Wednesday, December 31, 2014
When I am not annoyed I am often fascinated.
There I am out at the front desk with a long time co-worker with whom I long ago passed through a horrible trial of irritation. I made it to the other side only to find myself frequently dazzled by him. How is it possible to spend so much time with each patron? Why does every transaction require a long, lengthy wander in the back room in order for it to be concluded? How can every interaction devolve into such complexity?
With some of my more bizarre co-workers I know that it is better to look away, that the rage it stirs in my heart will be too great to bear should I delve into the mysteries of their dysfunction. But with today's partner I am immune. I am innocently fascinated.
It can be hard to see what my desk partner is doing and how they work. The main problem is that I am also working. I am busy at the desk and finding a nice chunk of time, one where I am unoccupied and can watch them while they are conferring with a patron, is hard to do. Curiously this is much harder when I am working with one of these bizarre and broken co-workers. I can watch my colleague Dave work anytime I want to because he will gobble up patrons and leave me to my leisure as long as I want, just as I will with him. But the messed-up co-workers are playing dark games, complicatedly deferring as much as 80 or 90 percent of all work away from themselves. They leave me too besieged to see just how I have no time to see what they're up to.
But with today's co-worker I make the effort. I observe when I can. I find it hard to penetrate the facade of him amiably chatting with a patron, and with his merely being of extra thorough assistance. Most single moments with this co-worker don't look wrong, but I persist. I accumulate my glimpses, my paying attention, and slowly a pattern starts to present itself. I soon notice that every issue and interaction he has is pulled into its longest possible expression. The most exhaustive version of every policy is expressed. Everything from a street name to a book cover is an opportunity for a chat, an anecdote, or a question.
It is hard to come up with an example, both because what I'm talking about is a way of interaction more than an incident, and because due to the chronic length of my co-worker's interactions I have never been able to follow one in its entirety. And yet, there is this, from just today:
A young woman wanted to know if he could tell her where the nearest mail box is.
"Yeah, I could tell you." He said, smiling impishly. "No, don't worry. I'll tell you. I'm just kidding." Then he good naturedly began to tell her.
Many local landmarks came into it. I was astonished at the breadth of the description and its accompanying geographic references, I dazzled at the complicated laying of the scene, the detail, the local history of mail boxes, but just as he seemed to be warming up I was torn away to help a patron. Perhaps that was just as well. There is a kind of vision, or film really, that I want to show you at this point anyway. Picture one of those time lapse cameras where everything moves fast, at twenty times speed. The camera itself is static. There he is, talking to the woman, flickering movement in a small space. And behind him you see me zipping back and forth in that weird, insect like high speed movement. I am taking fines to the cash register. I am getting receipt paper, and I am putting books on the return cart. I dance by myself for fun, then I start scribbling blog notes. I am helping someone on the copier. I am hunting down a book for a patron. I am napping on the desk. I pick up three lost and found items and start messily juggling. Now I am taking more fines. Now I am chasing after a book thief. I am playing a game of "pickle" with a couple of ten year olds. There I am looking for something on the floor. I am making pancakes for everyone in the library. I am registering cards for a family of eleven. I am lounging about, idly surfing the internet. I am chatting amicably with some old guy. I advise a couple on DVDs. I am going to the bathroom. I am diagnosing someone's laptop problem and so on and so on, all at a million miles an hour, two hours condensed into a few minutes. And there is my co-worker the whole time, with that same person, instructing her on how to cross the street.
Because what are the necessary instructions to direct someone to a mailbox at my library? This: "Across the street there is a tall building. There are two drive up mailboxes behind it."
Three hours later my co-worker is still out there giving directions.
And yet, oddly, I don't mind.
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
I am back at work, coughing throatily through the library in a way that makes my co-workers eye me with a small amount of sympathy and a good deal of alarm. "I don't think I'm particularly contagious." I say. No, contagious was what I was when I worked here last week, infecting the entire County. If you're not deathly ill now I don't see how it's going to still happen. I've done everything I could already.
So the library is empty of patrons, all of them home shivering under heavy blankets. Likewise my co-workers are all sick and peeling off until, eventually, I am here alone. This big building, ticking along with a hint of post apocalyptic vacancy, only with my cough to bring it to life. The color of the library is bleached and faded in the sharp light of the cold winter sun. The book stacks are dark until one of my coarse, wet, epic coughs rolls through the library, turning the lights on, filling the world with a rattling, shambling life.
Okay, fine, I exaggerate. I am not entirely alone at the library. There are a few others here. When I was upstairs shelving there was a man who would perform a bird whistle every couple minutes. "Po twee-wee-eet?" He would whistle "Po twee-wee-eet?" I found it annoying, incredibly so, but who am I to complain, with my death rattle cough. And the sleeping guy with the feet in the bags, and the lady with the bouncing balls game obsession, and the guy who squats a private room every morning but makes all his phone calls while wandering the stacks. Yeah, they're all here. We are all here. Where else is there?
Monday, December 29, 2014
Having had a rough end to 2014, with a wretched back injury and, even more recently, an unreasonably fierce cold (or flu!), I am eager to turn the page of the year and look forward to starting the new one in a productive and virtuous and righteous manner. I feel this is the year I can really bring it all together. I am full of ambition, positivity, and hope! To that end I have put together a long list of New Year's Resolutions that, though challenging to fulfill, will make me healthy, well-adjusted, successful, enlightened, rich, humble, taller, and will give me better shoes.
You might want to jot down these resolutions too, and take part in this quest for self improvement on your own. But only if you want to become, like, a living god.
1. Take the time each day to prepare three beautiful meals, using purely sourced, whole, organic foods, and prepared in a manner commensurate with the greatest restaurants in the world. No detail of time, food preparation, or exquisiteness of ingredients shall be stinted. Set aside two extra kitchen hours per day for the making of bespoke pantry items ala one's own vinegars and cured meats (note to self: check out Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook!).
2. Drink! At minimum daily: two six-ounce glasses organic fresh pomegranate juice, one eight-ounce carrot-beet-orange juice, three glasses of red wine, making a careful study of flavor, body, and varietals as part of pursuit of full mastery of wine knowledge, two pristinely perfect espressos from beans I grow, roast and grind myself, and 16 twelve-ounce glasses of water because I saw a book at the library that said all health problems can be solved by drinking more water.
3. Stop exhibiting signs of horror at what my co-workers eat. While I am dining like a 3 star French chef and living forever I must understand the food allergies, fears and obsessions of others, and be sympathetic when I see them killing themselves with food that is entirely derived from the corn plant. It is a hard world out there, and I must not be smug or I may cut myself while shucking Moonstone Oysters.
1. Pour my soul into every blog post as opposed to just 25%. Spend five hours every night writing. Become master writer, and have prose be more like Toni Morrison, less like Helen Fielding.
2. Write more for myself, rather than to appeal to others. Yet also increase my readership, ideally by creating widespread Internet virus that causes all computers to continually default to clerkmanifesto.com as their home page.
1. Become perfect at my job so that at end of next year I am showered with small gift cards from appreciative patrons. Act real humble around my co-workers, sharing my gift cards generously with them because "I have so many I don't even know what to do with them all!"
2. Be less catty about my co-workers, I mean, unless they really deserve it a lot.
1. Go to remote, quiet, beautiful place everyday for two hours. Sit there in peaceful contentment while enlightenment seeps into me like the fungal threads in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
1. Do daily, full Triathlon, but don't neglect an obsessive weight regime and daily yoga. Learn Kung-fu in manner of Kwai Chang Kaine in case I need to rescue people or stand up to racist bullies.
1. Write hit song. Probably best done by teaming up with a really good songwriter. So may have to write two hit songs.
1. Stop reading the same books over and over. Read the kinds of Booker Prize winning novels that eschew punctuation, sympathetic characters, and magic, and will impress the teen librarian Marcus.
1. Go home for three-hour siesta everyday. You've got a triathlon to finish and a lot of cooking to take care of!
I: Internet Use
1. Only use the Internet in order to be authoritatively knowledgeable about everything in the culture. Do not use it in the desperate, futile, and frankly sort of sad attempt to be entertained.
1. But don't forget to have a good time! Go out there and have fun with all this, because time is precious, desperately desperately precious and you're wasting it! Ahhhhhh! It's ticking by! Grab it! While you're reading this it is racing out your door! Get it! GET IT!
Sunday, December 28, 2014
We needed a couple of ceiling lights in our pursuit of household perfection, or at least in our pursuit of our house not being a decrepit ruin. Either way I suppose we're getting there. And part of getting there involved going to a lighting store. The lighting store is called Creative Lighting. It's big, and it has a lot of lights. There are hundreds of chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and floor lamps and table lamps are scattered liberally across the large store. There are big wall displays of anything from the mundane to the elaborate in porch lights, and there are ceiling lights as far as the eye can see. I'm just saying that it's a big place with a huge number of lighting fixtures, thousands of lighting fixtures.
And nearly all of them are on.
So my question is this:
Why was I not blinded? It was no brighter in there with over a thousand lamps of all kinds and strengths turned on than it is in my living room with one light on.
It was like if I one day woke up to find that there were suddenly a hundred suns in the sky, full, blinding, yellow suns, instead of one, but all with it being no warmer or more sunny than on any normal, pleasant day from all of history.
It's just mysterious, is all I'm saying, and I think someone is up to something and that the end of the world my be approaching. Though none of that stopped us from buying the lighting fixtures we needed. And good thing too. I suspect that in a few years even a hundred ceiling lights in our small bathroom will be insufficient to allow us to find our way to the toilet in the middle of the night.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
So it is the day after Christmas, December 26 to be precise, and my wife and I have things to take care of around town. There's a little thank you package we're putting together for someone, some things we need for our house, the liquor store has liquor, and we have some food to buy too.
So we're driving all over our city and it is Christmassy and beautiful! Snow is even falling, a sweet snow that dares not inconvenience us by staying. It only politely visits and disappears into a touch of cool water. And there is a grand section of houses along the river, on the St. Paul side, that are lit up so lovely and rich in the early evening, with plenty of garish lights, but elegant too, white lights, fire, and thoroughly done, drapes and shutters flung open on the fine old houses to show lush interior scenes of giant Christmas trees and roaring hearths and all manner of Christmas tableau. It could make a person suddenly understand sugar plums, and yuletide and family. Like from a dream.
Then we stopped in to get a few things at the nearby Walgreens, and it all fell apart.
Everything was fine in there at first. People were friendly and of good elvish cheer. We found most of what we needed, and were just leaving when we spied, on the featured end caps of a row of shelves, a whole display of New Year's Eve items!
New Year's Eve items!
On December 26!!!!
One day! Christmas is over for one lousy day and already with the New Year's Eve stuff? They cannot wait a couple of weeks!!!!
Friday, December 26, 2014
For Christmas this year I got...
There were a few holiday cards I was mentioned in. An old lady brought the library staff one of those tins of Danish cookies. She gave it to me to pass around. I know her pretty well and like to think I was as much as one fifth of the reason for the gift.
My colleague Dave was given a ten dollar gift card to our coffee shop. I was bitterly jealous and reminisced overmuch about a few years running when a guy would give me a tin of fudge every year.
Maybe I was just a better clerk back then. Does it all come down to one Christmas gift, or maybe the one or two complimentary comments in the comment box every year?
"I just want to commend your library for the excellent service I received today. Thank you."
That one was totally me!
Someone made a plate of Christmas treats for one of our librarians, but the staff member they gave it to put it onto the break room free food table instead of giving it to the librarian. It was devoured down to the polymers in the plastic plate before the librarian even knew the gift existed. It's the thought that counts. Though if I had to I would describe the expression on that librarian's face, when he encountered the tattered remains of what may have been the only library Christmas gift he has ever received in 30 years of library work, as, well, rather Eeyorish.
We roll with the punches.
We don't exchange Christmas gifts at my house. Possibly because we're Jews, or because, despite the ringing sound of my unpleasant older brother wandering through my childhood yelling "Christmas is an American Holiday!" it's not, quite. Or we don't exchange gifts because, yes, probably this one: because somewhere in here I think we already have everything.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
There I am, upstairs shelving in Fiction, regretfully disturbing the whole, lovely, quiet wing of the library with my booming cough. Think of it as thunder, an astonishing natural phenomenon. No explosion from a mere ribcage should be capable of such a noise. Yes, I shouldn't be here, but who will shelve these books if I don't!
I mean, besides my 23 co-workers.
I need a break. I drift over to the big windows that look out on the main floor of the library.
A couple is making their way across that floor. I have known them for perhaps 15 years. She is quiet and calm and pleasant. He is a bit goofy, but not in a comedian's way, just very naturally genial and simple and sweet and disheveled, like Columbo. Nearly always I see them together, a middle aged couple somewhere in their fifties. I am very fond of them.
There they go, holding hands. I cough. Through an inch of safety glass, one hundred fifty feet away, they look up and, smiling, wave.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Just so exhausted.
No, it's not terribly busy. I'm not working hard per se. I'm actually laying pretty low here at the library today.
It's this new vow. I didn't think it would be so hard, but no, I am the ragged shell of the clerk I once was. It is excruciatingly hard!
I am trying to say "You're welcome" instead of "No problem."
Why am I doing this? Why have I gotten started on an early new year's resolution of such profound difficulty before I even have to?
I don't know. Like anyone trying to break the grip of a powerful addiction, the sheer stress of it has driven all reason from my mind. I'm like a smoker desperately trying to resist cigarettes, wondering why it mattered in the first place. "It's all foggy, something to do with cankers or cashiers or chancellors. Cancer! That's it. Something to do with cancer." And by the time you work that out you've already smoked half a cigarette, to calm your nerves, and so you could think straight.
"Hey, thanks for tracking down that book for me."
"No probcome. I mean no pr... I mean, crap."
So wait, why am I doing this. Does saying "No problem" cause cancer? No, I think it has something to do with manners. I had a reason, something to do with a better use of the English language. But it's vague to me as I struggle. So I look it up on the Internet.
Four hours later I am back to report on what I found.
No problem may be acceptable when one is going above and beyond the call of duty. If someone says thank you for something mundane, say, checking out their books, "no problem" is self aggrandizing. Why would it be a problem? It's just my job. I'm paid to do this stuff. However, if I go running all over looking for a missing or a sort of unavailable book, and through persistence and employing all my wily tricks I manage to track it down, "no problem" can be acceptable to someone's thanks.
But I don't love it, I don't love "no problem", though I say it in that situation all the time. What do I really mean?
If I am trying to cultivate a laid back, anything goes atmosphere, I suppose "no problem" will do, but I am not trying to cultivate that as much as I think sometimes. It turns out that I love the touch of genteel formality we maintain, just barely, at the front desk. If I am trying to say, "whatever, they pay me anyway for this stuff either way." It's probably best to just paper it all over with the conventional "you're welcome".
But what I really feel, what I mean, is that I rather like helping people. It's sort of fun, I mean, if you can lower the bar enough for what qualifies as fun.
And I can.
And that is why "no problem", "you're welcome", and "they pay me either way" are all wrong for me.
My appropriate response is "It was my pleasure."
Because it was.
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
When I was young, and somewhere beyond that too, I loved The Lord of the Rings so much that I read the words bare. I can no longer really read the books effectively because they are worn to threads by my usage. I can barely make them out anymore. The phrase "involuntarily memorized" comes to mind.
But my love remains.
Once I tried to read George R. R. Martin's The Game of Thrones. I was on a solo kayak trip on the St Croix river, paddling through a maze of loneliness and spring ticks. It was the only book I had with me on the trip. The more I read it the more depressed I became until, with a shock of awareness, I realized I hated that book. I didn't have to read it. It was killing me.
I stopped reading it.
The ticks disappeared.
I have disagreeably felt these books bumping up against each other in the culture for many years now, but today I suddenly had a way to express something of my feelings, small though it may be, and sensible only to those of you familiar with these authors.
If George R. R. Martin had written Lord of the Rings, everyone but Boromir would have died.
Monday, December 22, 2014
At this library I work at we are scheduled in one hour increments; fiction, other, desk, the machine, phones, and so on. This schedule, one that tells a staff member what they will be doing, is posted on a bulletin board just to the right of where we enter into the public part of the library. We clerks and pages all flock to this schedule like moths to a summer night's light bulb, and we stare at it, dazzled by its luminous, mysterious power.
We all like to check the schedule eight or nine times a day. There may only be ten or fifteen of us working on a single day altogether, but at nearly any given moment throughout the day there will be a cluster of three or four of us gathered around the schedule, lingering, murmuring, reading it over and over. When it comes to this schedule we are all devout Jews here. It is our Torah and our Talmud.
What is it with this schedule? I don't know. It doesn't change much, and I generally have an idea of what my day will be like before I see it. And yet my mood can hinge on it. I'm elated if I like the way things look, and something even slightly disagreeable, like being at the front desk with someone awful for an hour, or too much time assigned on the machine, can pierce me to my soul.
"Nooooooooo!" I cry out.
"Are you okay?" Someone asks, alarmed.
"What? Did I cry out again? Oh. no, I'm fine."
And I usually am. I read the schedule again a few times. I soak up its complicated mysteries.
Dave, who has been quite witty this week, described the schedule in passing as "The clerks' favorite job." Five of us were gathered there, studying and studying some more.
What all are we doing, staring there, musing, reading? I, just, don't, know. Often, when I read my schedule for the day, by the time I've worked my way to the bottom of my scheduled hours I've forgotten what was at the top. I start over. Then I remember a certain hour I want to especially check. I wonder what a particular co-worker is doing that day for comparisons sake. But all of this does nothing to explain the sheer fascination with it, the draw of the thing, the deep reflection it incites. The amnesia it induces. We seem to be able to study the schedule endlessly, forgetting, and remembering.
I often write here in an attempt to explain the tiny mysteries of my daily life, but not today. The mighty schedule, subtly shifting, ever mysterious, oracular, and commanding, is beyond my small powers of divination.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
From the supply department:
Our front desk pen policy
1. We use a standardized array of pens at this library. If a foreign pen of some kind enters into our collection please expunge it immediately. Do not let it pollute the purity of our pens. Stray pens breed!
2. We have some very authentic looking fake calla lilies that are attached to some of our pens to dissuade people from walking off with them. These are attached only to our fancy, expensive pens. Do not attach them to the cheap pens! We just do not care if someone walks off with a three cent pen!
3. If a patron starts to wander away with a valuable calla lily pen stop them and consider banning that patron from the library. Between the cost of the fancy pen and the cost of the imitation lily the value of that pen can run as high as two dollars! This exceeds the actual value of any single item in our entire library collection!
4. I have noted that some of you are still resisting my fervent obsession with the sharpie clickable pen. I continually starve the front desk of sharpie alternatives in the hope that you will all succumb. But let me take this opportunity to list the virtues of the sharpie clickable in hopes that reason will sway you where force has failed.
a. These pens always work on our cards and do not need to be "warmed up" by scribbling with them on post it notes.
b. These pens are fun to play with. If necessary I can teach you the bouncy game in which you can delightfully make a pen spring into the air.
c. Sharpie clickables act like an intelligence puzzle for patrons who have never encountered a sharpie clickable before, which adds entertainment value to our front desk interactions and allows us to size up new library members.
d. They leave a rich, permanent signature on library cards, making them seem boldly official, and yet also personal.
e. Sharpie clickables are easy to tape fake lilies to.
The supply department thanks you for your attention to these directives, which, while unofficial and entirely unsupported by the library administration, will still be enforced in any way I can.
Saturday, December 20, 2014
A unique time of year here at the library. There is the before Christmas slowdown right now, and the 6 o'clock in the evening, dinner time, slowdown. It is also slow because it's cold out, and because it is ever so dark right now. It's slow because no one reads anymore and because the local Highway is closed for a high speed chase. A light has gone out over the front door making people think we are closed. So it's slow. The library is quiet, not polite quiet, not ever so traditional and because the library patrons are quiet quiet, but quiet because our library is largely empty of people.
We workers at the front desk have discussed everything, shelved everything and organized everything. And we now turn to the Internet.
Our hands poise over the keyboards. But our fingers have frozen. Our brains have stopped. Nothing happens. We front desk people turn to each other and shake our heads sadly.
All of history and all the glorious future to the end of time plays out in a single moment before our eyes:
It is dark.
Entranced, we watch shapes in the fire.
We listen to the storytellers. We've heard these stories before.
There are no good books in the hut.
The castle library has nothing worth reading.
We rotate the knob on our giant radio looking futilely for a decent station.
Seven channels on our TV set, but nothing on.
Two hundred channels on our TV set, but still, nothing on.
A billion, or many more, pages on our Computers, all movies and music and writing and the history of knowledge at our fingertips, but there really is nothing there, nothing to see that we haven't seen a thousand times before.
Immersive reality allows us to alter the very nature of our environment. Every imagination is there to bloom at our wishes, but we have seen all the good ones already.
There are just these old books in the hut.
Entranced, we watch shapes in the fire.
It is dark.
Friday, December 19, 2014
I am not averse to singing my own praises occasionally, but when I say my baked potatoes went over well at the staff holiday potluck, I mean it merely as a point of order, a statistical accounting, mere impartial reporting. There was a stick of butter, some salt, sour cream, and many a toasty baked potato. On a snowy December day, amid the festive hubbub of the library staff chowing down on hot casseroles of jumbo pretzels stewed in dried onion mix and Kraft ranch dressing, my potatoes went like hotcakes, I mean, if they were potato hotcakes, albeit potato hotcakes where the potatoes were not made into cakes but rather were left in their original form. And because my potatoes were so delicious many people eagerly pressed me for my recipe.
I told them to check my blog, and I so provide it here now for any and all interested parties.
How to bake a potato
Some people, who have no respect for fine cooking, may scoff and think it takes nothing to bake a potato, but the reason my baked potatoes are so good is because they are done right. You can probably pop a potato in the oven for an hour and have it be okay, but for a mind blowing potato you will need to carefully follow my detailed instructions. This will produce a succulent, fluffy, out of this world steaming and lush baked potato. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it!
I only use one of three obscure heritage varieties of potato, the Russian Black Fist, Olde English Russets, or Grandpa's Knuckles. If you can't find one of these varieties with a "waist" circumference of 8.5 to 10 inches all is not lost! Any good, obscure organic variety in use before the Irish potato famine and with the right sugar reading will do just fine. You will need to bring a good quality glucose reader to your local organic farm. Only choose potatoes with a "sweet" reading of four or higher, otherwise the result will be too tart and starchy.
A note on choosing your potatoes:
Besides the obvious size ("waist" circumference of 8.5 to 10 inches only!), variety, and sugar content issues, pay careful attention to picking the best potatoes. They should be free of green tinge, water should bead freely on the surface, and they should be unscarred and unblemished. Test for firmness. They should be quite firm to the touch, but never hard. Test for a rich water content by knocking on the roof of the potato, but it shouldn't be too wet. Don't be afraid to ask your organic grower detailed questions about the past six month's weather.
Preparing your potatoes:
Rinse your potatoes lightly in Evian water (from glass bottles, not plastic!). Do not scrub your potato! You will want to brush it lightly with a sable brush (no synthetic, camel hair in an emergency) while pouring the Evian over it. This can be easier with two people, but a single person will eventually get the hang of it. Just keep the water pouring in a slender stream like you are making mayonnaise. Do not pat dry your potatoes, rather air dry them, handling them as little as possible. When they are fully dry you will be piercing the potatoes with precisely seven holes, using a stitching awl.
Using the stitching awl:
I keep an ancient Roman stitching awl for puncturing or piercing my potatoes. This tool is made of iron. This is the single most important step in the preparation of baking potatoes. Your awl must be iron. The older that iron has been in its current form the better. A good friend of mine makes baked potatoes exactly as I do, but his are slightly tastier. The only difference between us comes down to his beautiful stitching awl, which is a two to three thousand BC Chinese stitching awl.
I would kill for that awl.
But we make do with what we have. Our awl should be clean and completely free of rust. Gently heat the tip of the awl to 130 degrees F over a wood source fire. Puncture each potato in exactly seven evenly placed spots, each to a depth of exactly 7/16 of an inch. I find that I do not need to heat the tip back up after each puncture, and can do two punctures if I work quickly, which saves a lot of time.
Resting your potatoes:
Let the potatoes rest at room temperature for 8 to 10 hours.
Curing your potatoes:
"Bury" your potatoes in a wood crate of rock salt. No potato should be touching anything but salt. Refrigerate like this for two days. Remove your potatoes and very lightly brush them clean with songbird feathers. Discard the salt.
Your potatoes are now ready to cook!
Cooking your potatoes:
Place your potatoes on a slab of Italian marble in a convection oven set at 225 degrees. After 20 minutes remove your potatoes and drizzle a thimbleful of good champagne over the top of each potato. Dig a pit in your yard, reserving the displaced earth, and fill it with unvarnished teak wood. Burn this wood until the flames are nearly gone, and you are left with a pit of glowing coals. Sprinkle a large bottle of Asahi beer over the coals. Coat the potatoes evenly in about a quarter inch of raw, low fire clay. Wait an hour.
Place your clay covered potatoes carefully on the cooling coals. Cover over everything with your reserved earth. Let rest for at least 12 hours. Carefully remove potatoes from the pit and gently peel off the clay coating. Brush the potato with a stiff brush made of organic hay until it is clean. Return the potatoes to the Italian marble slab and cook at 275 degrees in the oven, without any convection setting active, until the center temperature of the potatoes are 140 to 143 degrees.
Serving your potatoes:
Remove the potatoes from the oven and rest them for five minutes. Discard the marble slab as it cannot be used again. Serve the potatoes immediately with salt and butter, yelling at everyone that they are ready now, and will be worthless in ten minutes so they'd better get to it. They will think you're being a jerk, but they will forget all about it once they taste these potatoes, your potatoes.
They will never have had better, guaranteed!
Thursday, December 18, 2014
I can't quite tell these days how much I love Mark Twain. A lot? I don't obsessively read his books over and over like I do Jasper Fforde's, but I have read most of them, and some several times. If you want to call Huckleberry Finn the greatest American novel ever written I can feel pretty good about that, which is no small feat seeing as the last 50 pages of it are nuts, and mostly not in a good way.
My point is that Mark Twain was one seriously great writer, one of the greatest. But that's just it. Tolstoy is great, Ursula K. LeGuin, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Kafka, Gogol, Pratchett, well, the list is long, and they are all mighty together. But there is one category of human endeavor, and no small one at that, in which Mark Twain astonishingly blows away the competition. He is not on the highest level with others. He is alone at his level of achievement.
He is the master of the quote. The god of the tweet. The be all and end all of the aphorism. He stands alone. One could put together a book of all the pithy, witty sayings of all time by everyone and set it next to a book of just the witty, pithy sayings of Mark Twain and they will be roughly equal in quality. Pull Emerson, Shakespeare, and Groucho out of the first book and Mark Twain even wins, handily!
Yesterday I ran into this quote:
I would rather have my ignorance than another man's knowledge, because I have got so much more of it.
It was just by chance I saw it really. And not only did I marvel at its wild backhanding cleverness (he's a fool, but he'll hang on to it because looking around at his kind, there's nothing to trade up to!), but I was also terrible impressed that I have never seen that quote before. I know many a sage's top ten quotes and run into them with delight, like they are old friends. Indeed I feel that way about hundreds of Mark Twain quotes, but whereas with the other Paragons of wit and wordsmithery the source is exhausted, with Mark Twain the great quotes are all scattered across the world. There are too many to complete without some great course of study. It's like I thought I knew all the Beatles songs and then, no, it turns out there are a thousand more. "How did I miss this?" I ask. "It's as good as Penny Lane!"
In doing my research for this post I quavered when I found one thing, and was re-emboldened when I stumbled upon another. The quavering came when I found that several Mark Twain quotes that I love appear to have been falsely attributed to him. "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." and "I've never killed a man, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure." are two great lines that Mark Twain never said. The first comes from who knows where, the second from Clarence Darrow. But the re-emboldened part came when in investigating these quotes I came upon his solid and fairly attributed quotes, and they just went on, and on, and on, and on.
"We are always anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess."
"Some men worship rank, some worship heroes, some worship power, some worship God, and over these ideals they dispute and cannot unite — but they all worship money."
"Total abstinence is so excellent a thing that it cannot be carried to too great an extent. In my passion for it I even carry it so far as to totally abstain from total abstinence itself."
"Total abstinence is so excellent a thing that it cannot be carried to too great an extent. In my passion for it I even carry it so far as to totally abstain from total abstinence itself."
"The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them."
"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live."
"Herodotus says, "Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects."
"To create man was a fine and original idea; but to add the sheep was a tautology."
"Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any."
And these are just a handful I scooped up. I don't think I've run across a single one of them before. And they just go on and on and on from there.
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that Mark Twain, with his magnificent wit, piercing and economical expressiveness, brilliant use of language, and slashing, vibrant interest in the world around him needn't have written fiction, or speeches, letters to prominent people, memoirs, or essays.
Mark Twain was so great that he could have been a blogger!
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
I have been reading an excellent book on global warming, This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein. Unfortunately I am reading it too slowly and so keep having to return it to the library and request it again. But somewhere, already, in reading this book, I have learned one huge and important and useful thing.
No, it is not about how we are on the brink of irreversible climate change and epic disaster that will shatter the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It's not about the grave pitfalls of capitalism, or the end of life as we know it.
No, it's about belief.
It turns out you can believe what you want. This is your right. It can be contrary to all evidence. It can be tantamount to the manslaughter of a billion people. It can be evil. But you can believe what you want.
I don't want to be evil. I don't want to obliquely murder people. I am not interested in not believing in global warming or the holocaust or some such mad thing. But just because I don't want to be an evil or destructive denialist doesn't mean that, used carefully, this concept can't be used effectively. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater!
So then, what shall I not believe in?
I have settled on two simple rules. It should be something that, if I were right in my disbelief, would make the world only a better place, and it should be a disbelief that only causes offense to those who deserve it.
I have settled on Republicans. I henceforth shall no longer believe in the existence of Republicans.
Now that that's done I can support this new understanding by saying: what sort of cynical person would even imagine a country so dark and absurd as to be half full of Republicans? Do you want me to believe there are a hundred million delusional lunatics walking the streets of America? I don't think so.
"But," You cry "My father is a Republican!"
Oh, don't be silly, there's no such thing as Republicans.
"My sister is!"
Ha ha ha, yes. My pet rabbit is the tooth fairy.
My family once had a dog named Cashew, a golden retriever. Cashew believed if she lay down and hid her head and shoulders under one of the living room chairs none of my family existed. Who is to say she was wrong. How happy she must have been.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
I still sort of love when people ask for recommendations. This happens to me every once in awhile at the library. These requests for recommendations range from the absurdly broad ("I need a book to read") to the hopelessly narrow ("I've read most of the good scuba diving mystery fiction, but can you suggest any of the less obvious ones?"). But the whole recommendation thing is not as easy as it seems. The thing that I imagine might surprise the non library personnel among you, but is hardly likely to surprise any serious working librarian (or anyone who occasionally pretends to be one) is just how often the recommendation process is hopeless at the outset.
Today provided a good example of this. I was helping a man request a couple seasons of Game of Thrones and he asked me for a recommendation. In our short interview what I ascertained was that he wanted something like Game of Thrones in its level of popularity, production values, cultural currency, genre milieu, and critical acclaim. That's a tall order, but I took a shot at it. I offered for starters Walking Dead. But I think he dismissed it as soon it didn't start with a "G" sound.
I had misunderstood what he was asking for. He was asking for Game of Thrones, only totally not the Game of Thrones he had seen, but the same.
"Well, we have some copies on the shelf of Game of Thrones, only different, with all the same characters and writers and scenarios and actors and stuff. But it's not called Game of Thrones, it's called Game of Thrones."
"Yes, that one please. About time! Usually I get such crap recommendations!"
I am no fan of Game of Thrones in any form, but, oddly, I know where this person is coming from. We like something so very much in art and we want more different, new, but desperately, magically, exactly the same. And because things have a lot in common, share sources, styles, tools, history, and genre, because people can never resist comparing everything, we think there is some way to get that. That there is a magical Game of Thrones that is not Game of Thrones.
But here is today's secret for you. Nothing, really, is like anything else. From the lowliest genre pap on our shelves to the most exalted work of the imagination, they are all individuals out there. Each book or movie or CD is idiosyncratic, broken, singular and seeking its entirely unique brand of magic.
And in the end, they all live or die alone.
Monday, December 15, 2014
People tend to ascribe this blog to me, and me alone. I don't blame them. I certainly give that impression. And I am the Director here. I am responsible for the content. But the reality is that a blog of such an enormous scale as this one would be impossible for just one person to put together. Through a rock steady 365 posts a year I present a casual atmosphere of spontaneous discussion of my life, the library I work at, and the world I live in, but this carefully manufactured image is the work of a huge team, a collaborative effort of astonishing complexity, all to produce something that looks off the cuff.
Clerk Manifesto is put together by a team of writers, compositors, animators, scribes and editors. We have a timeline consistency expert responsible for making sure the "reality" of the blog happens in appropriate sequence. There are two coders and a translator (we are mysteriously popular in Papua, New Guinea). We have an AEMD (automated e-mail deliverer) who is the person who makes sure that, if you receive this blog by email, it comes each day. We have a special effects coordinator, a person who breaks things up into paragraphs, and someone in charge of all our italics, which is a huge job around here, and they frequently request that I try to express emphasis through my syntax more often, and not take the easy way out so much. I try, but they apparently remain bitterly dissatisfied.
We keep two librarians on staff, one for research; to manage our papers and reference items, and one to make sure our library based stories are consistent with actual library procedure. There is a cat wrangler here, which is as common as you might think for people producing content for the Internet. Our moose expert is a seasonal hire, but they have a lot to do in the summer. We have a barista who consults on coffee related posts and if you're lucky might make you an occasional latte. We have a test kitchen manager, a driver who transports our blog posts across the vast Internet, a lighting specialist (just try reading this blog in total darkness!), and a music manager who, realistically, is mainly just a Dylan specialist. We also have on staff several dozen readers. Traditionally blog readers are volunteers, but our marketing and promotions staff (seven people) have assured me that that is not a realistic goal for this particular blog.
And who all is this vast and varied staff? Would you like their names, to know a bit about them, to hear their side of the story, and to know just how much they make working here?
Well, um, all of these positions are currently filled by, er, um, just, me. But I'm sure, eventually, one day, we'll get them properly staffed.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Hi. I am just back from a party where I had two glasses of Pinot Noir and a lot of store bought crackers so I could end up saying just about anything. Well, maybe not anything. Getting a little drunk always makes me curiously sober. But fear not, crackers make me wild!
I don't go to a lot of parties these days, but they come up occasionally, not least this time of year, and my wife and I trot off to them until we can bear it no more. Then we hole up in our house for several months playing scrabble. Some of these parties we go to are similar to each other, some different. Some of these parties are pleasant, have nice food and are okay to be at, and some aren't. But these days they do all have one astonishing thing in common.
You might not be surprised, but I always am.
I walk into the house, or the mansion, or the museum, or wherever the place is that the party is being held, and I look around. I note the friends and or the acquaintances I might expect to be there, and I see all the many strangers there too, and then, invariably, I see them.
I lock eyes with some person I have seen coming to my library four times a week for 15 years but have never once seen outside of my library.
This always astonishes me because, despite working in a highly visible way, at the busiest library in my state, there can't be more than 15 or 20 thousand of these regular library people altogether. How do I keep running into them at parties? If I could do math surely it would all turn out to be statistically impossible.
What do I do when this happens?
Well, I talk to them. It's all fairly interesting. After exchanging faintly friendly comments with them, or even just pleasant smiles, at the library, several thousand times over the course of decades, it's nice to actually talk, in a leisurely manner, to find out their job and their family and their favorite food and their view on the library.
Their view on the library?
They like the library, so that's mostly what we talk about.
That's okay. I like the library too. And I have some shocking stories to tell them.
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Working in a large public library I encounter diversity.
At my library we have tall people, stupid people, theatrical people, Korean people, sad people, black people, transgender people, Jewish people, people who don't know how to dress themselves, French people, drunk people, poor people, narcoleptic people, ex-convicts, aspiring convicts, athletes, Afghanistanis, hungry people, doctors, Buddhist people, homeless people, Hmong people, Native Americans, people who smell like pee, people descended from Swedes, fictional people, poets, Irish people, blind people, Somali people, and Egyptians.
And that's just among the staff!
Just kidding. No one I work with is all that tall.
Endeavoring to communicate across this vast array of conditions and classes can be challenging. We are all human, but our frames of reference, cultural habits, languages, and physical and mental abilities can sometimes be so different that they present exhausting challenges, and sometimes issuing a library card, or finding a book for someone, or explaining late charges can become a long and difficult struggle. Just recently I have noticed that, being a person of, hopefully, pretty strong cultural sensitivity, I sometimes am too sensitive to differences. This might not be a real problem. It might be a matter of erring on the side of caution. But I noticed it lately, and wanted to share it with you in case you found it to be of use.
The key is in my very partial diversity list. The list of ways to define people can go on almost endlessly. And any one person can encompass vast numbers of those separate definitions all at once, or even at different times. Sometimes I will be dealing with a patron and struggling to communicate through what seems to be a language barrier, for instance. Perhaps the patron speaks some English, but no matter what I say I can't seem to get through to them about the reason that they can't renew their book. They seem angry. So I explain in different ways. I draw sketches. I ask them to explain to me. I persist. I change speeds. They seem to agree, but then at the conclusion resume arguing. I think maybe it is not language, maybe it is cultural. Maybe I should be standing further back or closer to. Maybe I should say "Sir" a lot. I don't get anywhere. They make unreasonable demands. Maybe it is because they are too poor, or it is an issue of pride. I talk in different ways. I spend a great deal of time running down a long list of line items on my great diversity checklist looking for a key. And then, suddenly, it comes to me all at once.
It cuts across every ethnicity, every religion, every race, and every class. It is unbound and free.
They're an asshole.
So I give them my manager's card.
Friday, December 12, 2014
Sometimes I get comments here.
Mostly, of course, I don't. I like to attribute this scarcity to people reading my blog in a reverential, rapt silence. Would you, for instance, while attending an author reading with James Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake, suddenly raise your hand and say "Excuse me. What does "humptyhillhead" mean"?
I'd like to.
Not that my blog compares well to Finnegans Wake. Curiously enough, my blog probably compares best to something like, I don't know, goat cheese. So, you wouldn't taste a nice goat cheese and then scribble on it "Wish I had some crusty french bread and a mandarin orange." Though if someone would develop a tasty, edible pen ink that writes on any surface, well, why not?
Anyway, if one of these rare comments is on one of my older posts I have to personally approve it. This is a spam catching device. And usually those comments are indeed spam, which I mostly delete, but occasionally post and mock. Every once in awhile though someone, stumbling drunkenly across the Internet (we are all drunk on the Internet), will leave a sign of their passing on some blog post of a year or so ago.
Before I continue I should note that I find even the simplest of comments to be strangely inscrutable. I think this might be because I am so busy working out whether or not it's a compliment. So when, the other day, I found a comment on an old post about my library trading in its stupid vending machines for a sushi bar I was pretty baffled.
"so very twee." The comment said. That's all.
"so very twee."
I spent the next several hours studying up on the word "twee". The unfortunate result is that "twee" is predominantly pejorative, negative, and critical. The Internet insists specifically that it is derogatory. "Excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental" goes Google's first definition. Nevertheless I like to think of this rare reader comment as a fond one, from the "almost too charming and cute to be true" camp of twee definitions, but it's an uphill battle. I pretty much had to invent that definition. Despite the irrefutable gloriousness of Winnie the Pooh, for instance, the big time definition of twee comes down to: sickeningly cute.
But here is the beautiful part. The origin of twee itself, absolute true story, is from how a small child says "sweet". Try it! "twee, twee! Mo twee!" It turns out that "Twee", the adorable, affected mimic of baby talk, is the most insanely twee word in the English language! This creates a delicious reality: there is no way to use the word twee, negatively, without being a hypocritical asshole. This is perfect.
If you don't like things that are twee, then stop complaining like a four year old with a lisp!
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Space on our library shelves has grown desperately precious. There is only so much room here in our library. The addition, at this point, of a single row of shelving, hardly enough to stave off our weeding for two months, would wipe out a bank of Internet computers that is so heavily and constantly used that most of the popular keyboard keys, like "e" or "t" have worn away to smoothed organic nubs, like the marble toe on the statue of a beloved saint that pilgrims have been kissing for hundreds of years.
So we weed.
There goes Richard Brautigan. And Israel Zangwill. Do we need this old Mary Oliver? Daniel Pinkwater? Ursula K. LeGuin? Yes, we do, but there is no room! That nice book on the bay area figurativists can go, indeed it has to go, no one has checked it out for a year. And we certainly can't afford to keep two biographies on Emma Goldman. Weed, weed, weed!
We are not casting aspersions on these books, but new ones are coming out all the time, and we have to put them somewhere. So the old must make way for the new. Will you be happy to eschew new books to save the treasured old?
I thought not.
Nevertheless there are certain books that, year after year, remain untouched, fundamental, and free from the dangers of weeding. Catcher in the Rye, the Jane Austens, To Kill a Mockingbird all maintain a rock steady presence on our shelves. And what shall we make of our permanent wall of Kristen Hannah books. We have at least eight copies of each of her 15 books. I have never read one of her books, but I have worked here long enough to be able to read the writing on the wall, or, perhaps, the writing on the shelves. There is only one reasonable explanation for this richly stocked collection of books:
Kristin Hannah is the greatest author in the world!
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
With aging comes certain physical restrictions. Working at a job that requires great athleticism, as I do, makes this particularly apparent. I work at a library, which is a lot like being a professional soccer player, only with less running and more complaining about the reffing. And like soccer players, who physically peak at about 29 years of age, there comes a point at which, to stay competitive, one must play smarter, not harder. Unlike my young colleagues, like Dave, for instance, barely 30, who is free to operate a book cart willy nilly or shelve without the least fear of pain, I must employ all my years of experience and library worker craft in order to survive at my job. I must dig deep now to stand out at my job. And I can hardly afford a minute going by without my accessing my sprawling catalog of work experience if I am still going to hope to function at the top levels of clerking, to excel, and to still be good enough to compete for clerk of the year honors. I mean, if clerk of the year honors existed, which, of course, they don't, because, seriously, who would care?
Which, finally, brings me to the main, fundamental question of this missive:
How the hell do I get this stuff shelved all the way down on the bottom row?
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
The meeting room here at my library is rigged up with a lot of A/V equipment. There is a powerful wall mounted projector. There are vast assortments of microphones, wireless, podium, clip-on, all of which conflict with each other and produce explosive feedback noises at the slightest provocation. There is a laptop hooked into an array of our broadcasting system like an intensive care patient at a hospital. There are things to hook up, turn off, plug in, log on, turn up and turn down. And, most of all, there are a thousand mysterious dials and buttons, any one of which, misused, can cause any piece of equipment to fail. Everything in the room is a bit complicated like this. Even the lights, with a combination of standard switches and strange, glowy, touch sensitive strips for dimming, regularly baffle people.
And when people are baffled, most of the time, if I'm around, they come get me.
It's not my job, per se. And there are several other people capable of figuring it all out. But somewhere in the history of my library I took a shine to all those dials and knobs. I stuck around to see how a problem was solved, or stuck with it long enough to solve it myself. Then, from there, it was a small step to getting called in to consult on some problems, or inviting myself to the problem out of curiosity and then, from there, to getting called for when someone got stuck. And, through all this exposure and attention, I learned more and more. I got a reputation. And before I knew it, a lot of people just found it easier to grab me right away when someone needed help in that meeting room.
So a couple times a day I venture off to the meeting room. I make my way through the thick electrical smoke and the piercing wail of feedback screech. I find the small group of frantic, desperate people, cursing and weeping, and I calmly say:
"What's the problem here?"
They tell me. They tell me how they tried everything. I listen. I try this and I try that. They say "I tried that." And I look at them and say "That was a good idea." Then I fiddle for a bit and I say "Aha!"
Then I turn the power on and everything works!
"Thank you masked man."
"Glad to help." I say.
"The tech people always know!" They exclaim in what they think is a compliment.
"I'm not tech person." I say. "The tech people have gone into hiding. I'm just a clerk."
And I ride off into the sunset.