Disbelief

“Why on Earth do you read them more than once?”

The questioner’s tone of voice drips with shock and disbelief as if I had casually admitted to sniffing white-out. Moments prior I had casually mentioned to the girl sitting next to me (a beautiful freckled young lady equipped with a British accent, a passion for Jane Austen, and a wedding band) that I habitually reread some novels every year. She nods rigorously chewing tuna salad, when a question breaks into our conversation.

I drop my sandwich onto the lunch table, swallowing before I answer. The rest of the lunch table has now turned their attention towards me and David, my fellow student-turned-interrogator in this week-long summer class on digital libraries. From nine to five, we sit and listen to technical lectures about our future careers, while I daydream about summer movies and dinosaurs. If a giant scaly monster crashed through the projector and ripped me in half, I could save several excruciating hours trying in vain to remain awake.

I take a sip of room temp Pepsi.

“Yeah,” I shrug. “It’s like revisiting old friends. Some books like The Lord of the Rings, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Pride and Prejudice, I read about once every year.”

“Ugh, why?” David scoffs this time. And I am reminded why I do not like him much. Like me, David has admitted to some previous experience as a scientist – philosophy apparently. Unfortunately like many scientists, he retains a personality akin to the man in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” never bothering to develop an imagination or a sense of humor.

“I guess that I just enjoy reading,” I laugh. “I can be quite passionate about my stories sometimes.”

“But when do you find time?” he persists with such astonishment that I pause, wondering if I had misunderstood the question. When he speaks, he shakes his head with wonderment revealing a thick furry beard, the barbershop love-child between Chuck Norris and a muppet.

“Um . . . I don’t know,” I say. “On the metro, before bed, during my free time . . . uh lunch. I guess that I just make time to read.” After all, stories are important to me. Like taking showers in the morning or putting on your shoes, you learn to piece reading into your lifestyle.

Despite my explanation, David does not appear to understand, which honestly shocks me a bit. What must he do in his own free time to merit such incredulity? Although as I recall, David excels at asking awkward questions. Once during a cataloguing class, he felt inspired to reveal his revulsion of the social tagging site, del.icio.us.

“Why do all these websites have such stupid names?” he would ask. “Meaningless names that have nothing to do with what they do. Google, del.icio.us, Yahoo. They don’t make sense. They don’t mean anything. It’s stupid.”

Silence.

“Um . . .” someone remarks. “Unusual or quirky names, I guess, help people remember, right? Like cereal brands or detergent names.”

“But the websites names are asinine. Why can’t they tell us something about the site? Or what it does?”

No arguments concerning marketing and memory could convince him. Someone even mentioned that Google was now a verb in the dictionary. People after all who can easily remember site names are more often to visit them.

“It’s still makes me sick,” was his only reply.

Lunch ends, and as we leave I ask David what he enjoys reading.

“Nothing,” he says. “I don’t read. Or watch movies. I don’t have time.”

“Oh,” I blurt, surprised at his answer. I mean who does not have time for a book or movie every now and then? Oh but maybe he means fiction . . . “Well, I have a cousin who doesn’t care much for stories or fiction either, but he’s a great fan of news, biographies, and histories. Did ever read Richard Preston’s Hot Zone?”

“No, I do not read,” David reiterated, emphasizing the ‘read’ as if I had just been rendered deaf.

“Oh.” In the end that was all I could say.

Children don’t read to find their identity, to free themselves from guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion or to get rid of alienation. They have no use for psychology…. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff…. When a book is boring, they yawn openly. They don’t expect their writer to redeem humanity, but leave to adults such childish illusions.

— Isaac Bashevis Singer

Shopping Blues

The lights flashed and flickered into darkness as Mom finished her fifth catwalk down the aisle. I sighed yet again, noticeably upset that I had traded in a beautiful lightning storm for women’s shoes. As I understood it, Mom needed a third pair of Asics to replace her current “good pair” which she would wear down to Florida next week. Her original pair, though perfect for sporting around the house, could not be seen outside the house lest the world mock her for unclean running shoes.

The Plum shoe . . .My simple male logic, which clearly made no sense of the previous two sentences, decided to stare aimlessly about Kohl’s department store in the hopes of finding something pretty, shiny, or in lingerie. Finding only two of the three in the shoe department, I decided to return my attention to Mom, who had just finished fitting another pair of purple (the box said plum) shoes. She jumped off the bench and strode down the aisle again.

“How do you like them?” she asked.

“Um . . .” I always attempt honesty first. This seldom works but typically results in several funny awkward moments. “Actually I like them, better than those pink ones with the bland gray color.”

“Really?” Mom says in that tone which tells me I had just failed that test. “Because I really like the pink ones. They’re less noticeable.”

“But the purple ones have more room right?”

“Purple? What purple ones?”

“Plum,” I sigh. “The . . . plum shoes you have on.”

“Oh, yeah. They are more comfortable, but a little more expensive.”

“So what? Just buy them,” I advise. This is typical bored-guy logic at work here, the “if you like it, let’s get it and go” perspective that reminds her irritatingly of her husband.

“He’s always rushing me,” she would say and then wonder: “Why can’t you be more patient like when you were little?”

When I was growing up, I would love to go shopping with Mom. We would first visit the bookstore, where Mom would buy me some story or comic and then enter one of the major department stores to shop for the younger kids. There I would find myself a nice hidden nook, a nest among the children’s clothes to read in peace. Mom would spend hours looking at bibs, tiny plaid shorts, and one-piece overhauls with mooing cows, checking sale prices and muttering to herself how big all her children had become. Rarely did she shop for herself. Yet, when she did I would inevitably find myself a corner, gather several fashionable dresses and petite slacks discarded or dropped from their racks and nestle myself for a few hours of silent study.

Mom of course loved this. Not only did she have a shopping buddy who was willing to go with her, but this shopping buddy did not mind one bit whether she spent all day analyzing outfits and arguing prices. Nowadays however as I’ve grown in size some, escaping to a corner beneath women’s apparel to read, hoarding pillows of female apparel would earn me several bizarre stares and perhaps a police-escorted invitation to leave the store. Pervert!

Thus, I am left sitting in the shoe department, my book burning a hole in my pocket and watching my mother parade down the aisles in an assorted variety of Skittle-flavored running shoes. The truly ironic thing is that my style of shopping mimics Mom’s . . . that is, in the proper venue. Later this week, as we prepare for a long roadtrip south to Florida, she will come ask for a ride to the bookstore and a quick scan of their magazine department. The sound of her impatient “Are you done reading yet?” will be music to my ears.

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Dated

The last line of the digital notice Pat and Tiff sent me prior to our blind double date read “have an open mind and no expectations.” I think that this was Tiff’s way of trying to assuage my fears and rising anxiety about the whole dating-process.

Dating and I are like oil and vinegar. We rarely mix well and end up tasting really bland on the dinner table over iceberg lettuce. Years ago, my first date involved the sister of a friend in college, who I only briefly knew, and judging by our short unappealing conversations, my friend thought that we might make a good couple. Though disaster hung about my head like a guillotine, I agreed after some persuasion, if anything for the sake of curiosity about the whole dating-process. I had witnessed individuals dating before – mostly on TV and in comic books – and I thus wondered if the ritual truly reflected the fun and excitement of these examples.

The short answer was “No.” “Please Lord, let this night end,” would provide an even longer but still pretty accurate answer. After picking up the girl, whose name I remember incorrectly as Alice, we drove off to a flick and some dinner afterwards. Alice knows little about movies, cares little about them, and possessed the personality of a clam. Every “Have you seen any good flicks this year?” or “Hey, what do you think about those previews? Anything look interesting?” or “How’s classes going? Have you decided on a major?” seemed to only draw her even further into a vegetative state. Now albeit I probably was a little annoying, trying every conversation topic possible to provoke . . . a pulse or two, yet nothing seemed to pry open her shell until I asked about music.

Apparently Alice loved David Matthews Band, to whom I occasionally listened on the radio, “Ants Marching” being a popular song at the time. Alice seemed to ready to stalk the man, citing every visit DMB made to the East Coast, which ironically enough coincided with various roadtrips she and her friends had made over the last few years. She knew every single, every band-member, every instrument, and CD cover. Over the few hours I nearly drowned in data about Matthew’s eating habits, dental records, and how if those bastards at the cleaners used less starch his clothes would not rip off so easily. It was around this time that I noticed the colorful necklace she wore and fingered while speaking seemed threaded with a plaid polyester dress-shirt.

The level of obsession here scared me, yet any attempts to change the subject met with a cold glare and gloomy silence for the rest of the evening. Later the following Monday, we exchanged brief pleasantries about the evening and I wished her well in her studies, almost afraid to broach another subject. A week later, my friend told me that Alice had decided to try homosexuality for awhile. Even now, I never found out whether he was joking or not.

PS: In the end Saturday’s double date ended quite well. We all enjoyed ourselves albeit after a surprising turn of events at the Belmont Stakes (Pat and I were hyped for a Triple Crown victory). Even the 104 degree temperature which left us sticky and slow, gave me ample reason to break my no-coffee rule with a mint java chip frappaccino. Mmmm . . . nothing says summer like sweet chocolate drinks and shattered New Year’s resolutions.

Systems Analysis

The instructions on the assignment bore into my brain like a drill. Look through Flickr. After finding three photos, derive your own tags for the photos and then compare them with others’ tags and the metadata provided by the Library of Congress.

Gah . . . every word tightens my nerves like another turn at the medieval rack. My sinews stress, my jaw clenches, I yearn to visit Florida and sip pina coladas with Michelle, my masseuse, professional model, and online guild leader. I read another sentence of instructions and feel my stomach clench.

Summarize the main points of the following articles. More PDFs which discuss adapting information retrieval tools to the digital age flash onto the screen, now rendered dull and soporific with words like “utilize,” “protocol,” and “incremental process.” I wonder how many authors collapsed writing these sentences, whether the end of each paragraph was toasted with a long draught of cooking sherry, followed by a primal scream atop a high balcony, a fleeting desire for sun-baked beaches and lengthy breezes before turning back to the laptop for another page.

Slowly I begin to type my own summary.

You see, I am a big fan of universality. Two thousand years from now Shakespeare will still remain a genius, two plus two will still add to four, and unless the moon jumps from its orbit to collide with earth, a feather and a brick if dropped will still accelerate at the same rate – minus air resistance.

Yet a mere five years from now, the tagging and metadata methodologies of today will not exist. These systems will not matter. The conventions, abbreviations, and technology that I use, memorize, and ultimately reiterate using my own words today will cease to matter then. I have a big problem with that. Mom and Katie simply tell me to act like a man and suck it up.

“These are simply the hoops everyone has to jump through in order to get that diploma, honey. I know it’s a pain, but it has to be done.”

Yeah, but once again the professor is asking me to memorize facts for the sake of a test and then jettison the material afterwards, a strategy I have tried long and hard to abandon since grade school: learn for the sake of a grade then forget everything. If I follow Mom’s advice, I will have spent nearly fifty-thousand dollars for a piece of non-recyclable paper and tabula rasa.

I suppose that even a semi-blank mind supersedes abandoning amino acid tables, Shakespearean sonnets, and those few memorized lines from Casablanca. Nonetheless, the assignment makes me cringe like the sound of an anxious cat thrown against a chalkboard. In the end, you are left irritated and slightly befuddled, questioning the sense of it all.

“Hold on,” you ask. “What purpose did hurling the cat serve?”

“It’s part of the curriculum,” they respond.

“Why not then hurl her at something softer, less irritating, like a mattress or at least mildly interesting like a flock of geese or a pool of Jello?”

“Who knows?” they respond again. “Just be sure to fill in the circles completely with a No. 2 pencil. You have five minutes remaining.”

Sigh. Well, no one said education was going to be easy.

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

— Rick

Sigh. Yeah, someday maybe I will too . . .