile of an idea, but I was twelve or thirteen or something when I wrote them, so this might be up to speed.

The Greatest Novel Ever Written
by Me, the greatest novelist
who has written the greatest novel ever written. You can tell by the title.

Chapter One, or, chapter the first, or simply the beginning.
Boy, this novel is really so good my hands are shaking. I'll go have a rest, then move on to chapter two.

Chapter Two.
The great novel continues. Does it get even better in chapter two? I think it does. A person would have thought there was no room for improvement, and then chapter two came along.

Chapter Three.
The end.

I read very recently that Rex Stout wrote his Nero Wolfe books without planning or revision. I didn't know whether to believe it, but Stuart Kaminsky said Rex Stout wrote like a reader of his own books. Rex Stout said that he once wrote a line where Nero Wolfe's son walks into a room and he, Rex Stout, the author, was stunned. He had no idea that Nero Wolfe had a son. I am sort of writing this blog post like Rex Stout. I don't think we will find a murderer at the end. We may find something though. It's just, you jump.

Here I am falling, your blogger. 

When I wrote those short short novels I remember the joy. I remember the absolute sense of being able to create magic. They were the first things I ever wrote that were good. I still don't know what that means, "good" , but right in the middle, as long as I don't touch it, I know it exactly. I know exactly what it means. They were good. And almost as soon as I wrote them they got harder to write and it got harder and harder for me to breathe. Could the next one be any good? Would my brother still like it? Was I writing the right thing? What did they mean about me?

Earlier tonight I was starting another Nero Wolfe book. They are very, very good. I even have to add the best one I have read so far to my list of books I love. Anyway, this Nero Wolfe book I started had a forward by Dean Koontz. I disliked it very much. He was talking about what writers do. They do this, they do that. This is what we writers do. But I think writers are just different all over.

Here is me. Sometimes I write for awhile, until I find I am surrounded by glass, everywhere glass, and I cannot breathe, and I have to find a brick, and I have to throw it as hard as I can. 

This is the story of the first year of my blog.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The library worker's New Year's resolutions

It's apparently New Year's Resolution week here at clerkmanifesto. I don't know how this happened. I did not plan it, but every time I start up a blog post out comes a list of New Year's Resolutions. Today will be the New Year's Resolutions of a library worker. I am not necessarily thinking of me as that library worker, as I am sort of on the fence about whether I need any improvement, so this is going to be about the general library worker. Nevertheless I will take these resolutions under personal advisement on a case by case basis. You can too.

The library worker's New Year's resolutions

1. Talk more about books.
Reading need no longer be a secretive shameful activity one has to hide under discussions of TV shows. 

2. But stop talking about the general virtues of reading.
It expresses a horrible insecurity and unappealing Virtuism.

3. Stop making fun of the Romance Novels.
Try making fun of George R. R. Martin, anything involving superheroes, or e-readers instead. Stop picking on the easy targets.

4. Stop defaulting to popularity being the fundamental determinate of your collection.
That's just lazy and I don't believe you anyway. Nope, I don't believe you.

5. Take care of it yourself.
The patron or the problem doesn't care about your job title, they just see you as the representative of the library. If you can't do it, then pass it on to the best person who can. Then learn how to do more.

6. Don't respect your crappy co-workers when they do a crappy job.
Yes, you probably need to generally respect your crappy co-workers as people, but if you see one of your crappy co-workers giving wrong advice, falsely denying services, inappropriately passing the buck, or just quietly destroying something, tackle them.

7. Lie
You work in an institution so you'll have to lie. If your manager asks you "Did you tackle your co-worker?" You will need to answer "Only metaphorically." or "No, shall I check the magazine area for hooligans? Did you get a description?" But always keep the library's interests at heart. To lie, you must be honest.

8. Respect the 20 hour workweek
It is one of the deeply held beliefs of clerkmanifesto (me, hi!) that the 20 hour work week is practically a divine right. Nevertheless we are forced to work 40 hour weeks as a standard. Therefore it is incumbent upon you to goof off, cavort, do other things, take coffee breaks, or generally disengage for roughly half of all your working time. Do it responsibly and carefully, the lower your position the more craft it takes.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ten things about bowling

After a long hiatus from bowling alleys I went to a bowling alley with my wife. I felt I should assemble my visions into a list of ten, for obvious reasons.

1. It is always 1975 in any bowling alley, even when it is sometimes pretending to be 1958.

2. Golf and bowling are secretly the same sport.

3. Sharing shoes with possibly thousands of other people through shoe rental is so surreal that it instantly short circuits and becomes mundane.

4. I was shocked by how endearing I found my heavily used Velcro bowling shoes, but feel I would have gotten a higher score in my socks.

5. Though I have never even bowled close to 200 let alone 300, I feel I am an excellent candidate to bowl a perfect game because of the way I can so unerringly, so perfectly, and so surgically take out the same three left pins over and over and over.

6. One can only bowl with greatness when one has given up all desire to score well, triumph over other bowlers, or demonstrate mastery. I think this is why I bowled a 75 in the second game.

7. Had I known about the jukebox when I arrived I would have squandered a fortune.

8. Though by no means a bowling purist, I was shocked and disgusted at the sight of grown children using the easily employed gutter bumpers. Gutter bumpers are for toddlers! Toddlers!

9. One can know nothing about bowling, be a terrible bowler, or not have been bowling for a decade, and yet the instant the bowling ball leaves one's hand know the 23 exact things one has done wrong.

10. The people who are in a bowling alley, but are not bowling, have been there forever and will always be there, in 1975, pretending it's 1958, pretending they're just about to leave.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kafka still home for the holiday

I try not to provide too many stories here about kafka the library cat. I like the stories just fine, and they are very easy to write. I only need to pay attention to kafka, pick and choose among his most charming moments, and then tell you what happened. But they are very quiet, and light, and need to be mixed in to my weighty themes with a careful and steady measuring hand. However, having kafka home from the library, visiting my house while the library is closed (and for a few days after as well), is such a delight, and he's such a presence, that there is only so much resisting I am capable of. It is one thing to take enormous pleasure in seeing kafka plow heedlessly through a display of holiday craft books in the middle of my workday at the library, yet think of other things to write about when I have full time for writing late that evening. But it is another thing to sit here doing the actual writing while kafka bats my sea of blog notes around and generally cavorts through my workspace. The other subjects that I anticipated working on keep getting pushed aside. He just sort of walks into the blog whether I have invited him or not.

I wondered how kafka would be different away from all the people and the large space of the library, but he isn't very different at all. This cat has always carried home in his paws. He likes to sit on top of the refrigerator instead of above the Agatha Christies. He socializes with the sofa instead of with the people in the magazine area. He is everywhere and nowhere here in 700 square feet just as he is everywhere and nowhere in 74,000 square feet at the library. I expect him to disappear in a huge library, but seeing him here I understand that when he does that he is truly disappearing, not just hanging out somewhere I am not. I never really understood the Cheshire cat as a cat before kafka, but, as normal as everything seems around kafka, I find it harder and harder not to imagine that he slips between worlds, that he can get up off my keyboard (yes, I had to pull it away and type on my lap) and stroll right into my computer screen. And as easy at it is for me to go upstairs to the kitchen, he can step out of your screen, wherever you are, say hello, and wander off.

Friday, December 27, 2013

7 ways to market your blog for those unafraid of moral compromise

Disgusted by the paltry rewards of obscurity? Tired of having only one follower of your blog, who comments "whatever" to every one of your posts? Think you can remain uncorrupted by a little constructive dabbling in evil? Then you are ready to seize and rule the Internet utterly. That's what you really want, isn't is? Just follow these ever so barely wrong tips.

1. Trick people into going to your blog.

You just wrote a charming post about your visit to an old folks home. If you post a link randomly on the Internet with a title of "The elderly are so interesting!" how many people do you think will come read your blog post about the elderly? Did you guess four? You only guessed four because you, like most people, do not understand blog statistics. The correct answer is zero, and it is only as much as zero because you cannot have less than zero. Now try a link to the same exact winsome story about old people, but with the title "Cannibals get a taste for nursing homes!" Now how many hits do you think you will get?

Yes, four is the correct answer this time.

2. Enough with the words already!

Yes, you started a blog because you like writing, but that's not important anymore. You need pictures, maybe of an adorable baby growing out of a man's face, even better if it's a GIF and you can see it growing. Now that's blogging! People do not remain literate to read blogs, they remain literate in order to bicker in the comments sections.

3. The Internet is amazing.

Thinking the Internet is not sentient is a luxury you cannot afford anymore. Every time you view footage of a cat passing out or are able to track down the fact that Stuart Fratkin played Stiles in the movie Teen Wolf Too you should mutter wonderingly to yourself "The internet is amazing!" Ideally you will become so wowed by the wonders of the Internet that you will cease to compose any of your own content and go to a format where you strictly post amazing things you found on the Internet. The Internet will hear your devotion and reward you. Am I just being superstitious? Go roam the Internet, if you can find something that is not both popular and fawning about the Internet you are a master of the search engine and should probably be writing this post instead of me. Well, you should probably be writing this post instead of me anyway, but I got here first. Isn't the Internet amazing?

4. Seed.

Thinking that you are merely one person is pre Internet thinking. You are as many people as you have the energy to maintain on the Internet. A couple days of hard work should get you a hundred identities with Gmail accounts, Facebook accounts, Pinterest, Reddit, etc. An hour a day running around in your new identities hitting thumbs up everywhere you go should turn each of those identities into solid Internet citizens with plenty of friends. Don't waste time on absorbing content. Just, thumbs up, thumbs up, and an occasional "Love it!" or  "lol!" in the comments. Where, you ask, will you find time for this? From all the time you freed up from no longer writing your blog and just randomly posting any vaguely interesting thing you find on the Internet. And what, you wonder, is the point of all these identities? One day all 100 of your identities are going to have a Paul on the road to Damascus experience. And what will this epiphanic experience of all 100 of your identities be? They are, each and every one of them, going to suddenly become wildly, besottedly, lovingly, frighteningly, obsessed with your blog. Don't hold back.

5. Go to an all comments blog.

What does it profit you if a billion people everyday are coming to your blog to see a picture of an exploding whale that you had nothing to do with creating? This is where your comments section comes into play. You can now write your blog posts in the comments section. You can even stage elaborate plays in the comments section via fake discussions and arguments amongst all your assorted identities. It is a well known fact that the Internet is like free food in a workplace break room. People will consume indiscriminately what is before them. Once you have reeled them in with an exploding whale they are yours. Isn't the Internet amazing?

6. Lie to yourself.

How many people read your blog every day? Now that you post exploding whales and freely reference cannibalism, you would probably say "Four." Wrong answer! Your answer is "A billion people read my blog everyday!"  If Google disputes your figure that is because Google is jealous! Google is JEALOUS of YOU!

7. It is not spam if you are the one sending it.

You should figure any word or name you can think of followed by @gmail.com is a valid email address. Sign people up randomly to follow your blog, send them links, send them posts, learn to use bots, spray paint your blog address under bridges, break into houses and set your blog as peoples' home page. If you think people will not read whatever is put in front of them you are operating under outdated Internet assumptions. Did you wake up this morning thinking "I will go onto the Internet today and read a bizarre fever dream of how to immorally market my blog"? No, you did not. But this blog post woke up this morning thinking of you, and it sought you out, and it had you read it. I know this is an uncomfortable truth, but we do not choose what we look at on the Internet, the Internet chooses us. Be the Internet.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Kafka home for the holidays

My library closed for two days due to Christmas. Several of us decided that, because of this, it might be better for kafka, the library cat, to go home with someone, someone who is doing nothing for the holiday, someone who loves kafka, someone who has several cans of sardines in his larder, and someone who writes so winningly about kafka's exploits that he should never be too far out of reach of them. Who could this person be? Me! So I brought kafka home with me for a 5 day holiday.

I worked Monday night and when it was time for my wife and I to take kafka home he was out cold on a space in the shelves of the Mystery section. I picked him up and he purred heavily, but remained completely limp. Indeed kafka never woke up through all the tumult of our trip home. And yet, the moment we crossed the threshold of my small house kafka woke up. I set him down. He stretched and yawned and wandered off to explore. After ten minutes he came to me and looked at me as if to say "Wow, this is your whole house?" or "Entertain me." or "I know you from somewhere don't I?" or "Feed me." or "I am pleased." or "Hi dear buddy, what's next then?"  Cats do have their inscrutable side, and it behooves us to respect that. Rather than pick one of those possible expressions above, I like to try as well as I can to understand it all as some strange kaleidoscopic version of "all of the above."

I pet kafka for awhile. I gave him some sardines. He went off on his own. Later, I went down to do some midnight writing in my basement studio. After I was down there for a few minutes I looked up. Kafka, with his usual penchant for unusual curling up spots had crawled into the trusses of my house and was sitting there, ensconced in the strange joints of the walls and the open ceiling of my basement, watching me.

And so I wrote this.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas tradition post

Because today is Christmas I have decided to post a, well, I suppose it's a bit immodest, but a charming Christmas blog post post I wrote here many years ago. Maybe you'll like this post as much as me and we can make this a kind of Christmas tradition. This post is from Christmas 1993:

Hi, beautiful weather we're having. I have decided that because today is Christmas it might be nice to share a sort of classic Christmas blog post I wrote back in 1958:

Howdy folks! Well, the sheep are in the barn and I'm all settled in at my Olivetti and I was just thinking that it sure would be keen to pull out of the old blog files one of my favorite Christmas blog posts. It's one I like to share every year as my own little Christmas tradition. Our lil time machine's gonna take us back now to 1932.

Well you can bet times are hard around here, oh boy that's for sure! but I'm not giving up on Christmas, no siree! I got some of my old Christmas blog posts and I thought it would be fun if we pulled one out from happier times...

Wait! Wait! Sorry. It's me. From the present again. I'm looking this over and it just keeps going back further and further, like a hall of mirrors. Each Christmas post just references an earlier Christmas post. There's the 1880s, 1820's, Revolutionary War era, the Renaissance, the Dark Ages. Ah, here we go. If we can just get back to before the birth of Christ there's an actual charming original blog post! So, here we go, I think this one is from about 60 b.c., though that's not what we called the years back then!

Romae dies iustus a. Aut quid non feriatum, sic putavi plenum tantarum amant scribere. Romani quidem est. Re publica bene facit. Praesent vehicula hodie turbidae cum omnis imber. Populus servo semita in luto library. In elit felis, et sibilaret ore ad omnem qui id sequi quasi doen't luto. Sic amicitiam non sciunt cur usitas sibilabit cattus, sed plerumque in tabulis festinat atque transire indigent. Cum Claudius: quid diceret. Dixi: "Odit luto. Sternutatio Ipsa eum" quod parum sicut feles excutit. Et subsannaverunt nos, et dedit nobis Claudius cat sordido vultu! Accepit, abiit sentiat.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Almost like 4 blogposts in one!

A grab bag of random library events and anecdotes that are too tiny for their own blog post!

I Didn't Get Enough Sleep Department:

A woman came up to me at the front desk and gave me her three returns instead of returning them in, well, in the return chute, which is where we process our returns with, um, precision efficiency. She said "These are on hold and so I wanted to make sure they got to the next person as soon as possible."

"Oh, this will normally be a bit slower than just returning them regularly" I said as I whisked them away. This is miniscually, theoretically, but also technically true. Bonus note: none of these items were actually on hold for anyone.

Guide to How Your Library is Doing Department:

The following is a theorem inspired by an surprising encounter I had with two carts of library books: If you have one cart full of books that are new to your collection and one cart full of books that you are weeding from your collection, the cart with the new books should be more interesting than the weeded books. There is no bonus item included here so as not to overwhelm you.

Make Yourself at Home Department:

A five year old child sprawls magnificently on the floor by the DVDs. Her manner is like if one was exhausted, checked into a hotel, found it was swanky beyond all belief, and luxuriated wildly, stretching out on the King sized bed. She wasn't sleeping, our floor was just too deliciously comfortable to waste sleeping on.

Timesheet Department:

When I fill out my byzantine online timesheet, any hours I am claiming must have a corresponding code. I think there are about 7,000 appropriate possible codes ranging from something simple like "Employee Illness" to more rarely used codes like "Nuclear Holocaust destroyed all my footwear (3/4 time uncompensated)." The two codes at the very top of my choices are "Regular Worked" and "Regular Showed Up." Every time I choose "Regular Worked" over "Regular Showed Up" I think, with pride, "Ha! You failed to trick me once again!"

Monday, December 23, 2013

J. K. Rowling is not the author of this blog post. Probably.

The story of J. K. Rowling's pseudonymous publishing of The Cuckoo's Calling is a devious one. It is a story that pretends to be illustrative, illuminating, and depressing, and I suppose it is, but like so many stories in our sloppy public discourse,  The Cuckoo's Calling story conveys one set of meanings to us casually, while the real meaning tends to have to be dug up a little. I brought a shovel. The handy thing about the shovel is if none of this works out we can just toss dirt back over it all and plant some hostas, which will do well in this shady location.

You probably know the story, but I'll outline it for you as briefly as possible. Billionaire world famous bestselling author J. K. Rowling published a Mystery under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. It was a secret known only to a small group of people that J. K. Rowling was the real author of this book, The Cuckoo's Calling. The book got some good reviews and sold very modestly. I read that it sold somewhere between "fewer than 500" and "8,500 English-language copies across all formats", enough to, at best, supposedly, make a hypothetical author $5,000, though in this case the author's money is being donated or something. Then the secret leaked out, and the book became the biggest selling book of the year, or in the top ten, or choose your own placing from a variety of sources, but all of them are pretty sure it sold a lot.

The lessons supposedly conveyed by this episode were as follows:

1. J. K. Rowling is a top notch writer and critics are more apt to recognize that when not blinded by issues of fame and preconception.

2. If you're a really terrific writer you will be published. But it's so crazy out there that you will also be rejected by publishers too.

3. Nevertheless, publishing is hell, and there's a very good chance you won't make enough money to live on even when you get published and get glowing reviews.

4. Fame trumps everything in our current world.

Before we list the real lessons of this episode we must do a little digging on these original supposed lessons. The four of them are based off of the press doing its usual thin reading of the events involved. Reporting is the process of generalizing while pretending not to. I'm doing it right now! The media set up an echo that just keeps bouncing around, drowning out real consideration. So first we better apply the bit of what truth I was able to suss out to the presumed lessons above.

1. The first lesson about J. K. Rowling being a terrific writer slighted by critics due to her fame is, curiously, J. K. Rowling's whole apparent point in this grand episode. She said she just likes the work part of writing, and this freed her from all the publicity responsibilities that were now irrelevant since she didn't care about the money and was being anonymous. But the way a key group of very important other people were involved and the bits about sending it to other rejecting publishers seems to speak to her wanting to make a point about unfair reception. Yet it is unclear how much she was hedging her bets on making this point about unfair reception, what with her publisher, lawyers, and agent all in on the secret. That the book was pseudonymous was apparently known to some, and at least one early reviewer (not knowing who the real author was) speculated on what power was behind the roll out of this unusually released book.

2. One publisher at least appears to have rejected The Cuckoo's Calling describing it as "Perfectly decent" and saying basically that that is nowhere near enough to publish a new mystery author. The book was ultimately published by Rowling's own publisher though, and the head of that publishing house (at least) was aware of the ruse. Whether all this means that J. K. Rowling sent her book around and no one wanted to publish it except her own publisher, at which point the ruse was carefully revealed, or the whole thing was a bit of a game to begin with, is not clear to me.

3. Yes, yes, publishing is hell, though curiously, not for any of the people actually involved in this story, J. K. Rowling, her publisher, and her agent, for whom publishing is all fantastic dreams come true. And while it's true that the library I work at has shelves full of shipwrecked and forgotten books sporting some glamorous and glowing starred reviews, mystery series almost never start fast. When they are successful they tend to gather steam for several books and hit it big, if they do, later in the series.

4. And yes again, this is a story about fame, but with my handy shovel, doing my digging, I keep finding not fame so much underneath as I try to figure it out, but rather power. Who publishes? Who is the agent sending the book around? How does the Publisher support the book. Who reviews the book and why?

That done I will now list for you what I take to be the four real lessons of this murky tale of the vastly famous author, the critics, and the pseudonym that kills book sales until it's lifted and the sales burst forth like desert flowers in the rain, or piranhas on a chicken carcass, depending on your perspective.

1. J. K. Rowling is one of the most beloved authors of all time. She is so fabulously wealthy that it is beyond counting. And she achieved all of this doing exactly what she loves doing. Yet she is also feeling very, very peevish about writing books. I would be inclined to severely fault her for this, but I have this super nice blog and yet I frequently feel peevish too.

2. If you make hundreds of millions of dollars for agents, lawyers, and giant publishers they will be happy to lie about you in pretty much any way you like.

3. Being a novelist is like anything else, playing the lottery, being born in Swaziland, working as a clerk, golfing, raising a pet, suffering from a horrible disease, or surfing the internet, you may or may not make a billion dollars doing it.

4. Yes, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, but that's on average. Now think of J. K. Rowling, and you, and me, and everyone you know.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What is clerkmanifesto.com

Up, just under the title of my blog, is a description of my blog, for all comers to see. It says:

Just about anyone can Cook or Write or Read or whatever people do that they blog about, but can anyone Clerk? Um, apparently. I think that's why it doesn't pay much and the quality varies. But can anyone blog about Clerking? Would they want to? I don't know. I'll try. I'm a clerk at Large Suburban Library that I dare not name, and this, this is my blog!

I am satisfied with that description, or was. Perhaps it is the touch of speculation, "Can anyone blog about Clerking?" a question for myself when I wrote it hundreds of posts ago, but not such a mystery anymore, that causes me lately to think of making a change to this introductory description. I had an idea for something a month ago. It was more minimal, so minimal perhaps as to vanish into thin air, since I cannot find it. But, liking a reductionist approach, I have come up with a structural motif I am interested in and have been fiddling with. Here, in this format, are some of the current possible choices I have been working with:

Somewhere between Enlightenment and burning things with a magnifying glass stands

Somewhere between quietly mastering my job and trying to get away with not doing it at all stands

Somewhere between your dear friend regaling you with fascinating stories around a campfire and a guy mumbling to himself in a parking lot stands

Somewhere between taking the One Ring all the way to the Cracks of Doom, and giving up, putting it on, and finding it doesn't do anything stands

I'll keep working at it...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Top ten items my library does not carry

A call went out at my library for end of the year top ten lists. The librarian leading this charge said the lists didn't have to be new to 2013. We could choose items we merely read, or listened to or any parameters we might like. I so wanted to take part. My parameters are:

The Top Ten Items That My Library System Does Not Carry in 2013

But, before we begin, a few notes.

First, I don't greatly blame my Library for not having these. We're good at new stuff, pretty good at the classics, but awfully hit and miss when it comes to the hidden gems. And further, in my library's defense, I was frequently foiled by likely choices of mine that we still had a copy or two of.

Second, you can get most of these through Interlibrary Loan, wherever you may be, probably. See a Librarian!

Third, I don't just make a list like this to be irascible, I mean, not entirely. I make it also because books are like wine. I believe a current year top ten list is full of items too immature to tell if they're really good. Art needs to percolate in the reasonableness of time for us to tell if it's really great. We often miss all this better stuff in a fever for all the shiny new stuff.

Fourth, we should totally buy these, now! We can fund it out of our exhaustive James Patterson budget!

Here is my list:

1. King of the Schnorrers by Israel Zangwill. A hilarious, entertaining and foundational to modern humor short novel that is steadily falling into undeserved obscurity. How many times will I go on about this on my blog? Um, a lot?

2. Desire by Bob Dylan (CD). We have almost all of his many, many albums released after this. Many of them are great, but none so great as this. Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore and all that.

3. Summerhill by A. S. Neill. Still the best book on education I have ever read.

4. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death by Daniel Pinkwater. A whimsical utopian masterpiece. The Nobel Prize committee is asleep at the wheel when it comes to Daniel Pinkwater!

5. Hejira by Joni Mitchell (CD). Sadly, I could populate this list entirely with CDs. I might even be able to do it with just Joni Mitchell CDs.

6. The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat. Best...Dog...Book...Ever, yes, I'm looking at you Call of the Wild!

7. The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem. Very funny, very smart science fiction. These are connected stories, one of which includes the most lucid and yet absurd take on time travel ever set in writing.

8. The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (Every Man for Himself and God Against All) by Werner Herzog (DVD). A strange, sad and beautiful German Movie.

9. Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko.  I checked out the last copy, returned it, and then it was promptly weeded. Let me absurdly put it this way. Neil Gaiman is a very good writer. If he were a better writer he would have written this.

10. My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell. A supremely charming account of growing up animal crazy in Greece with an eccentric English family.

Read them, watch them, listen to them, and insist your local librarian buy them all. Oh, and watch out for all those top ten lists you'll be reading around now. Most of the choices on those lists will be as forgotten in ten years as, well, um, the choices on my list.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Lord of the Rings

I have read The Lord of the Rings more than twenty times. I remember reading it for the first time, with rapt attention, while at a stranger's house, where my mother was choosing my Bar Mitzvah invitations. I remember reading bits of it to my future wife as she fell asleep, camped illegally on a beach in a distant country, and I remember reading it years later to friends each night as we huddled around a wood stove in a freezing house, rationing out our Frangelico. Mostly though, unceremonious as it was, I just read it, with pleasure, anywhere, even well after I had, in my way, memorized it.

I loved its high heroism, its glorious vistas and settings that were all rich and organic in the telling of the story, its lore, its travelogue with desperate purpose structure, its basic disinterest in its villains, and its brilliant central conceit, a ring of great power that will corrupt anyone who wants it, uses it, or claims it. Whatever Tolkien may have said, that last is such a rich analogy to the fundamental, and likely fatal, problem of humanity, our profound difficulty in rejecting and resisting power, and the impossibility of not being corrupted by it.

I am not unaware of The Lord of the Ring's flaws. Though Galadriel and Eowyn make up for much in their brief page time, it is sorely lacking in female characters. Its weirdly simplified feudalism and utopian class structures make for a paper thin under layer to the world. The characters lack a resonating depth, partly from that. No one really seems to make the world work. These all are necessary to all that works so perfectly in The Lord of the Rings, its distillations of epic struggles, of goodness, but they are its glossy flaws as well. It's an extraordinarily powerful adventure story, a giant fable, but these things, these flaws, give just a tiny bit of a shaky feeling when one starts raving on about it as Literature, the kind where it sits at the top of Hundred Greatest Books lists.

But whatever it is about The Lord of the Rings for me, I had thought it was a done deal. I was clear on all of the above and I was clear that the defining pleasure in the book(s) was the purity of its heroism. After so many years and readings I did not think that all of a sudden something new, a new pleasure would leap out at me. And I certainly didn't think it would happen while I was not reading the trilogy, and not even really thinking about it. And yet it did. I woke up this morning and out of nowhere was struck with a new thought about these books.

What I woke up this morning thinking was that the hobbits are a disaster! They make mistake after mistake. I was so caught up in everyone's heartrending bravery and against the odds heroism that I didn't even notice! Allow me to run down a brief catalog of the hobbits' mistakes. They wait too long to leave the Shire. They're lured in by old man willow. They have an extremely ill advised nap on the Barrow Downs. Pippin tells inappropriate stories in Bree and is followed by Frodo's even more disastrous dance on a table immediately thereafter. Merry goes for an imprudent walk right around then too. Frodo puts on the ring on Weathertop. Pippin horribly tosses a stone into a well in Moria. Fool of a Took! Merry and Pippin run wild into the woods at the company's parting. Pippin steals the Plantir to look in it. Sam and Frodo trust Smeagol just a bit too much at Cirith Ungol. Sam fails to check Frodo's heartbeat. Frodo claims the ring at the Cracks of Doom.

It is a litany of disasters large and small, and yet, until this morning, it never particularly occurred to me that they made any notable mistakes at all! I found something about all of this kind of cheering. Something like, if with good heart, and real purpose, you persist, against all odds, something will come out right in the tale of it all, if you go far enough along.

Something like: It's amazing how much you can get done merely by not getting killed.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Another blog you might enjoy

A quiet night at the front desk of the Library. Christmas season mellows things out around here. My co-worker was very excited about a new book by a famous blogger that had come in for her. It's a very amusing blogger, but I won't be sharing this blogger's name with you in a fit of jealous pique.

Oh, do you want a quality blogger recommendation from me?


Oops, sorry. I sometimes suffer from malarial like outbreaks of fame deficit syndrome. I'm okay now. I feel much better.

Anyway, I was looking at this blogger's book, on a quiet night at the front desk, and just as I was starting to rather like the book against all my petty inclinations I had a weird feeling that I should look up. So I did. Forty seven people were patiently waiting in line watching me read.

Yes, that's the whole story.

If you're unsatisfied with it you might like that other famous blogger better. What was her name again?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Your brain on teen literature

The teen librarian had an experience he felt might feature well on my blog. I was more keen on exclusive internet rights to his semi-famous Top Ten Books of the Year list. Perhaps this is some kind of test case for the 2014 list. Hmm.

Let us begin with the story, short as it is, unvarnished. Our teen librarian had been seeing a bumper sticker around town a lot lately. Here is what he took it to say, over and over:


He thought that this bumper sticker was a wry, quietly funny, zombie inspired bumper sticker, and was amused by its cleverness until, just recently he realized that the bumper sticker actually said:


The punctuation change steers us so dramatically out of the land of cannibalism that it makes for a nice little, funny story. However, since my blog thrives on rich social commentary, I needed a way to contextualize this story. I immediately delved into my associations with this story.

My first association with this story was to the book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, which is one of a very select group of bestsellers about punctuation. All of the sudden I can't quite think of any of the other bestsellers about punctuation. Other than being a good title for a possible sequel to that book it was clear I should look into my second association for inspiration.

My second association was to a Damon Knight story that was made into a Twilight Zone episode. It was called To Serve Man. Close your eyes for awhile if you were planning on reading or watching this anytime soon because we are talking major spoilers ahead. Okay? In To Serve Man, very kind and powerful aliens come to earth. They have a book with them called To Serve Man as a sort of guide or Bible. This helps people trust these super powerful and helpful aliens even more. But at the end of the story our hero learns that To Serve Man is not a guidebook, it's a cookbook! You can see why I'd associate the stories. Unfortunately it does not serve to illuminate the teen librarian's story.

Finally, at a bit of a loss, I started thinking of poor Marcus, the teen librarian, out in our teen room, isolated back there, buying all those books about vampires and zombies and werewolves, witches and demigods, driving around to teen prisons to give talks. Posing for the covers of national librarian magazines and choosing master lists of all the YA graphic novels for libraries everywhere to purchase. I think of him going over to high schools and conferences and meetings in scattered cities and everywhere he goes seeing these weird zombie bumper stickers, "love people, cook them!", just everywhere. And I had a moment of shocking insight. Marcus is not long for us here. Some clever, fancy library system is going to snatch up our star librarian to be their library director. I give it a year, year and a half, tops. And he'll be a good one too, a really good Library Director, I mean, after some quiet time. A lot of quiet time.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Charlie Brown Christmas CD is not for everyone.

I accept that there are quite a few jazz albums as great as A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. And I admit even that there might be a small handful of jazz CDs, ones that I could even name, that are, end to end, better than A Charlie Brown Christmas, I mean, if we're going to get all ranky about things here. But I do contend there is no jazz more dazzlingly pleasurable than this 45 minutes or so of music, nothing that so much makes a person want to do a tiny, silly Peanuts dance of pleasure when hearing it. You do your little dance move, and back again, and start over in a four second loop. You are an animated Peanuts character of pure joy.

I have been playing this enchanting music pretty regularly over the last few days, whenever I am on the coveted phones work assignment at my job, and, vastly more than any music I have ever played there, people react with great enthusiasm to it. They don't just experience the joy of recognition ("Are you playing the Peanut's Christmas? Excellent!"), but they stop and listen for a bit, they do the dance, they reminisce.

At one point I was so delighted by this music, and so amazed by the happiness it seemed to be bringing to everyone, that I started to wonder if it was an odd, localized phenomenon, coincidence, or something truly universal. So I looked up the CD on Amazon. It had almost 700 reviews. The average rating was 4.8 stars. But ah, what are these one star reviews ruining its perfect rating? Every single one of them, and also every one of the two star ones, had to do with versions of the CD and its sound quality. No one had a single hard word for the music itself. "Oh my goodness," I thought, "everyone in the world actually loves this music." I was frankly amazed. I felt a sudden need to share my amazement. Unfortunately, absolutely no one was around me, so I ventured off to find someone to tell.

The first person I found, out at the front desk, was perhaps the very most positive person of all my co workers, a talker (like me!), an extremely nice person, an enthusiastic and idiosyncratic lover of all kinds of culture, and the perfect sort of person to share this happy news with.

"Oh my god!" I cried "I have just discovered that everyone in the whole world loves Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas!"

It turns out that it is kind of hard to describe the facial expression I am wanting to explain to you here. It should have a name, because you would totally know this expression. It's not a frown exactly. It's when you pull down the corners of your mouth by tightening your neck muscles, all in a way that then sort of makes these ligament kind of things stick out in your neck. I know that makes it sound horrible, but it's a common enough, normal expression. It's an "uh oh" expression. This is the expression my co worker made. 

"I have just discovered that not everyone in the whole world loves Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas?" I asked.

My co worker explained. 

Once upon a time she worked in a big Downtown Hotel. They had a woman who played piano in the lobby, I'm not sure if this was all the time, or just Christmas time. The woman grinned maniacally the whole time she played. This woman played a lot of Peanut's Christmas music as she was grinning maniacally, but never so much as when my co worker was around. She would play A Charlie Brown Christmas, grinning maniacally, all as a sort of response to the presence of my co worker. This began to sort of unnerve my co worker, giving her unpleasant associations with said music, and causing her to become distinctly unenamored of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I understand. Music is geology. As you become familiar with a piece of music it's like a layer of sediment is laying down in you. When you encounter that music later the weight of time will have compressed it into a solidified layer. Embedded inextricably into that layer will be all kinds of stray feelings and events and sensations that became caught, by chance, location, and temporality, in that music. Hearing that music again, later, will tend to be paleontological, or archeological. You may find nothing but the music, yet too you may find a dream of lit up shop windows on a dark cold night in a city, the pleasures of Peanuts characters come to life. You may find a delirious but delicious fantasy of anticipation, peace, wishes granted, freedom. You may find presents, longing, the dream of a past that never happened. And so too you may find the giant skeleton of a maniacal piano player, grinning up at you as you chip and dust the sediment out of its enormous eye socket. The world is so large in every direction. We must ever remain prepared to hand over our absolutes for everything, everything, even the delightfulness of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Monday, December 16, 2013

kafka's kart

Some part of me thinks that if kafka could talk he would insist that I never spell C-words with a K when continuing from his name, like "kafka's kart". But kafka, a cat, cannot talk. That, curiously, does not mean I am free to contravene his requests and requirements. It means that the collective discussion is cast completely clear of his concerns. Kafka does not care. Contradistinctly, of course, one can never be correspondingly completely confident correlatively with a cat.

Which brings us to the cart.

As mentioned in an earlier post my library recently acquired eight shopping carts. They are of a size suitable for a small to medium sized shop at your local grocery store. What they are suitable for in a library is slightly more mysterious. These carts are sturdy, well made, and presumably purchased using something more than spare change. So far they tend to just sit there in their little parking area, unwanted, and making early indications of being a waste of resources. A complete waste, really, and yet, kafka seems to like them. Two days ago I found kafka laying placidly on his side in one. He does like to get in things, though these are of a design that made me wonder how he even managed to do so. I wondered briefly if someone picked him up and put him in. But the act of leaving him in the cart seems malicious, and kafka seems to have a very good eye for ill intent and for avoiding those harboring it. Plus he is a balletic leaper and certainly could have flowed up into the upper level basket if he were driven enough to assert the completeness of his domain. But seeing him in one of the carts does not mean I had time to interact with him there. Believe it or not I was quite busy with work, and when I looked again later, when I had time, kafka was off on some other business.

Today, though, he was back in a cart. I had some time and so I said hi. Then, seized by either whimsy, the flow of things, telepathic suggestion, or all of the above, I proceeded to, cautiously, very slowly at first, wheel kafka around for a bit in his cart. He was like a little prince. He sat up, and as I wheeled him around on a circuit of our main floor and for a visit to the teen librarian he was constantly admired. Some people pet him. He seemed unusually dignified, even for him. His sitting posture was regal, upright and perfectly balanced. He did not purr, or become affectionate at the petting, but rather seemed to take it all as his due, as a matter of ceremony.

At least, that's my story for it. We're talking about a cat here. I could have dreamed it all.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Football terms for shelving errors

I don't know when it started, using football terms to describe shelving issues. I've been here a long time and these terms were mysteriously in place when I began. Do clerks especially love football? Not that I've noticed. Some care about it, some don't. Football is pretty popular these days so we have a few people who are passionate about a team or play in a fantasy league, but most of us care very little about football, or not at all. Nevertheless all the phraseology we use about shelving errors is developed straight out of football terms. I have been unable to track down the source for this, but when we chatter on about shelving issues we use these terms freely, barely even conscious of their explicit football language.

Anyway, because I so enjoy giving you the inside view of the library life I thought I'd share a taste of our secret language of shelving.

1. Halfback. Means a book shoved half back, making the binding hard to see.

2. Fullback. Means a book shoved all the way back. The binding here will be impossible to see. Just to note, quarterback, as a term, is never used, though technically it's quite common, especially when dealing with unnecessary roughness (see below).

3. Unnecessary roughness. This is a general term for very uneven rows and a general lack of tidying of the rows while shelving.

4. Field Goal. Means a book misshelved in between two identical books.

5. Missed the open man. Means when there is a gap from when a book is removed from its correct location, but the item is reshelved, incorrectly, somewhere else leaving the gap to just sit there.

6. Offsides. This is one of the worst errors in terms of causing problems. It means when a book is shelved in advance of its proper position and a whole new series of shelving starts from that reference point, so, like, "A, B, C, D, E, B, C, D, E, F..."

7. Clipping. This means a book shelved with the bookend nestled into its pages.

Until I started writing these out I didn't realize how many there were. I'm stopping here so as not to bore you, but there are actually plenty more of these football shelving terms that we use! Some get a little technical. These will get you started should you decide to make a career of it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jesus said all rich people are going to hell

I am not one usually given to the discussion of scriptural issues, but a recent, possibly rash, vow I made to categorically disdain rich people (in a desperate, culturally corrective attempt for balance) led me to a famous quote of Jesus. It's from the New Testament.

" It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

I, like you no doubt, have heard this intensely famous quote before, but I had never bothered to do the simple math on it, the whole "Oh, they're saying two plus two so, um, 2+2, OH! They mean four." So then, here is the simple math.

1. A camel cannot get through the eye of a needle. It has never been done. It is impossible.

2. The kingdom of God is widely considered to be synonymous with the kingdom of heaven.

3. Heaven and Hell is a closed, binary system. If one is not going to heaven one must then go to hell.

4. It is harder than impossible (see 1) for a rich person to go to heaven, therefore

5. All rich people are going to hell.

This is unequivocal. It doesn't matter if it doesn't tend to show up on church signs, and it doesn't matter how many lawyers you can get to lawyer it up. Hell, I'm a decent enough legal thinker to figure out dozens of ways to lawyer up this statement, but that's all just song and dance. The title of my little essay here stands. Jesus said all rich people are going to hell.

Do I say this to tweak the noses of Christians? No! You have misunderstood me. I am no great fan of Christianity it is true. And I can really take or leave Jesus, mostly leave, what with the legacy track record and everything. But despite all of this, or perhaps because of all of this, I find myself delighted to suddenly, here, be on the exact same page as Mr. Christ. Frankly, it's a kind of relief. Until he showed up I was all alone on this one with a tiny, remaining group of radical Marxists. They're all in their 80s and 90s and they kind of freak me out.

Friday, December 13, 2013

5 Wastes of Money at my Library

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While I am not inclined to think of libraries as in any way wasting money, and while I think as a general rule we should be plowing money into libraries like they're aircraft carriers making industrialists fantastically wealthy, I am aware of what I consider to be lapses of judgement within our library budgets. In my own library I find us occasionally buying things that, while not necessarily egregious in an absolute sense, can be a bit offensive in the context of our relentless, continually shrinking book purchasing budgets. Very recently we bought half a dozen or so shopping carts. These are nice shopping carts, like for a small to medium size shop at your grocery store. My knee jerk reaction to the arrival of these is "Ahhhh! You fools! You wastrels! You profligate spendthrifts! Have you no sense?", but because I am a master of wisdom I am inclined these days to let my knee jerk reaction marinate, smoke, percolate, and generally be tempered by time. These carts could turn out to be a lot of fun for six year olds, the library cat might like them, we can use them to dispense free lattes to everyone in the fireplace area as a surprise treat. All I'm saying is that I am willing to give them some time before I start rumbling bitterly about how awful they are. Nevertheless, they do put me in mind of some of our previous poor choices that have been shown by time to have been anywhere from ill considered to disastrous. I thought I would share some of these with you. Thus:

The 5 Biggest Money Wasters in my Library's History
 (Modern Era)
1. A very scary Halloween (the spider incident, 1998).
A messy, unhappy Halloween event involving 100 tarantulas, one heart attack, three lawsuits, and a lot of expensive crushed spider (they were supposed to be rentals).
2. The drone solution (2011)
An expensive solution to the problem of the great distance in our library between upstairs reference and the downstairs front desk was ruined by the drones being unable to reliably carry anything bigger than a paperback of Cannery Row, and also by the uncomfortable truth that some librarians are as bad at operating drones as they are at walking.
3. Automation Services Bowling Alley (2009)
What started as a bonus perk became a way of life. Call down to Automation Services at any time, for any reason, and just listen to that background noise. Yep.
4. The Bridges of Madison County Experience Room (1993)
We store weeds and donations in it now, but the seven multimedia projectors and the farmhouse facade cost a lot of money in their day.
5. Staff Blogger (2013)
Oh, I'm not paid to blog? Well then, er, good call.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tortoise and the Hare Clerking Part 4: The Machine!

This is a running series of Tortoise and the Hare comparisons of the different stations of my job. I have not updated this with a new post in so long that even longtime readers will be left faintly confused. They might ask "I don't remember this stuff. Is this series from before the internet when your blog was mimeographed and deposited in my mailbox?"  If they did ask this I would have answered  "Mimeographed? Huh, I don't, it was, oh, you're joking! Oh you!" Actually, I wouldn't say anything like that. I'd say something incredibly hilarious back, but I can't think of what it would be here because of a cut on my finger.

Anyway, if you missed, or forgot this ancient series you can see my introductory blogpost for more explanation here. But that's really unnecessary because, briefly, it is a cross comparison of how the different aspects of my job respectively suit the slow and steady worker (tortoise) and the volatile sprinter/loafer worker (hare).

So then, the machine.

As you may or may not know we have a giant automated check in machine. One to three hours a day we work tending this machine. There has never been any part of my job more perfectly suited for the hare, more exactly designed to the strengths of the sprinter/loafer worker than this so called Automated Materials Handling machine. And, as you may guess (Wait! Don't read further. See if you can guess! Ready? I'm going to continue, do you have your guess?), the hare's opposite, the tortoise, is exquisitely ill suited to the machine. Perhaps the main reason for all of this is one of balance. The machine is an almost perfect expression of the tortoise. It is stolid, untiring, relentless, slow, and steady. The exhaust, so to speak, of all its industry is erratic, uneven, and almost randomly overwhelming or non existent. If you try to slowly and steadily keep up with the machine you will, figuratively, but conceivably literally, be ground into the machine's giant maw. Crunched up like a bit of lettuce. I have seen tortoises (no, not real animal tortoises, but what fun that would be!) steadily feeding books into the machine while so many things are amiss with it that their actions are incapable of producing any positive result, almost like if they were putting books on a cart and someone took the cart away, but they continued to put the books on the cart, imagining constructive activity as their books dropped absurdly to the ground at their feet. A hare, spending five minutes frantically attending to the machine's problems in that above mentioned problem situation, will produce so much more positive numbers of work than the plodding tortoise worker will in two hours of steady labor that the hare could go lock themselves in the bathroom and shoot up heroin for the remainder of their work assignment and still come out on top.

The point here is not that hares use smack. Hares don't use smack! Nor is it that tortoises are stupid. It is that some work situations are very much better for one archetype than the other. The best worker should probably have at least a bit of both the tortoise and the hare in them. Or, this is unfair because we only have evidence of the machine as so much one way. So, as far as my job goes, you'd better have at least a bit of the hare in you to draw on, or, when your time comes on the machine, you will suck.

To recap and sum up:

1. I find jokes about mimeographs only very faintly funny.

2. It stands to reason that our materials handling machine is of the family Testudines, along with terrapins and turtles.

3. No one to our knowledge is "shooting up" in our staff bathrooms.

4. This is in no way meant as a contest. Tortoises and hares are both endowed with valuable skills and approaches. Though I did not mention it, under the right circumstances (machine humming along beautifully, quiet day, lots of boxes to process) a good tortoise can get a lot done on the machine.

5. Hares are so great on the machine that if a tortoise were to challenge them to a race on the machine they could start, get a nice lead, and totally take a long nap if they wanted.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

two true

I was reading a book of essays by Gish Jen for my customary, per book average of 18 minutes reading, total, and I fixated on a small story she told. It was about a colleague of hers, I believe one of Chinese descent, who said she decided to write novels because she didn't like to go out, and it seemed like something she could do at home. Gish Jen took this story to illustrate some point about cultural differences between east and west that was part of the greater discussion of her essays. And her point was no doubt true in its way, I mean, she seemed like she thought these things through carefully. But I was struck in a completely different way by the story. I found it to be a story of someone telling rough truth, casual truth. And I thought about it. And it made me think that, quite often, in any truth, there is the casual version, and the fancy version. Both may be true, or one at one moment, one at another. Or sometimes neither of them really get it, and underneath is the real truth.

Shall I illustrate?

We will use the question "Do you like working at the Library?"

Fancy Truth: "I love Libraries. They are one of the great wonders of our world. My job is often fun and interesting. I like the vast majority of the people I come across. If I have to work, and I'm pretty sure I do, this is, in many ways, a fantastic and honorable place to do it. I love helping to bring this place to life and I feel lucky to work here."

Casual Truth: "No."

Fancy truth is for Politicians, people getting along in the world, formal occasions, not offending, and looking at things in a conventional way. Sometimes it is a way to take care of oneself. Casual, or rough truth is good for comedians, cutting to the quick, and expressiveness. Either can be lied with, and not be true at all. Both can be true or whole or right, temporarily, for just a moment, or most of the time. But, yes, both can be, in their ways, a bit on the surface of things. And sometimes neither will quite do. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, we must dive underneath to search for the real truth, the deep truth.

I will continue to illustrate.

"Do you like working at the Library?"

Deep Truth: Three hundred blog posts in, and I am still answering.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Japanese and Jewish joke

Recently I was writing a piece about the power in the essence of things. And at the start of the piece I was telling a story I heard in a lecture. This story made me think of a joke my father used to tell that I always really loved, but I couldn't tell you that joke at that point because it was a huge digression, and I had important things to say. Luckily, today, I have nothing important to say, so I was thinking maybe I could tell you the joke now. Would that be okay? Please indicate agreement by continuing to read. Indicate disagreement by typing the search term of your choice into the search box at the top of your screen and hitting the "enter" key.

So, first, I will refresh your memory of the story I heard at the lecture. It's a story from a 17th or 18th century Japanese painting. In it a wealthy, successful poet goes to seek wisdom from some wacky sage who lives in a tree. After much travel he finds this prophet or sage or whatever he is, up in a tree, and the poet asks the guy in the tree what the meaning of life is. The prophet in the tree says something like "Be nice to people." This makes the poet pretty mad. He says "Do you know who I am? I came all this way seeking your wisdom and you give me some crappy platitude? Anyone could have told me to be nice to people!"

The sage says "It is very easy to say, but very hard to do."

So, that's not exactly a joke, though it's a little funny, but it is very similar, interestingly, to this joke my father told me. Curiously, my joke is a Jewish joke, but that won't be entirely apparent as a written joke. The final line is spoken with a Yiddish accent, so, if you're up for it, try to remember to do one in your head when you read the last line to yourself.

The more I think of these two sort-of-jokes the more I suspect they are two cultures take on the same thing, though I think the Jewish one is more subtle and curiously more Zen than the Japanese one. Okay, you've waited long enough, here is the joke:

There is a man with all the trappings of worldly success. He has much wealth, is accomplished in his field, and happily married. He himself thinks he is happy, until one day he hears a story about the wisest sage, a person of infinite wisdom, who lives far from civilization and is reputed to have all the answers. Learning of this sage causes this man to start wondering about the meaning of his life, indeed about the meaning of life in general. He eventually becomes so restless and unhappy that he resolves to track down this great sage and find out the meaning of life. His quest takes him to every continent. Disasters befall him. He loses everyone he held dear, but still he seeks. With his money nearly gone, his health shot, and the remnants of his youth becoming a distant glimmer, the man hears rumor of the sage he seeks living on top of a mountain in an obscure area of the Himalayas. He travels all over the Himalayas until, a mere shell of his former self, he finds the mountain the sage lives on top of. With his last strength he manages to climb the mountain and, sure enough, at the top, he finds an ancient sage sitting calmly on top of the wind blown peak.

"Oh great sage!" The man says "I have come across many oceans and searched every continent for you. I beg you, will you answer my one question? What, what is the meaning of life?"

"Life is a fountain." The sage replies.

The man considers. The man is flabbergasted. "I have given up great riches, a happy life, my health, my youth, my family, everything! I have suffered untold hardships and years of privation to find you, and you tell me "Life is a fountain"!!!

The sage looks at him, slightly startled "It's not a fountain?"