mint jelly

Thursday, September 24, 2009

It's National Punctuation Day!

Today is National Punctuation Day, and they have made a meatloaf in its honor.

There is a baking contest, but as much as I like punctuation, and meatloaf, and baking, I can’t really look at those photos without being totally grossed out at the non-loaf shape. But that’s just me. Go for the punctuation! Avert your eyes.

No Loafing! (from Homestar Runner)

I remember being little, learning to read. And I remember how natural it felt to sound out or recognize certain words, how easily reading words came.

My confusion was all about punctuation. In general, I tried my hardest to ignore it. Doing so wasn’t yet a huge problem. My books had maybe one sentence per page, on a page filled with characters and scenery. For example, my scratch n’ sniff Sesame Street book — how the licorice page was scratched and sniffed into oblivion, and how I couldn’t resist trying to identify the stinky smell coming from Oscar’s trashcan.

I’m not saying reading was all magic and intuition for me. Words like “the” and “said” were annoying. I mostly scanned over them too, because I was too shy to ask except very rarely. When “said” finally clicked into place, it was one of those lightbulb moments. I got over my block against words that weren’t spelled like they sounded.

Quotation marks took me the longest to figure out. I knew they appeared around something being said, but not why they were there exactly. I think part of my problem was that sometimes they were straight and sometimes they were curvy. (FYI: Straight quotes are actually the incorrect character. Those are inch marks, not quotation marks.) So part of my little brain inferred that that was a meaningful difference, that these marks were supposed to instruct and describe how something was said. Up through the beginning of first grade (much to my ultimate chagrin) whenever I saw the curly marks around something being said, I thought it was something that was supposed to be said in what I distinctly remember thinking of as “a shaky voice.”

I certainly understood the concept of “voice.” I think we are hardwired for storytelling, hardwired to think and do and perform in “voices.” Childhood stories are better when caretakers “do the voice” and playtime involves saying things in character. Consciously or not, we internalize and mimic the voices we associate with those characters, and they become part of our play, part of our performance and empathy with them.

The summer before first grade my parents split up. My mom and I came home from the grocery store one day and her key didn’t work anymore. That was that. She and I stayed with an old couple for a while, then got our own much smaller apartment in the same building where my dad and older half-brothers still lived.

I heard the shaky voice coming from everyone around me. I had a lot of things to say in the shaky voice. The words weren’t clear. Words didn’t matter, didn’t prove or resolve anything. If they were said in the shaky voice, they meant something different, something you had to feel, something you had to brace yourself for.

I read in the shaky voice because I thought that was how things were usually said. When first grade started, I was put in the reading group for the slow, the stragglers in the class.

I wanted to love school, but I felt anxious because all the other kids had gone to kindergarten together while I had transferred from another school. The other kids had learned subtraction, while at my more inner-city kindergarten, I remember hiding in the teepee, or peering through the radiator at the class bunny, who used to hide in there. The phrase “gotten off on the wrong foot” is so appropriate here. First grade was like a game of jump-rope, and I missed my chance to jump in on the right beat.

My teacher, Mrs. Self, scared me a little. We had gotten off on the wrong foot too. On the first day of class she introduced herself, and as a bonus, gave a little lesson in name prefixes. She was called “missus” Self, she said, because she was married to a man whose last name was Self. And Miss was for unmarried women. “And can anyone tell me what Ms. stands for?” she asked the class. My hand shot up for the first time. None of the other kids knew. I was so excited.

“It’s for when you’re divorced!” I said.

Mrs. Self’s mouth got tight. “It is for an older woman who is not married,” she said.

It was the second time in my life I ever felt my ears burn (the first being when I almost got hit by a car while chasing a ball, and my middle brother told my parents, who seemed mad).

Later in life I realized that of course my teacher had to say that. That was the more correct, if not modernly PC version of the answer. This was a Catholic school. The other kids didn’t know so much about divorce, and the teacher wanted to keep it that way. This was a school where, when the other first grade teacher started to show her pregnancy, had to take leave so that no child would question what was happening.

I remember thinking adults were pretty stupid. All us kids knew the other teacher was going to have a baby. You could tell, we told each other, because of the way she sometimes touched her stomach, like pregnant women do. We believed that swallowing watermelon seeds would grow a watermelon in your belly, but we weren’t totally oblivious. We picked up a lot from subtle clues.

Slowly I made friends in class, mostly because the girl sitting next to me, Sarah Casey, was super nice. She was there when I panicked about subtraction, and taught me how to count on my fingers. Once I asked her for help during a test, and learned about what was considered a test instead of learning time, and about when asking was considered cheating. Numbers didn’t bother me, only vagaries. My mother probably remembers me demanding that she explain the difference between “a couple” and “a few” around this same time. I couldn’t bear any more uncertainty around me.

I was ashamed of being assigned to the “worst” reading group, and of our books that had embarrassingly short sentences and large text. Fortunately it wasn’t very far into the school year when we finally got to the business of actual Reading.

Our dim little group sat in a circle so that each child could read one line out loud, with the teacher helping us along. The book was about a family of squirrels, cute and cartoony. The mama and the baby squirrel were looking for a new home. It wasn’t clear quite why, the seasons changing maybe. As soon as we flipped a page, I silently read the line, then looked at the pictures and waited. Everyone was reading in a shaky voice, only not on purpose. Finally, it was my turn. The squirrels were out on a branch, approaching a door, a knot in a tree. The sentence I had to read was in quotations. The mama squirrel was talking. I read my line as naturally as speaking — without hesitancy, without sounding anything out, and most purposefully, without using the shaky voice.

I read the line only half looking at the page, my eyes on Mrs. Self. She reacted, her whole body communicating “Oh!” and from that day forward, I was in the advanced reading group, always.

I still remember what it said on that page.

“We will go in.”

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New Library Times

Update: Philadephia Library System Saved via massive letter-writing and email campaign just days before closure!
(Via savvy commenter Rose and BoingBoing)

This makes me so incredibly happy, especially since my dear Philadelphia-based friends Susan and Josh just gave birth this morning to two beautiful babies, Sam and Olivia, who will one day soon be going to the library.

: end update

On Sunday I read that the Philadephia Free Library system is broke and will be shut down as of October 2. Reports BoingBoing, they are “cancelling all branch and regional library programs, programs for children and teens, after school programs, computer classes, and programs for adults” and “all children programs, programs to support small businesses and job seekers, computer classes and after school programs” and “all library visits to schools, day care centers, senior centers and other community centers” and “all community meetings” and “all GED, ABE and ESL programs.”

Cory Doctorow points out the enormous list of ongoing services and indirect functions performed by the library system, and what a great loss it is to a community, particularly the most vulnerable and impressionable. A man after my own heart, Doctorow invokes the wonder of the reading experience, and gives me goosebumps describing the heroic qualities imbued in librarians throughout history, “Think of the archivists who barricaded themselves in the Hermitage during the Siege of Leningrad, slowly starving and freezing to death but refusing to desert their posts for fear that the collections they guarded would become firewood.”

Shudder. Shudder to think. Shuttering libraries because zillions of Americans inside and outside industries failed to read and understand fine print. Failed to see where the action was taking them. Failed to exercise critical thinking, independent studies, failing still to compare and contrast, failing to learn, failing to be decent citizens, failing to nurture and forward civilization itself.

I learned just yesterday, as part of an events list on Time Out New York of all places (I’m not shocked, as they’re always chock full of great info about their home cities, I’m just chuckling because I just mentioned that whole “civilization” thing and if civilization hinges on Time Out New York well, that’s saying something about how and why any publication manages to exist.) that the New York City Public Library is extending their hours:

“Speaking of the public good, the New York City Public Library begins its all-new extended hours today—a dream come true for free-Wi-Fi users and people who like to sleep in public places. The change initially affects ten branches, including the Mid-Manhattan Library (455 Fifth Ave at 40th St; 917-275-6975,, which will stay open until 11pm. A special “Cover to Cover Café” at this location will offer free coffee and snacks from Tim Hortons all day and an 8pm performance from Bushwick Book Club, a group of songwriters who take their inspiration from literary works.”

It’s funny, but this ebb and flow echoes Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town” in my head. It’s the title of one of Cory Doctorow’s books, though I haven’t read the book itself yet (still on my Amazon wish list btw, just sayin’ ;).

From what I’ve seen, in many parts of our country libraries are still reasonably-funded institutions, with glossy modern buildings, generous free wi-fi, and healthy traffic generated by the free loan of media such as music and movies. I don’t have a problem with that at all. It’s just, that’s not all it’s for. And these modern places are so much more like bookstores with their open layouts and grocery-store style displays of a few colorful items. Libraries, in my ideal world, would always be places that encourage thinking, demand a bit of hunting and gathering, demand a bit of planning or inspiration, and allow one to become lost in those endeavors.

Even though I don’t currently spend much time in the Manhattan branches (we have a glorious handful here in Brooklyn), I suddenly want to have hot date nights that involve staying late at the library on Fifth Avenue. 

Man, libraries are sexy. All that stifled quiet. The creaking of chairs. The slam of a heavy book being closed, the thud or smack of a book dropped onto a table. The sound that paper makes. For the library, one might consider wearing stockings.

Eh hem. Well then. Yes. As I was saying, gentlefolk.

A bookstore-like setup precludes the hunting, the wondering and wandering, but at least helps visitors feel less lost. Though I am still confounded by unfortunate archival systems and closed computer terminals that scour for periodicals. Microfiche, if still around, discourages research, but the internet makes that less of a problem than even in say, my college days (in the early to mid 90s). Real scholarly research is still a challenge to anyone without professional or institutional subscriptions. This past spring, I remember working on my thesis, and more than once finding an article that sounded promising, and seeing that I could only gain access to its contents if I paid a disproportionate amount of money to do so ($60, $180 just to read it), or signed up for a subscription that I was not interested in. Physical libraries are even worse: materials are not there, or not accessible, as far as anyone can tell. Can any librarians confirm or explain this?

This problem of available scholarly writing is worthy of its own post, but I find it heartening and refreshing that just yesterday in response to the financial and publishing climate, Harvard University Library posted the news that “Five of the nation’s premier institutions of higher learning—Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Berkeley—today announced their joint commitment to a compact for open-access publication.” Read in more detail, news and statements from the other universities over on Harvard’s website. This exciting news came from Chandler McWilliams, writer of

Get thee to a library!

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Friday, September 11, 2009

David Byrne on the Kindle

David Byrne posts some very good thoughts on the experience of owning a Kindle, one of which I admit I like very much, “inevitably someone will hack the Kindle (or other formats) — and the books will become shareable… and copiable and infinitely reproducible, just like MP3s.”

I still have a compilation CD that came along with the November 2004 issue of Wired magazine featuring amazing artists. They released it under Creative Commons, titling it The WIRED CD: Rip. Sample. Mash. Share.

I was about to put the MP3s somewhere you could get to them, but they’ve already done it for me.

My favorite song of the set is My Fair Lady (track 2) by David Byrne, but the whole thing is great. I still listen to it quite a bit.

Speaking of Terms of Service agreements, yesterday I came across this magnificent bit of humor on Posterous (via Richard Nash), “The Book: Term of Service.”

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