Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why "Subversive Librarian"?

So, a new friend -- and already a dear one -- has asked me whether "subversive librarian" might be an oxymoron. Fair question. Since it's been a while, I'm re-posting one of my earliest posts that addressed that very subject..

The Subversive Librarian


“The subversive librarian.” Now, that's an oxymoron . . . . or is it?

The archetype librarian is about as subversive as, well, spinster Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We all know the stereotype, and there’s no point in flogging it to death here.

Librarians take great pains to prove that we’re really nothing like our stereotype. In fact, listen in on a library listserv and sooner or later, someone will start a thread about how utterly cool we really are. First, there will be a picture of a librarian on water skis. A flurry of comments and photos will quickly follow. Before it’s all over, somebody will post a picture of a half-naked librarian sporting his huge Marilyn Manson tattoo and multiple tongue piercings. Ok, I concede. There are some cool librarians.

Unfortunately, none of that silliness undermines (or subverts, if you will) the one stereotype about librarians that has spawned all the rest: Librarians love their rules – at least when it comes to books.

This rule thing has nothing to do with coolness. I don’t care if your librarian did get arrested in Juarez last May for peeing in the fountain at Plaza de Armas. He’s still not going to let you check out more than two books with the same call number. Why? Because it’s the Rule. And that’s why the words “subversive” and “librarian” just don’t seem to go together.

I’m not here to defend your librarian’s peculiarities. I’ve been to library conventions and frankly, some librarians are just plain weird. Especially law librarians.

But (and isn’t this predictable?) I do want to tell you why I think librarians are cool. Our coolness lies not in our hobbies, or what we look like, but in the profession’s fundamental subversiveness. And yes, I do mean that as a compliment.

What does it mean to be subversive? Well, according to my Brand X dictionary, to “subvert” is to destroy completely; to undermine character, morals, or allegiance; or to overthrow completely. I checked a couple other dictionaries and they said basically the same thing.

But that’s not what subversion means to me. The word “subvert” comes from the Latin sub, meaning below, and vertere, to turn. To me, that doesn’t say destroy. To me, it says dig, explore, and turn the soil if you need to. Even – especially – if someone says you’re not supposed to. And isn’t that just what librarians do?

I’m not the only one that thinks librarians are subversive. Author Michael Moore thinks so, too. We revealed our true nature after a publisher threatened to drop his book because it contained comments criticizing the President:
I didn't know who any of these people were. They -- this one librarian found out about it, and she got in a, I don't know, library chat room. Or she sent a letter out to a list of librarians, and they sent it out to a bunch of people, and the thing kind of mushroomed from there. . . . I really didn't realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. . . . They are subversive. You think they're just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They're like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn't mess with them.
Now is that cool, or what?

Of course, some people are afraid of subversives, but that just means they think we’re powerful. A few years back, the American Library Association came out opposing mandatory Internet filters on library computers. Dr. Laura Schlessinger accused the ALA of “boldly, brashly contributing to sexualizing our children. . . . [a]nd . . . mak[ing] sure your children have easy access to pornography, under the guise of free speech." We did all that? Of course not. But I figure if we got that kind of reaction from Dr. Laura, we must be doing something right. By the way, whatever happened to her?

At any rate, that makes at least three people – Michael Moore, Dr. Laura, and me – who know just how subversive and powerful we librarians are. And while I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, I sort of like being feared for my unbridled power.

My job as a librarian is to help you dig and explore so you can turn the soil if you think it needs turning. It’s really none of my business whether you want to start a new chapter of the Communist party or just find a recipe for cabbage au gratin. Do I make judgments about you? Well, yeah! But do I tell you what I think, or discourage you from digging, or censor what I give you? Nope. I just give you a wise and mysterious look – kind of like the Mona Lisa – and wonder why on earth you would eat cabbage if your mother isn’t making you.

Still, what’s so subversive about that, and what’s so cool about being a librarian? I mean, aside from the fact that last year I got to go to a seminar on mold prevention (as if that weren’t enough!).

There will always be someone who doesn’t want you to know something. In some cultures, women are prevented from reading – supposedly for their own good. The entity that’s trying to keep information out of your hands claims to have good reasons too. But being sincere doesn’t make it right.

Librarians get to right the wrong. We get to put the decision-making process back in your hands, where it belongs. We get to provide the digging equipment, let you find what you find, and let you decide what to do with it. And sometimes we get to watch your garden grow, knowing that we helped plant the seeds.

And if it’s bad? Well, then, soon enough, another of you will come looking for a way to fix it, and we get to help plant those seeds as well. In fact, every once in a while, librarians are the only ones willing to help you start digging. And if the government will let us (and for some librarians, even if it won’t), we even get to keep your secrets.

Quietly subversive. Just powerful enough. And very cool.

KEYWORDS for FBI file on Lynne RhysSubversive. Librarian. Communist. Cabbage.

Monday, March 16, 2015

How many second chances does it take to change a lightbulb?

It takes what it takes, that's how many. Or so I'm told.

For whatever reason, I have been given yet another second chance. An amazing library job in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Santa Fe, New Mexico. Home.

Word came in January.

My daughter and I packed up the car and the dog and the cat, and off we went on a lovely  three-day, 1,300-mile adventure. We stayed in charming, cheap old Route 66 hotels, and we stopped at the Cadillac Ranch, and we drove into the high desert. I took my daughter to the Santa Fe airport to fly home. And now here I am, a month into my new job and in awe of what's become of me.

That's not to say it's been easy. There have been tears and painful endings. My finances have really taken a beating, and I've got a condo to clean up and sell. Sometimes I'm lonely and a little afraid, and I'm probably sleeping more than I should. I miss my wonderful kid and my dear friends. Georgia is slipping through my fingers, That place, that time is a dream I want to remember forever, but I know that dreams fade. I grieve as I divest myself of commitments there, one by one.

On this end of the road, though, there's footwork to keep me busy. I've found a sponsor and a home group. I'm sharing at meetings.  I'm finally beginning to explore the city after a few weeks of hibernating in my safe little adobe house,  I'm even starting to dip my toes into some social activities. There's a hell of a lot to do here, and an awful lot of smart, interesting people.

But this is a town full of writers and artists and incredible beauty, and that's calling something deep within, It's reminding me
that I have to write. I just do. It's part of this second chance I've been given.

And so it's time to look inside. Time to discard the dark cloak of writer's block.

Time to brave the naked page once again.


Sunday, September 07, 2014

Coming Out is Hard To Do

Kudos to Mark Olmsted for telling his story in the Huffington Post.and in his blog, The Trash Whisperer. Olmsted, who earned a Master's degree so he could become a teacher, is prohibited from teaching in most school districts because of drug-related felony convictions. A recovering meth addict, he shares his story in support of "ban the box" statutes that soften the impact of previous felony convictions in employment. Olmsted appreciates such laws, but argues that they don't go far enough because he could still be banned from teaching.

While I get the reasons for not giving felons access to young, sensitive, impressionable minds, I agree with Olmstead that someone with his life experience has a lot to offer. As an HIV positive man watching friends die all around during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, he lived his life on a "two year plan," figuring there was not much point in planning for the future. I think a lot of addicts live on that plan, and so do a lot of at-risk kids. A teacher who understands that mindset could be a wonderful asset, and could probably even save a life or two. Experience doesn't have to be yours to be educational.

These days, even conservatives are willing to concede that throwing people in prison isn't always the answer; this despite the increasing privatization of the American prison industrial complex. Maybe we're seeing the beginning of a paradigm shift. As people like Olmsted "come out" and tell their stories, maybe we'll see the law follow changing cultural mores. I'm encouraged, for example, by the growing public support for the legalization of marijuana. Someday maybe we'll find the idea of arresting drug users quaintly old-fashioned and counterproductive, like Prohibition.

And after all, who would I rather have teaching my kid: a thin-lipped prune who's lived the straight and narrow all his life but hates children? Or somebody with "life experience" who thrives in the classroom? Yes, I know, that's a false dichotomy. But there are enough shitty teachers out there to make the point relevant. Give me somebody who loves teaching. Even if he's a recovering meth addict with a criminal record.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

On Getting Older, God, and Cherry Spit

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner
Boy, oh boy, am I excited. Tomorrow is my very first colonoscopy! And that means I haven't eaten anything since yesterday. This morning, when I started this colon-cleansing adventure, I took a picture of my fasting diet for the day. Yum!

But I didn't realize the best was yet to come. Since six o'clock this evening, I've been enjoying a seductive and effective elixir: four liters of cherry spit, designed to clean out my lower intestine until it's so clean you can eat off of it.

Four liters. Two 2-liter bottles, to be consumed one glass at a time, every fifteen minutes. Somehow I've got to fit bathroom, uh, duties into this manic schedule, and there's not a whole lot of room for error. Add blogging to that, and you can see I've had one busy evening.

(It's pretty bad when this is the best thing I can come up with to blog about. But I digress.)

Anyway, going through this interesting new process has been something of a reality check, both physically and spiritually.

Physically, it's a reminder that I'm getting older. Actually, way older, because I was supposed to start doing this seven years ago, at age 50. Do as I say, not as I do.

Spiritually, it's a vivid and colorful reminder that I'm terribly ordinary and subject to the same human indignities as everybody else on the planet. If you make me drink four liters of spit-flavored laxative, I'm going to get diarrhea, and all the terminal uniqueness in the world isn't going to quell the urge.

Not to change the subject or anything, but Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is almost upon us, and ten days after that is Yom Kippur. I'm supposed to fast on Yom Kippur.

You know, if I'd just scheduled my colonoscopy for the day after Yom Kippur, I could be getting God points right now.

So if you're Jewish, and over 50, and you live in Atlanta, don't even think about scheduling your next colonoscopy around Yom Kippur. It's mine. I thought of it, it, and I've got dibs on it from now on.

Jesus fucking Christ.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

My Other Bucket List

Don't worry, I'm not dying, but I'm working on my bucket list anyway.  My other bucket list.

Oh, sure, there's the usual stuff -- I need to finish the play that's languishing on a dead computer in the closet. I've got a novel that's half-written, and some other writing to finish or edit or submit for publication. And I would really like to get my shit together generally, again. And lose weight, again. I should read something that's good for me, like War and Peace, or Shakespeare, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Yeats or something. I ought to either cancel my gym membership or start going. And before I die, I really, really need to clean out my closets.

Sigh.

That bucket is a burden. It's molded of cement, and I drag it with me everywhere. That's the bucket list I save for when I already feel guilty and want to feel guiltier. The one I dig through when I want to remind myself how little I've accomplished. The one I dig through when trying on swimsuits at Walmart sounds too self-affirming.

But I've got a different bucket list. This one is in a better. lighter bucket that's shiny and fun and ridiculously colorful. It's full of confetti that I can throw into the air just because. It gives me energy instead of sapping it. And it's completely, utterly, frivolous.

Here's what I've got so far:

1. I want to have Thanksgiving dinner at Hooters. I've wanted to do this for years, but I've never found any takers. Maybe this is the year!

2. I want to see the bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns at sunset.

3. Kudzu is said to grow as much as a foot a day. We have lots of kudzu here in Georgia. I want to take a lawn chair, sit down in a field, and watch it grow for 24 hours.

4. I'm pretty sure the sloth is my totem animal. I want a sloth encounter.

5. I want to go an entire calendar year without wearing matching socks. I've been practicing for this one. Matching socks are so pedestrian.

I wasn't going to post this list until I had more, better stuff on it. But that would have put it into my yucky bucket. 

So it's a work in progress. It's uniquely mine. And you know, I have a feeling that working on this one will lighten the load of the other one. Just maybe.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Deliver my heart. Please.


Soooo... it's a busy time in the Land of Current Events. Boehner is suing the president. The Supreme Court has been deconstructing collective bargaining rights for public employees. The opinion in Hobby Lobby may or may not be a disaster, depending on who’s talking. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter and others are amusing themselves by debating which sport is morally superior, football or futbol, while lots of people take her way, way too seriously.

Oh, and I think the US lost that soccer thing that's happening.

You know what? I just don't give a shit right now about any of it. And do you know why?

I’ll tell you why:

Last night I ordered my groceries online and they were delivered today. To my door! Like, as in, the nice lady carried the groceries into my house and everything. I have eggs and apples and oranges and cola and carrots and yogurt and frozen meals and stuff.

I haven't been this happy since Webvan went out of business. God, I loved Webvan.

But now? Instacart! Oh, yeah, baby! Fuck, yes!

The secret to happiness is getting your priorities straight. And oh, I haz happiness.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Father's Day -- An Epilogue

Dad died three weeks ago.   My stepmom likes to tell people that my dad never knowingly lied, and he never said anything bad about anyone. I don't have the heart to correct her. Whatever he may have been, they loved each other deeply, and their 30-year relationship was a sight to behold. "He's a good man," my stepmom has always said, and to her, he certainly was. Who am I to argue?

I feel quite sure that my dad wanted to be a great father, and he did the best he knew how. But he wasn’t very good at it. He was emotionally unavailable to his kids and their mother. He was narcissistic and judgmental; he could be cold and unforgiving and miserly. His memory was relentlessly selective. Dad was, at times, a destructive force in our lives.

Every once in a while, though, he would surprise us with an uncharacteristic act of love and support, and I would hang on tight because I was so hungry for it. With Dad, you had to pretend.

For a long time, I idealized my dad, refusing to see what others saw. Eventually, I succumbed to outside pressure – I still regret that – and broke off all contact with him. For much too long, my only contact with my dad consisted of the three emails I sent each year: on Christmas, Father's Day, and his birthday. I became as lousy a daughter as he was a dad. Worse, in fact, especially because I knew better.

By the time the cancer came, I was too mired in my own dysfunction to be any help. My only act of support was to ask Dad to keep me posted on developments.  He didn’t, of course. I used that as an excuse to withdraw further. We pretended we wanted to be close while we played off each other’s more authentic mutual disinterest. 

It was the fourth cancer diagnosis – lung cancer – that finally got my attention.

And so I did finally come around, and I did my best to make up for lost time with visits and phone calls. I made it my job to listen, and I got to know him. I learned about a man who had worked hard all his life, who served in the Navy on an aircraft carrier. While on that ship, he asked to be in charge of movie night so he could order Singing in the Rain whenever he wanted. He went to college on the GI Bill, became an electrical engineer, and was a pioneer in the development of early computers for General Electric in the 1960s.

Now Dad was just a sick old man, fighting like hell to postpone a difficult death.  I wondered, looking at him, if he ever could have caused the harm I had attributed to him. But then I saw him vivisect my niece and one of his tenants, and I realized he still had the capacity to be enormously destructive. He gave me a taste of it as well, but I had expected it, so I was prepared.  


Then, two months ago, a loving act of breathtaking generosity. His gift allowed me to pay off all but one of my debts, repair my car, and replace the broken-down HVAC system in my home. The gift was truly life-changing, and I made sure he knew exactly where the money went and how grateful I was for the fresh start.

I wish I could tell you that everything was peaches and cream after that. Three days before Dad died, he called me into his bedroom for a private conversation. We both knew that death was closing in, but it wasn’t that kind of talk. Instead, he started shouting, which must have been very difficult in his physical condition. I’m completely irresponsible with money, he lectured, and I’ve been out of law school for how long? Even now I had to be bailed out. His voice rose as he declared that I will never get my act together, and thanks to me, my daughter is destined for financial ruin, too.

I’m glad to say I didn’t engage. I just became kind of dead inside. I thanked him for his honesty and told him I loved him. He said he loved me, too, and I went home to Georgia. That night he took a bad fall, and went to the hospital for the last time.  That was our final conversation.

My sponsor suggested that instead of focusing on my Dad’s last words to me, I focus instead on his last, loving, generous gift. I’m working on that. I’m working on remembering the dad who loved old movies just like I do. The dad who took us camping every summer, and taught us to sing “Blood on the Saddle,” and took the family out for sunrise cook-outs in the desert. The dad who taught me two perfectly awful jokes that still make me laugh. The dad who was the very best dad he knew how to be. 

A few months back, my therapist said it was important, if someone close to you is dying, to tell them four things: I love you. Thank you. I’m sorry. I forgive you.

So I told Dad I loved him, and I said it often. I thanked him for teaching me self-reliance, for standing up for what he believed in, and for showing me the importance of education. I told him how sorry I was for staying away from him for so long, for denying him access to my daughter, and for the horrible time I gave him as a teenager.

And as for forgiveness? Well, I told my Dad that he hadn’t done anything that needed forgiving. It seemed best to confirm what he already knew.

He was a good man, my dad.