Saturday, December 31, 2016
Every rare once in awhile we get an unbelievably quiet night like this. It's the season of course. But also we had a lot of staff go missing today. Sometimes the library can get quiet but a lot of staff can still make it feel a bit noisome and active. Tonight I have the whole backroom to myself. At virtually any other time two people are scheduled back here, and as many as half a dozen more, just on average, are milling about or coming through or working at one of these stations.
But I'm all alone. Phones, machine, back entrance, whatever comes up and it's just me. Not much is happening back here, indeed it is very quiet, but I am nevertheless needing to pee and just... holding it.
It's the little details that make clerkmanifesto so special.
Even before I was here running the whole of the uneventful back of the library it was an uncharacteristically slow night. A man I have been friendly with for decades came to chat at the service desk. He is sensitive to people needing help behind him in line and generally leaves right when someone comes along. So for years our longest conversations tend to be just a few minutes. Tonight was so quiet we talked for fifteen. I'm pretty sure I learned more about him tonight than I have in two decades. Because I know him it was like seeing a whole life all at once: childhood tragedies, marriage, children, divorce, work, marriage, children.
When I went to the backroom it was eerily quiet. One of my co-workers from the front desk came back to get something and I got all dramatic. "I don't know if I can handle all this all by myself!" I exclaimed, gesturing to absolutely nothing whatsoever happening anywhere. He politely snickered.
But I should know by now how dangerous such mockery can be. After ten minutes of nothing happening in any way, two bins on the machine filled up at once. A book caught in the spokes and the machine jammed completely and shut down. Running over to fix it I realized the phone was ringing, two lines.
My night is almost done. I almost enjoyed it. It was deathly quiet. In two hours there was a total of eight minutes of work. Oddly they all came in the same eleven seconds.
Friday, December 30, 2016
Recently I was telling you about the spate of remedial emails we were getting from the management at my library. "When accepting payment from patrons don't forget to enter it into their account on the computer. Simply putting the money in the cash register will not clear the fine from the patron's record." I can't fault these emails as they seem to be in response to actual events, alarming as that may be. Plus, I never get enough non spam emails, and these at least have the virtue of assuring me that there is some point to checking my work email, even if it's just to learn how alarmingly low our general standards have become. Or, er, how low they have always been.
Another kind of related email has to do with new advisories for freakish events. "Will the person closing the library and checking that the bathrooms are empty please make sure the water faucets are turned off." Are these faucets usually left on? There's something about this kind of email that compels me to run around to all my co-workers, sometimes even to the author of the note, and intentionally get it all wrong.
"We're now supposed to turn on the bathroom faucets in the library when we close up? That seems so wasteful of water to me, but if that's what they want. Do you think I should be turning on the faucet in the break room too? Maybe it keeps the pipes from freezing?"
It suddenly occurs to me I might not be everyone's favorite employee, though, of course, I should be.
Thursday, December 29, 2016
A patron, or a prospective employee, comes to me at the Service Desk. They're interested in library work.
"Are you a volunteer here?" They ask.
"Oh no." I reply. "I am extremely well compensated."
"I'm interested in working at a library." They say. "What do you do here, primarily?"
"For the most part I accrue vacation time."
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Lately, at my library job, we have been getting a lot of informational notes. These tend to be remedial.
"I shouldn't have to remind anyone, but when taking the last piece of tape from a roll you are always responsible for putting a new roll inside."
"I know this is a problem with very few of you, but when taking a payment and putting it into the cash register always make sure to close the drawer when you're done."
I suppose one could find such notes offensive, but they clearly seem to be in response to actual library events. These are never the kind of thing to help me do my job better. They are more a way to keep apprised of what's going on down at the lowest echelons of library worker skill. Plus they're funny, in a painful way, but funny all the same.
"When filling transit boxes please do not pile the books higher than the rim of the box. This makes it impossible to put a lid on. When the box is full to the rim, put a lid on it and start a new box."
One thing I find that adds to the absurdity of all these for beginners only email notes is the fact that in all other ways the communication at our library, outside of the remedial stuff, is horrible. Just last week half of the functionality of our big and crucial automated check in machine was down. For the whole morning staff (and patrons as well) had to do far more, and far more awkward, work to deal with our thousands of returns. They had to return items to remote bins, push them through the snow, and hand feed them onto an inconveniently placed and overworked moving belt. After more than three hours of this the circulation staff found out by mere accident that the issue had been fixed early that morning. "Oh," Some automation services person said in passing "You can use this now. They fixed it early in the morning."
Thanks. Good thing you didn't trouble anyone with a pesky email about it.
Here's one from me:
"Dear Staff, when anything important is broken at the library make sure to ask at least six people to make sure it really is broken. It probably isn't. Also, if something really is broken and a temporary work around has been put into place take the time to consider whether it is a bad, inefficient work around. It may have been put into place by the sort of person who doesn't know how to stack books in boxes."
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Once, long ago, I almost died. Most of us have had our run ins with death. Life is dangerous. In this long ago time my friend Grape and I half died, not in the sense of injury, but in the sense of a fifty-fifty chance. It could have gone either way, control was gone, on one side lay death and on the other life. But since one can't be half dead I am still all here.
What if every time a chance at death came our way we died partly, like a cat losing one life out of its nine. It would only be fair though, since we are not cats and have but one life, that each portion would be in relation to what we have left: So if someone is already 50 percent dead, and a truck miraculously swerves to miss them, and it was a fifty-fifty shot, they lose half of the the 50 percent they have left and are now 75 percent dead. This results in them being able to see in the dark and causes their normal body temperature to drop ten degrees colder. On the down side of all this increased percentage of death one eventually sleeps almost all the time and shows no reflection in mirrors and is pale and faded. On the plus side no mere chance of death can kill us. We retain a fraction of life up until we encounter a 100 percent likelihood of death.
Maybe, though, there is no such thing as chance. If I had died that night it would have been 100 percent certain that I would have. Because I didn't I was always going to live without any possibility otherwise.
Well, either way, here I am. That simple moment in a car, teetering on the brink, out on Stunt Canyon Road, is somehow finding its way to completely inform the great bulk of your reality at this moment. After all, you are reading this. I'm pretty sure you couldn't be here if I were dead.
Of course, Grape may be reading this, but it would be different for him. He was there, driving the car.
When we were still teenagers we would drive into the Santa Monica Mountains. That's what they're called. They're more like hills, but they're really nice hills. And somewhere a canyon road winds its way steeply up near the top of Stunt Peak, which is really just the top of a big hill. But it's a mighty big hill, with a good view. We liked to go there. From where the road ended you could walk up to the top of the highest rocks. You could see ocean and the San Fernando Valley both. It was a holy place. A place of calling. It was somewhere you could politely throw rocks, see snakes, and get stoned.
One day, on the way driving down from that peak Grape took one of those steep canyon curves kind of fast. The back wheels skidded. It was fun! So naturally, following that, at each vicious hairpin turn Grape would go kind of fast. We'd skid. It was very exciting! So Grape went a little faster on each turn, but it was all very steep, and it was kind of hard to control just how fast we were going. So the last time he did it the back wheels skidded and then they kept on skidding. Then the front wheels skidded. Then the whole car just slalomed about on its own, careening down the road. On one side was a rock and dirt embankment, on the other side was something that was for all intents and purposes a cliff. Even now I can see us down there at the bottom of it, the smoking ruin of a burning car, blood, the end of the world.
We hit the embankment side. But you knew that.
I am not telling this story because I suddenly remembered our harrowing slide. I am telling it because for some reason I recently vividly remembered Grape calling his family from a public phone to report our accident. We modified the story to include a rock in the road. A big rock, well, pretty big. We might also, in the telling, have left out the roller coastery part, feeling it was a more of an optional detail that not everyone would handle as well as they should.
You might be thinking that Grape was not being such a good or responsible driver, but this never even occurred to me. I am merely thankful he somehow, through some measure of driving skill, managed to get us safely mashed into the side of Stunt Hill.
We still had things to do. And even now, 34 years later, we have not done them all.
Monday, December 26, 2016
No, the title of this post aside, I am fine with Christmas, which, due to the tape delay quality of the Internet is over for you even though it began just 47 minutes ago for me. It takes forever to get something published on the Internet. All those committees and processing boards and whatnot. And they're certainly not going to meet on Christmas Day.
So Christmas is perfectly nice for me. I write a blog post, and then I can go to sleep. In the morning I am with my wife for the day. Freezing rain will fall all afternoon and will be a good excuse to stay inside making coffee. I like to think making coffee is enough activity for any one day. And it is, you know, if you take the time to make a proper cappuccino.
Once upon a time I did celebrate Christmas as Christmas. I was young. The night before it my father would pretend to yell out the window "I don't care who you are fat man, get your reindeer off my roof!" This was a funny joke, but he didn't write it. It's an old joke. I can't find the source, but if he had ever really yelled it out the window my heart might be melting to think of him now.
There it was pop, yell it out the window. Just yell it! Who cares what the neighbors think?
My family celebrated Christmas with a reluctant restraint, unable to resist its charms and yet feeling there would be some kind of betrayal in a Jewish family going so far as to have a tree or lights. Stockings hung by the chimney with care were okay. Santa was acceptable, as long as we mock mocked him out the window that night. Not loud enough for him to hear though. Just loud enough to make us think about ourselves "Wouldn't it be great if we really were fun crazy."
My older brother (the slightly more disturbed one) objected to this halfhearted embrace. "Christmas is an American holiday!" He insisted. He may have been slightly joking. Sometimes it was hard to tell in that house. Sometimes it wasn't. Oh man, sometimes no one was joking at all.
Nevertheless this brother, whose "Christmas is an American holiday!" rings in my ears to this day, had a lackluster commitment to Christmas compared to my sister and I. We had a deep hunger, a feeling that because we had no chance in hell of getting what we needed emotionally, perhaps we could at least be materially remunerated, like losers on a gameshow. It only occurs to me now, roughly 40 years later, that it wasn't that my parents weren't generous enough, or good enough gift buyers, it was that what I was looking for never could have made it into a wrapped box.
Pope Francis just called for the faithful to not get caught up in the commercialization of Christmas – “when we are concerned for gifts but cold toward those who are marginalized.”
Materialism has “taken us hostage this Christmas,” he said. “We have to free ourselves of it!”
This is such a nice thought. It dovetails with what I've just been saying. But I think it's important to keep in mind that Pope Francis, Il Papa no less, has fallen short of the requisite passion and danger. You can't just talk at the window, Pope Francis. You're Pope. You have to open that fucking window and yell.
Sunday, December 25, 2016
There is no god. What a Universe, what a place! All these atoms everywhere. Everything dying but nothing, in the whole great infinity, dead. And yet no god.
God looks down on me even as I write there is no God.
Ah, but maybe if God did not look down on me, we could have one.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
I don't know how many friends I have. I get confused on the point. I'm willing to be free with the term if someone wants it. But in my heart friends is all blood brothers for life and that sort of thing. Do I have a couple of friends out there? Sure.
I never know what to make of all those people at the library I work at. They've always been mostly co-workers, but things can drift into the more personal. I'm a personal person. Even with the patrons I'm inclined to be real. Professionalism is the structure, a kind of support, but I am the body, having, in my heart, to represent everything. Only those who deny my humanity get presented with a cold bureaucracy. And many people like to banter or chat with me, but who will swear allegiance to me? Who is specific? Among all these relationships spanning belligerence to sympathy what does anything mean? What do we share?
There's always culture. Last weekend my favorite, only soccer team played brilliantly. It was a gorgeous game by the greatest collection of athletes on the planet. Who could I share this with? For this team, Barcelona, there was only Marcus, the teen librarian, to share it with. But he's frequently off doing librarian things with local schools, prisons, vagrants, hobos, and literary gadflies. He's a librarian about town. So when it looked like he wouldn't be in on Monday I was a little crushed. How much did I want to talk to him? Well, I can talk. But I mostly just wanted to exchange that look of feverish fandom, that understanding that we'd just seen something otherworldly. By some miracle he showed up in the late afternoon. I walked past him. "Did you see that!" I exclaimed, needing no reference.
"This is what it's about." He replied.
Tonight I came across a bluegrass band called The Dead South. "What a great song!" I exclaimed about In hell I'll be in Good Company. "I have to tell Dave. Dave would love this like me!"
Oh, but Dave has been gone for years.
So I'm telling you.
Friday, December 23, 2016
The "If I Were King of the Library" project was begun so many decades ago on this blog that some of you who only started following along with me here in the past few months or years may not be acquainted with it. Others may have forgotten about it after months of my inactivity. And still others of you may be grabbing your little computer screen, shaking it in fury, and screaming "It's about time you did another King of the Library! I have been waiting forever!"
Excuse me. I apologize. I got brain fever. While in Africa. Hunting powerful ancient relics. And, um, saving the world with magic and bravery and adventures. But I don't want to brag, or make excuses.
I do believe that on the deeply neglected (by me) sidebar of my blog (located at www.clerkmanifesto.com, where you may even now be) I still keep a set of links to my collection of "King of the Library" posts. While the title of this project is, I feel, self explanatory, I refuse to let that stop me from explaining. I will not be silenced by the mere bullying fact that nothing need be said!
I will not be bullied into silence by the fact that nothing need be said.
And so "King of the Library" is a series of policy mandates, mercurial ideas, and staff perks I would institute if I were given a liege-like power over my library system. It should be noted that I have not been given this power and so my library system is nowhere near as wonderful as it could be. I haven't even been given a tiny crumb from the table of power at my library, which is why my library system is not as good as it could be. But I have, on occasion, and through a colossal amount of ingenuity, effort, craftiness, and force of will on my part, taken, no, stolen the shadow of a crumb of power at my library, which is why my library system manages to be pretty good, despite itself, at least partly.
So far my proclamations have included procedural, work related issues (everybody shelves), a host of intricate, adventurous, and involving collection development and display proclamations, and one proclamation that put a sushi bar in our break room. Today's proclamation ventures into new territory by being higher level, more boring, slightly political, and a little sad. It is sad because I shouldn't have to waste a proclamation on something like this. Once upon a time what I am making into a law was largely true in my library system. In many library systems, especially smaller ones, it probably is still mostly true.
I better tell you the proclamation.
The library shall pay no company to do its work. We employ people, never companies.
That's it. We can hire janitors, but never a janitorial service. We can sell weeded and donated books to raise money, but we never give these books to a company to sell for a share of their profits. No one chooses or processes our books for us. To every extent possible we fix our own machines, write our own software, and do our own plumbing.
In my library system, one large enough to employ well over a hundred people, the fact that we have switched to a paid janitorial service is, well, I don't want to get everyone all worked up because we will end up talking about Republicans and Nazis and the end of the world, and then there's yelling and lot's of gesticulating and rash words about the library management.
I don't want to upset anyone with rash words concerning library management. Not to mention Nazis. Not to mention Nazi Management.
So I retreat to my private fiefdom of dreams and fantasy Kingships, and I write proclamations. But I must say that when a government organization of any kind, anywhere, hires a company to do their job, or one of their jobs, they are functionally saying that they are unable to do it themselves. This is the point at which they should politely be asked to leave. I am perfectly happy to bemoan government waste. The solution to that is a lean, motivated, non hierarchical staff. It is not hiring what effectively amounts to the workers you need through intermediaries, and so also, by hiring a company, hiring a second set of managers, second payroll, a second human resources department, and one new Capitalist boss whose job it is to extract profit out of it all for himself.
Oops. We weren't going to do this with all the gesticulating. We're just here to issue a proclamation.
We're a library. We are a do it yourself operation. That is our law. Also I'm king. I don't have to tremble with righteous outrage when I can stamp out this nonsense with a stroke of my pen. It's no good for our kingly back to fret. I can make the library as I see fit. And I would like to extend this passion against privatization as far as possible. Yes, we'll have to buy books from publishers, but even there we have made a previous decree, the fourth decree that involved adding local, unpublished items to our collection. Can we make our own furniture? I don't know, but it's on the table. Hmm. And when it comes to software and e-book collections we should be working with libraries across the country cooperatively to build, open source, the programs we need, tailored to us and flexible.
Once again we are back to a common theme here. There is real value in the homemade and the bespoke in a library. That value will come through to the patrons, to the engagement of the employees and volunteers, and to the health of the community.
And so it is decreed, this day, etc. etc.
Feldenstein Calypso, King of the Library
Thursday, December 22, 2016
I recently went on a month long vacation to Rome. This was known to many people. I wasn't shy about mentioning it. I made a rather enthusiastic fuss of it in the year leading up to it. I included more than a hundred people in postcards that I sent from there. And, since my return, at my library job, I find ways to say "Oh, I was recently in Rome on vacation" seven or eight times a day. As in "You're checking out a travel book to Italy? I was just in Rome a couple months ago!" Or "Yes, the weather has really been frightful lately. It was much warmer in Rome, where I was on vacation a couple months ago." Or "The bathrooms are out in the lobby. Or as they say in Rome 'I bagni sono a sinistra.' I was just in Rome on vacation. Sorry."
But if there is one thing I have learned about all this talking about vacation it is this:
When someone enthusiastically corners you and says "Oh my God, you were in Rome for a month! I want to hear all about it. Tell me everything!" what they are really saying is:
"I would really really really like to tell you about the fantastic four day trip I took to Florence a few years ago!"
Which brings up the other thing I have learned. It is best to go on these sorts of trips for one's own personal pleasure. Fortunately, with a bit of practice, this is manageable.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Perhaps our nation's faith in God has waned. Maybe the power of churches and preachers has broken under the weight of corruption. Possibly even the media market has altered, and there is no room for TV faith healers anymore. I don't know. I only know that miraculous religious health cures have been slowly disappearing across our Nation.
This is well documented. Yes, these days someone praying at the Western Wall or at a Taoist Shrine may be abruptly cured of a Cancer that every Doctor insisted was fatal and inoperable. But it doesn't happen much. Not anymore.
It turns out that the best place to head for miraculous healing is no longer to your local church but rather to your local library. More and more people are coming to libraries with grave afflictions and walking out cured. Did they plan this? No. They were as surprised as the rest of us working at libraries. We have never considered libraries to be particularly healthful environments. And I don't know how or why the lame are miraculously made to walk when they come to my library. I only know it has been happening.
You have not heard of this? No, few people have. Unlike religions, libraries are fairly laid back when it comes to proselytizing and self-promotion. We as a community are phlegmatic as regards miracles taking place on our watch. Miracles have always taken place here in libraries, and now, just because there is an upsurge of them affecting the crippled and lame, it doesn't warrant us getting all excitable.
Perhaps you want to know what these miracles look like. Do people leap out of their wheelchairs? Do the hobbled suddenly bound up our stairs? To tell you the truth I have not yet witnessed one of these miracles at the exact instant they have taken place. I have only seen the aftermath: The vast array of walking canes and walkers that have begun overflowing our lost and found area.
Suddenly we are awash in them. I suppose eventually we can donate them all to churches.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
I would have thought I'd written more about the trip my wife and I recently took to Rome. We were there for a month, but the project of taking that trip consumed me for a year. And what is there in writing about it so far? A mere 64 blog posts about Rome. The subject could stand a good deal more. I remember... things.
But for all these essays I've written, fake travelogues, and moderately well researched guides, one thing it hasn't much occurred to me to write about is what sucked in Rome. When people asked me, after my return, how was Rome, the simplest, truest answer was to say it was perfect.
And the power of the real world, of language, and of the human heart, is that perfect has room in it for total disasters. Perfect can be full of failures. When I think of this in regard to glorious, wonderful, beautiful, magical, perfect Rome, I think of cheese.
Rome did not understand cheese. I would not have expected that.
Oh, their fresh cheeses were fine, great even. Buffalo milk mozzarella is half the battle in their remarkable pizza. And some of the wonderful Parmesan was around from up north, but when it came to their eating cheeses they specialized in very bland sheep milk cheeses that all tasted much the same, and some kind of Blue that was more gray than blue and always looked like it had died right there on the plate. Flies liked it.
We tried our share of cheese boards. We tried them in fine restaurants, in a well regarded cheese market cafe called Beppe E i Suoi Formaggi, and at a variety of Prosciutterias. That they did not understand cheese, or apparently think it worthwhile to borrow from the north what was clearly beyond them, was a genuine surprise. And a disappointment.
I appreciate this. I appreciate the ability of darkness to give texture and dimension to perfection. Even in the best of times one needs a little let down now and then to give music and rhythm to the ideal. Perfection cannot be flat.
Plus there is the next trip to begin planning. Disappointment from the last can provide guidance. If formaggio didn't work, surely there is fromage.
Monday, December 19, 2016
This is how the weather goes at this time of year in Minnesota.
Finally, on one day in December, it will be so lovely out, so clear and white and fairyland, so bejeweled and clean that your heart will be pierced by the beauty of it all. You will be so filled with wonder that actual tears will form in your eyes and spill over. Struck by the revelations of God you will fall to your knees.
Then your tears will freeze solid on your cheeks and if you don't pop up quick back onto your feet and move around some you will freeze to death right there in the snow.
But a day like that doesn't happen all at once. There are months of lead-up to it. It takes weeks and weeks to assemble conditions so perfect they can kill you. And it all starts in Autumn.
Autumn here is pretty glorious. Flowers bloom. The trees turn one by one to fire. Winds come, the leaves swirl in mad pitches of thrilling chaos, and the sky runs through a series of tumultuous passions. It is all a trick to distract you from the coming of Winter. But it's a good trick. If Autumn were just fairly pretty you'd hardly see it because you'd be too depressed thinking about how any second now you'll be spending the vast bulk of your days putting on clothes, taking off clothes, and scraping ice off of things in perpetual darkness. So instead Autumn dazzles you all the way to November.
At that point things turn dead and ugly. In November the skies go to a flat, dark, endless gloom. The sun disappears utterly. Strange, dark smelling fruits fall to the sidewalks and rot, clotting into your shoe treads. But you don't care as long as the dreaded snows hold off. As long as you don't have to shovel, as long as you don't need gloves, mittens, and six hats to go outside you're okay existing in an ever darkening half life of dead plants and grey dirt.
And Minnesota knows this. The god of seasons understands. So it grows even darker and uglier on you. The weather ceases to change and is wet, featureless, and 41 degrees at all times. You are in perfect health and yet feel like you are dying of pneumonia. All color leaches from the natural world until not even black or white is left. If it manages to go on long enough even gray disappears. You are left in the end with merely vague shapes in a dull fog.
Then, suddenly, horribly, it snows. The temperature falls out into a chasm. You curse the beginning of winter. You toil to dig clear. You go back inside for more clothes. Your back is killing you once again. You are full of dread.
And the next morning the sky is blue for the first time in a month. You walk to work and though it is minus seven degrees the trees are full of snow. Thick clusters of strange red berries hang joyfully from the branches and all wear perfect tall white hats. You are walking on a cloud. You hear songbirds and look up into the trees. The raw blueness of the sky blinds you for a moment, and then you see them:
Thousands of robins, heavy in every tree for six or seven city blocks, redbreasts vivid and plump, all of them resting awhile on their journey south.
And that's how weather goes here in Minnesota at this time of year.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
I was out at the front desk of my library with a co-worker, a long time substitute clerk. She was telling me about how for Christmas her husband and her were getting each other DNA tests. They thought it would be fun to learn their genetic history, and they certainly didn't need anything else. She said her grown children found this gift intriguing and wished they were getting a DNA test too. I said it would be interesting to test the accuracy of the test by having her and her husband get it and then having their kids get it and seeing how perfectly it matched up.
She said "Oh. But my husband is not their father."
I so wish now I replied in a scandalized whisper "Does he know?"
Saturday, December 17, 2016
Many are the human virtues, and I am happy to see them embodied out in the world, demonstrated by real live human beings. Generosity impresses me greatly. Courage is inspiring. Humility has a kind of lovely power to it, as does integrity. We can always use more of those virtues out there in the world. Persistence and compassion have their places and used judiciously can be lovely. I enjoy when people have a strong sense of justice. Temperance comes in handy, and, though it can be hard to see, wisdom is one of the most beautiful of the virtues. However, if I had to pick one favorite virtue to find out in the general public I guess it would have to be "laughing at my jokes".
Friday, December 16, 2016
A library patron just came to me at the front desk. He had two special request items to pick up, Interlibrary loans we call them, items we borrowed from another system to loan to him. We keep these behind the desk. One was a book: Making Professional Charcuterie. The other was a classical music CD: Great Organ Favorites.
I said to the patron "At first glance these items seem unrelated, but now I see how they belong together." He looked at me blankly.
Fortunately you get it.
Thursday, December 15, 2016
Rome was full of delightful discoveries and surprises. Everything from a Raphael painting to a building painted in an anomalous color of stucco could be a blinding and joyful revelation. Treats and wonders greeted my wife and I on a daily basis. And though the research I did before our month-long trip was exhaustive, reality has a way of evading the Internet and nimbly avoiding being put into any guidebook. You only find it walking the streets and breathing it in.
But you kind of have to be there to discover new things. So when I came home from Rome I thought I was all done with these Roman revelations. But one last discovery, charmingly, decided to hide in plain site, only to reveal itself more than a month after our return home, leaping out of hiding long after we were ensconced once again in normal life.
On the eve of our visit to Rome I decided one useful thing for me to have there would be a common, easy to order, readily available Roman Cocktail, something I could easily find and get at both the most casual street cafes and in the swankiest hotel rooftop bars. When I looked into this subject I found one common Roman Cocktail with virtually no competition. The Negroni. The Negroni is a classic and ubiquitous Italian Cocktail. Consisting of one part gin (my favorite spirit), one part Campari (a beautiful ruby red complicated drink of mystery made only in Italy), and one part Sweet Red Vermouth (whatever), all over the rocks with a slice of orange, the Negroni was probably the only thing I regularly asked for in Rome wherein when I asked I was always understood. Even asking for a Cappuccino might get confused across the language barrier, but never the Negroni. Ever it came. No one ever looked at me blankly or said something mystifying in reply. And it was nearly identical no matter where I got it. Simple glass, beautiful red, I usually wished it were stirred a bit more. Ice. Orange slice. Often it came with peanuts, sometimes olives too. Sometimes potato chips of all things.
I liked it. I had one Negroni and I liked it. Sweet, bitter, and with a complexity of fruit and herb flavors that were hard to pin down. Usually the flavor of cherry was in there. I love the flavor of cherry! In 1947 Orson Welles had a Negroni in Rome where it was newly becoming popular. He said "The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other." I drank a lot of Negronis. I guess I came out even.
And I kept drinking them after I came home. I got gin. I got Campari. And I got Red Vermouth. The gin was the power of the drink. The Campari brought the complex flavors. And the Red Vermouth was there for some reason. I wasn't sure.
So I looked up Red Vermouth. People liked it. You could drink it on the rocks. It was wine made stronger, sweet, and mixed with secret recipes of herbs and such. So one night I took my Dolin Rosso Vermouth, poured out a little over ice, and had a taste.
There were the cherries! There were all these flavors I knew from the Negroni. This was lovely! I was drinking Red Vermouth all along in Rome, but I only found it a month later!
I still have Negronis. That Campari gets expensive though. Sometimes I just have Vermouth on the rocks, and it's pretty and satisfying. Sometimes I have Vermouth on the rocks with a little gin. I love them all. All Rome. And done.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Let's talk about a painting.
It's by Raphael. You've heard of him. Big Renaissance painter. He never meant much to me. This painting is called La Fornarina. It's of a mostly naked woman. You could look it up on the Internet, but you won't see it. Oh, you'll see a picture of it, but it's not all that good.
I can barely begin tell you how satisfying that is to me.
Once I was in my family's living room with one of my older brothers. My parents had a picture of a Matisse in a frame on the wall. Because I was in art school at the time my brother asked me what was the point of a painting, what was the virtue of a painting if we can just make reproductions of it and hang it on our walls. Why even have museums?
And because all my brothers were assholes and most things they said were tests they hoped I would fail, it was a pleasure to pass that one. I told him there is no reproduction in the world that can get the colors right, the feel, the physicality, there is no picture that can fully reproduce a painting.
I have never really taken to Raphael. Many years ago my wife and I went to see Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. On the way we had to traipse through the bulk of Raphael's greatest work. It was not a great art viewing day. It was crowded. The Vatican is criminally mismanaged. None of it made me very happy.
A couple months ago we were in Rome. I was unusually excited to go to the Palazzo Barberini on this trip. But I kind of saved it up. Many times we went by the Barberini without going in. Their signs featured a picture of a woman oddly holding her breast. La Fornarina. It didn't look like much. We had bigger fish to fry at the Barberini. They have two of the best staircases in the world. They have these ceilings... They might have the greatest painting in the world.
But when we finally went it was a small enough museum, barely, to go see every painting in it. And even if it weren't we would have gone to see the Raphael. Why not? Sometimes, usually even, there's something to all that fuss. So we went to a room I can still picture. There on the wall was La Fornarina. Black hair, black eyes, a funny head scarf. I don't care who she was or what she looks like. It was.....
It was so clear. So perfect. So radiant as a painting, like the face of the painting was to another world. It's almost cartoon like in its perfection. Aye, what a thing. You don't need art history, not a bit of it. You don't need to know who it's of. You don't need to know who painted it or when. You just have to open your eyes. No, open them again.
But that's all you need.
Oh, except you have to see it. The actual painting. Nothing else will do. It is magic. The light comes from the inside out and goes dark in any picture ever taken of it. La Fornarina, like most great paintings, disappears in reproductions. La Fornarina is an unreproducible miracle. It is an incandescent wonder.
And it is at absolute most the far distant second best painting in the Barberini, which is its own kind of fun.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
There is art and then there is ART.
I was re-reading some book I love for twelfth time. I saw a picture of the dead author in the back. "How old was he when he wrote this?" I asked myself. My age. He was my age.
I've painted and made movies and been in a band. I've left a snail trail of art and stories behind me. I wrote a cartoon for a few years. There was comedy I made, drama, poetry, more comedy, and sheer nonsense. I swung for the fences. Sometimes I made a little money, sometimes a little sweet, sweet acclaim, but mostly it was pipe dreams. I'm good at pipe dreams. I'm pipe dreaming right now as I write.
Sometimes late at night I start reading over my old blog posts. I'm at about 1,400 of them now. My masterwork. Sometimes I get very excited about one or two if I pick the right ones. But after reading five or ten I always come out to, they're okay. They're okay.
And so here I am, at the height of my powers. This is the height of my powers. I'm glad you are seeing me now. This is as good as it gets. It's.....okay.
I can live with that. I can.
But I'm human, and sometimes I want to kick a few teeth in too.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Those of you scattered across the world reading this might naturally imagine that everyone I work with is an avid reader of clerkmanifesto.
This is not so.
Most notably I am pretty sure I am down to just one librarian reader. You are probably thinking "Well, one is still a lot!" and that would have been true early in my career when there were so few librarians to start with, all fanatically dedicated, endlessly toiling, full-time librarians culled from a tiny list of qualified local professionals. But nowadays the older, full-time librarians are mostly on vacation all the time or having hip surgery, and the horrible glut of young librarians desperately compete for future jobs by subbing for them in hideous, random two hour shifts. It takes a great many librarians to staff a busy library when the average librarian workload is zero to two hours per week.
All of this means that out of thousands of librarian co-workers only one of them reads this.
It is possible this is because I frequently make cruel fun of librarians on this blog. You would think that they would understand I only do this out of jealousy over their money besotted work lives of sickening indulgence and dizzying luxury.
But they don't understand that. And they're not really into reading anyway, unless you count cheap pulp novels, professional librarian journals, and twitter.
But I do still have the one tenacious, mildly dedicated librarian reader.
The cynical among you might say that this person only reads this because I mention him here occasionally.
I prefer to think that the power and profundity of my work blots out any negative considerations on his part.
But I'm pretty sure he actually reads this because it comes to his email on a daily basis and he is constitutionally unable to not read any text that comes within 300 yards of him. I think this speaks well of him as a librarian, unlike others.
This tendency is why when I have a spare hour or two I spend it randomly signing up people to receive my blogposts via their email inbox. Hundreds of you are now saying to yourself "Oh. So that's how I started getting all these! There are just so many! Is there some way to unsubscribe?"
Sunday, December 11, 2016
When a new, petty irritation comes along to me at the library I work at I rejoice.
"Oh boy!" I cry. "I can write a blog post about this!"
Then I think "But remember, the 14% of your readers who expressed a "strong preference" for posts about petty irritations on your recent blog satisfaction survey said they only like them when they have a lot of swearing. Does this have swearing?"
Yes, it has swearing!!!!!!
"They also enjoy overreacting."
I totally overreact! I'm great at overreacting!!! I am a better overreacter than anyone ever in the history of the Universe!!!!!
So this should go just fine and everyone can relax.
I was working on the machine when a delivery man came in the back door. He was looking for a co-worker of mine, let's call her Liz. He had a pallet of something to drop off. As I opened our garage door for him I told him I could sign for it. He said that he had to go back for this missing pallet and because this co-worker, Liz, had signed for the first group, and had signed off on his coming back, she would specifically have to sign for this one as well.
Whatever, I understand. I would go get Liz.
But just as I was heading off my manager arrived saying "I'll take care of this." Apparently some of what was in this delivery were things he had been waiting for. I told my manager the guy needed Liz's signature for this delivery in particular. As my manager waded in with the delivery person about how all these things were going to be set in the garage, I had one of those suspicious moments. So before I went tramping off into the library to search all over for Liz I called out to the delivery person "So then, do you still need Liz's signature?"
And he casually said, gesturing to my manager "Oh, no, he can just sign for it."
"Fuck you then." I said to him. "Fuck you for wasting my time you lying piece of shit. You're an liar and an asshole and I hope you die soon."
At which point I turned my attention to more important things, like this blog.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
Though it is possible I have given the impression, I am not diametrically opposed to dogs. Yesterday I walked by a fenced yard in my neighborhood and noted what seemed to be a newly acquired dog there. I gave it a wide birth. It was a reasonably intelligent and daffy looking Australian Shepherd. And I thought "Don't bark at me and we can begin to see about developing a cordial relationship."
He didn't bark, so there's that. He didn't even look like he was thinking about barking. This is essential.
Because barking is the deal breaker, albeit just one among many. The vocabulary of the bark may be complex; 101 Dalmatians even counted it as a fully articulate language. But that was at heart a fantasy novel. And though I am willing to ascribe complexity to the bark in all its manifestations, when I am on the sidewalks of my city and a dog barks at me I am firmly convinced it translates to only one thing:
"Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!"
That is all a barking dog is ever saying in that context.
So although there is still hope with this new Australian Shepherd, we are really only at the barest of beginnings.
This should be contrasted with the enormous, reserved friendliness of the cats I have been meeting lately. For some odd, but delightful reason, they have suddenly begun accompanying me on walks. I know cats aren't known for "walks", but there it has been. It first happened when my wife and I were out for a stroll. A cat ran up to us. This is common enough. We said hello, and then we walked on. And the cat went with us. Sometimes the cat walked out ahead, sometimes at our side. It felt like a bit of delicate magic. I kept expecting it to end, but it went on for a couple blocks. I got the impression the cat had gone far enough away from home when it turned back, and that was it.
This happened again the same day I met the Australian Shepherd. I was far up the river, on a grassy median, when a calico cat trotted up to me and rubbed his ears against my hand. Then we walked together for awhile. The calico kept a cat-respectable distance, but there's no way around it: we were on a small journey together. We went pretty far too. And I was the one who caused the parting. I had to turn off of where we were in order to walk across the Franklin Bridge, alone.
It was not without a pang of regret.
Friday, December 9, 2016
This morning I headed out on my four mile commuting nature walk. A song from a John Coltrane album was stuck in my head and I couldn't stop singing it. The temperature was just beginning to fall towards some real winter weather. A nearby neighbor's half frozen rosebush had raindrops on the roses, but before I got two blocks on my way snow started falling. Soon it was cold enough that the snowflakes stayed on my nose and eyelashes. I took out my warm woolen mittens and put them on. A kitten ambled up to me and rubbed his whiskers against my ankles. Wild geese flew south overhead. The moon was still up that morning and it looked like it was on their wings.
There was something odd about all of these things.
Someone rang the doorbell on a house I was passing. I thought I heard sleigh bells. Everything looked silver-white. Then the sun came out and melted everything like it was already spring. I took off my warm woolen mittens. There was another kitten with whiskers. I felt shaky about all this. This wasn't the same kitten, was it? It looked like it was the exact same kitten, with the whiskers.
I got to the library and the supplies I ordered had all arrived wrapped in brown paper packages. I had to get some scissors because they were tied up with strings. I put my dinner away in the refrigerator and was surprised because I thought I'd brought hummus and carrots, but I remembered incorrectly and had a Tupperware full of schnitzel with noodles instead. I was starting to get unnerved in my head.
Marcus, the teen librarian was boiling water in a bright copper kettle. He was whistling the same song I'd been singing all day, the John Coltrane one. He asked if I wanted any tea. I declined, but helped myself to a piece of the crisp apple strudel one of my co-workers had brought in for the free food table.
"Roses" I thought. "My neighbors don't have any roses!"
I went to the front desk. Some big event was going on in the meeting room. "What's up with all the girls with blue satin sashes?" I asked nervously. There were a lot of them. I found something about the blue satin particularly disturbing.
"The ones in white dresses?" My co-worker asked excitedly. "They're here with the ponies. There are two little cream-colored ponies in the meeting room for some Austrian Culture presentation. You should go see!"
I told her I'd better go lay down instead. So I did.
I felt funny for a long time. I felt sad, actually, for awhile.
But now, somehow, when I reflect upon all these things, I don't feel so bad.