Guest post for HEC Paris: https://campus.hec.fr/emba_news/2021/05/18/guest-post-a-librarian-gets-an-executive-mba/
A love letter to libraries and to Paris, forever my favorite (complex) city, is out on Lit Hub.
My childhood memories of reading are some of my most powerful. No photos exist of the nighttime ritual of being read to, so there’s something even more private, and thus pure and exhilarating, about these elementary memories and the fact that they have been kept intact without aid over the years.
Reading memories are primarily interior. The sensory elements set the backdrop, of course: the dark cool quiet of the childhood bedroom, the reassuring weight of the protective covers. The mother’s calm presence looming, comforting, seeming to fill the known universe. The book itself. Familiar pages, favorite images, slowly turning. But the most precious, wild, and magical parts of the memory of this routine are those of the inner landscape. They are memories of thinking, and how those important elements of thinking--reflection and storytelling and imagination--are bidden, created, by the books themselves.
The child mind enters the book and the book enters the child. The stories of the vegetable thief, the orphan, the fairy become hers. In my experience, the stirrings of empathy conjured by characters are more powerful than lessons learned in school. The multiplicity of existences--the child’s presence in that bedroom and, after reading, the characters' worlds reified through word and image--is fundamental to the best type of thinking and creativity.
Also planted is the addictive realization that we can return to these other worlds, anytime that we want, by opening the book. This combination of safety and excitement, comfort and newness will be familiar to every reader, always. The fact that this is shared with a beloved parent amplifies the lasting memory of comfort. And, isn’t that what the best childhood offers, a feeling of rootedness and stability, the anchor that will be with us always so that we can go forth, act and contribute to the world?
Childhood reading--really, all reading--expands and solidifies the interior self. Each story adds to that inner structure, a reinforced imagination, that is both reflective refuge and space for reasoned decision-making. Let’s call it our portable, internal library: our reading mind, packed with books.
It becomes the reward for getting older and being lifelong readers. It is the accumulation of years of searching, for more stories, for more occasions for empathy, for multiple worlds within and outside our own. From that place we have the tools to act deliberately in our lives, because we have grown our own conscience.
Personally I hope for a world populated by engaged readers, with strong inner selves built over time by books and reflection, who have the fortitude to resist the worst types of distractions, those that move us further away from our best selves and each other.
Thankfully, in our noisy world, we have the memory of quiet and the consolation of books, and from that place perhaps the impulse to build something ourselves.
In my pocket I carry a sleek, compact portal to another world, a rich world constructed of reality and make-believe transposed in infinite layers and links. It's my glass talisman and electronic woobie. Tether, anchor, lodestone. I tap it open and orient myself--literally and figuratively--to my place on earth and a life increasingly composed of accumulated bits of data and facts, biographical details trailing behind me like hungry ghosts that need to be fed reminders of where they’ve been. With my texting thumbs I cross the three thousand miles that stand between me and my oldest friends instantaneously. Dorothy tapping her ruby slippers. Tap-tap-tap to find my way home. I scroll through images and blurts and thought bubbles, fast flurries that quiet my flesh-and-blood waking life, like walking through a thick snowstorm that silences and blurs the surrounding city.
My iPhone is my security blanket.
Before I go on, may I present you with this: : )
If you're like me, some part of your primordial heart, or the deepest part of your lizard brain, responded to this ; ) Some mysterious myocytes and neurons in your evolved being did a little jig. It's involuntary. Perhaps if you’ve got a healthy dose of cynicism you cringed as well, but I bet that damn smiley face still made you the slightest bit happy. It’s not our fault. Our brains are wired to recognize faces; knowing the emotional state of our approaching fellow men has helped our ancestors stay alive and continue as a species. We’re reading faces all the time, unconsciously scanning for signs that give us clues to what’s happening beneath the surface of features. Seeing a furrowed, angry brow or crinkling, happy eyes starts a cascade of internal responses in us, which instruct us to poise for threat or relax in safety. Humans are so adept at reading faces that we even read faces where there aren’t any to be read. That's why a colon and broken parentheses give us the impression of a friendly, toppled smile. It's also why Elvis and Jesus keep showing up on pieces of toast.
On Instagram one day I saw a blushing emoticon in response to a photo I had posted, and it warmed my heart. I realized that the written word—at least in some contexts—had been trumped, in this case by a bright yellow circle with rosy “cheeks”. That tiny digital face-print, its simple features arranged in just such a fashion to activate important pathways of emotional recognition, cuts to the chase, simply bypassing the long, meandering modes of communication of the past. Where we used to struggle with words to convey our sentiments, we can now transmit them via an image in a nanosecond. I’d like to call this just another easy trick in our bag of rhetorical devices, but can this minuscule, disarming digital flirtation even be called rhetoric if it’s devoid of artfulness?
Or perhaps the modes of communication engendered by social media in fact create new art forms, new tools for meaning making in our lives. Certainly my iPhone-woobie gives me plenty of opportunities to share the view from my little corner of the world. We can make and disseminate art on the go, even if it’s a quickly shared snapshot. Because of this immediacy what we share delivers an impression of authenticity—and therefore intimacy—even when we know that it’s been filtered and arranged.
Not only do we share in real-time, we are validated in real-time. We can have daily, hourly acknowledgment of our existence, thumbs-up proof that we’ve been seen and understood. Is this not a kind of art: processing and reconstituting the world through our unique sensibilities in the hopes that in turn our vision can be processed and validated by our fellow men?
I’m not equating my posting of a picture of my breakfast on Instagram with the writing of poetry (really though, those pancakes were so fluffy they needed to be seen), but some of the same human instincts are at work in both activities.
The problem is it’s too easy. My iPhone-woobie only goes so far in bringing me comfort (and might even distract me from more authentic forms available in the here-and-now). That emoticon quickly conveys an emotion, but it makes me lazy too. Why bother with these word-bloated sentences, these sentence-stuffed paragraphs, when I could just spend my time in the soft comfort of existence-validating images and smiley faces?
Writing a sentence takes time and certainly more effort than these two key strokes : ) It must be consciously constructed with bits and elements, sewn together with grammar and syntax, structured, built on known patterns. This knitting together goes slower than the speed of thought. I always found it odd when teachers would advise us to “write how you speak” because a well-written sentence does a lot more than transcribe mental speech. Good sentences are written how we would speak if we had more time to think, if we had time to luxuriate in thinking, to mull and cogitate, to taste and weigh words. Write like you speak? Just pick up the phone then. Teachers would also admonish us to cut out flowery language. Get to the point. Write lean, clean sentence; eliminate adverbs. Give us action, force, movement. But a sentence is not a sharp-shooter. At least not all the time.
Sentences can do more than shuttle facts from writer to reader. They can create matter. Give form to emotion and sensation as well as thought. Give shape to what’s murky below, coherence to inklings and internal mutterings. But this takes time and desire. And, it’s oh so easy to get rusty, especially when we’re spending so much quality time in our virtual worlds, weary thumbs working away.
So what if in a perfect world we found a balance between old and new forms of communication. Let’s say we carve out time for our social media flurries as well as long-and-slow sentences. But then we still need patient readers; because the making of meaning most often happens through the closing of that eternal gap between two people. And readers are readers because they have an appetite. They don’t stay full long. They move through art and want more because they know that making and intaking art is the stuff of life.
Hopefully our digital worlds do keep us hungry for more. Hopefully they don’t expand so much that we forget entirely that we are hungry. Maybe the deep impulse to create is so vital to what makes us human that we needn't worry about losing it. Maybe it too lives in our ancient heart and lizard brain, right next to that part of us that smiles back when we’re presented with : ) .
When we were children, we were artists. Whether we were huddled together on the playground playing pretend or coloring feverishly in a corner alone, we had worlds we needed to create and time was irrelevant.
I remember drawing regal ladies from my imagination with hair high like Marie Antoinette's and ballgowns the size of Jupiter. The fabric of their skirts was draped and ribboned and tied like the most elaborate wedding cake decorations; in my child mind the silk was just as airy and light as white frosting. Birds with beating hearts could live among the folds. These characters, my creatures, were beautiful and I had complete confidence that my rendering of them perfectly captured their exquisiteness. I would show each drawing to my mother with solemnity. "Oh, look at that! Isn’t she beautiful? And look at her dress," she would say, and I would be relieved-- my vision had been transferred, the drawn world shared.
Then I grew up and forgot that I liked to draw. Unless we are exceptionally talented why would we continue the pursuit? We stopped playing pretend. We stopped swinging high and splashing in muddy creeks. Because who has time for the mysterious magic of childhood play? Of course, we can witness a glimpse of that dominion, where imagination bucks and romps, in the real children we know. They run past us, practically under our feet, into the backyard. My goodness, their energy! It’s like they’re plugged straight into the booming amp of the earth-- they are simultaneously Jimmy Hendrix with the multiple arms of a Hindu god and all the electric guitars he’s playing. We’re lucky if we’re tuned in enough to even get an earful of the music they’re making on the universe’s stage.
When I got to Paris, I was too tired to write, much less plug into any metaphorical creative amp. As anyone who has moved residences knows, it sucks the life right out of you; even if you’re just moving one door down, it’s soul crushing to pack up your life in cardboard boxes, lug that life, and then plunk it down somewhere new. You wade through rising, syrupy tides of nostalgia as you sift through your stuff. Each book you take off the shelf reminds you of past selves and bygone eras. You throw out half-empty bottles of perfume that you once loved but which now smell like a distant family member you never much liked. If you can let go of that stuff, step out of that morass of memory, the process can be quite freeing, but it’s still a process, and it’s a draining one.
My husband and I threw away what we could and we finally met up with our remaining stuff in Paris, the city that has always felt like home, the city that’s crushed me every time I visited and then had to leave. I reunited with her like a lost love regained. And even the bureaucracy that stood between me, the American, and the city of my dreams only heightened the allure-- she’s good at playing hard to get, this one. But, it wasn’t just the move that was making me tired. It was the city itself. Paris is like a narcotic. And I was getting my fix every day, day after day. I was lulled by her thousand murmuring layers of history, struck dumb by all the clichéd beauty of her cafés and parks and museums. At the end of the day I felt nothing but stupefied, not exactly with the clear mind needed to get something, anything, even a few notes on paper, and I was frustrated not to have a creative way to record my first impressions of my new home.
One day a new friend, Alice, a painter, suggested I accompany her to an art studio that’s open to the public for drawing workshops. A live model holds a pose for three hours and artists can pay twenty euros to draw or paint in the studio, without instruction. “Just bring your own materials.” I had the twenty bucks, but few materials, seeing as I had forgotten that I liked to draw (with the exception of a few bouts of quickly passing whimsy) when I grew up. I bought some paper and pencils-- art stores, naturally, abound in Paris; she’s proud of her official seal of Artists' Muse. On their website the studio at L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse describes itself as a “mythical place” and mentions that Picasso and Manet, among other mythic Muse-users, had a hand in the Academy’s creation.
I met Alice, a lovely young English woman, on the sidewalk outside the workshop studio, and her ease and smile zapped my buzzing nerves. She assured me that, though a teacher was present and might look occasionally over your shoulder to see what you're drawing, he wasn’t intrusive and wouldn’t ask too many questions, and also, it is was just fine that I was a beginner. We walked into the large atelier space whose surfaces looked like gigantic planes of a wooden artist’s palette. Large and small format paintings were propped against the paint splattered walls. Chairs of different shapes, heights, and sizes were arranged in a semi-circle around a small, slightly raised stage. It reminded me of a 19th century physicians’ theater.
Painters filed in quietly and went directly to their favorite spots to unpack their materials, and some of them retrieved their unfinished works from the walls. Most of the paintings depicted the same subject, a woman. Some portraits zoomed in on her face, others depicted her lounging far away.
Alice and I chose short stools in the front of the atelier, close to the stage, and I picked out the smallest notebook and the lightest pencil I could find in my canvas bag. Behind me I felt the collective gaze, sharpening in readiness, of the real artists at their easels in the back of the room.
A long, thin brunette with hair cut into a triangular bob slunk onto the stage in an emerald green silk evening gown. Only Paris produces women like this. She looked like a languid flapper, a Jazz Age dancer, a model for a champagne ad. And she slipped the green dress right over her head.
And then, just as silently as the woman had knelt down and folded herself into a seated pose, a large white labrador retriever bounded up the steps onto the stage and stretched out alongside her.
The intimate presence of a naked human body positioned to be gazed upon is unsettling. It shocks your senses immediately open. The skin is a gauntlet thrown down, the eye the weapon in the duel. The dog napped and the woman… well, meditated? Or did she soak up our gaze through her pores, using the juice of our concentration as a psychic salve? The room hummed. The energy of artists in the act of creation, especially when creating in a group, is indeed akin to that generated in meditation or some other spiritual practice, because everyone is utterly present. They are alive in the eye and alive in the hand and alive in the line they are spinning out onto the paper. Behind me the room felt like a dark night in a wood filled with invisible animals of prey, poised, awake to their nature.
I might have been blushing, not because of the model’s nakedness, which she wore just as comfortably as her gown, but because of my amateur presence in the studio. Next to me Alice was working with rich, vivid pastels, beautifully drawing the model's torso. For the first thirty minutes I looked and fumbled with the line; a rain of eraser shavings came down in my lap. I drew the dog, peeking back behind me to make sure the other artists weren’t looking, like they didn’t have anything better to do than to try to sneak a peek at the light etchings of my dog portrait.
After an hour the teacher made a signal that I didn’t catch and the dog suddenly awoke and bounded back down the steps. The model relaxed out of her pose. The group dispersed for a break and I felt relieved that the séance was paused, if only briefly. When we returned for the next hour I was less self-conscious and started to lose myself in the process of drawing.
The logical part of the brain slowly quiets down its near constant yammering. The volume of the refrain “you’re too old to try to draw” turns way down low and it slithers to a slow-motion crawl until there’s nothing but silence in the mind. Like the other artists, it's just my eye, my hand, and the line. I observe and lightly sketch the whole scene of the model in front of a colorful backdrop, a rug with interesting shapes beneath her and the dog on his side, his soft pink belly rising and falling.
The peaceful spirits conjured in the room screamed and scattered for the other world from which they’d come.
Oh, Sweet Mother of Picasso, that’s my canvas bag that’s loudly shattering the concentration of the room. That’s my generic "Old Phone" iPhone ringtone that never rings because I know so few people in Paris. That’s my cell that I could have sworn I silenced at the beginning of the session.
“Pas de portable!!” someone shouted. I know, no phones! Of course, no phones!
I grabbed my bag and ran out of the room. I couldn’t risk taking the time to fumble around to turn off the ringer, so I bolted. After taking the brief call and letting my cheeks cool I noticed a sign outside the door of the studio saying “No one may enter once the session is underway." So I sat outside the doors like a benched little league player kicking his shoe in the dirt.
Eventually an assistant swung open the doors and asked me to pay. “Can I go back inside?” I mustered the courage to ask after handing over my twenty euros— surely that would grant me a re-entry into the atelier? “But of course,” he looked at me like the crazy American that I am.
I tried to make myself small as I tiptoed back to my little stool, picking up my pencil that had rolled to the ground. The spell had definitely been broken, but I had witnessed it. For very briefly, maybe even just a moment I had tasted that magic, glimpsed that other realm where children spin their tales, experiencing the world like it’s new every day. And, I had seen the other artists inhabiting that world. Was it simply the gravity of concentration? The quieting of the mind? The way that time uncoils like a smoothed out metal spring in the moment of looking and recording what’s in front of you?
Since then I’ve taken up drawing again, although I stick to solo expeditions in urban parks. But even alone, without a dog or other artists to annoy, I try to remember to turn off my cell phone, so that I don’t disturb the other worlds that I might reach in the act of sketching.
I can't decide whether drawing cuts through the narcotic beauty of Paris or magnifies it. Only the Muse knows.
1995. Car packed with shiny white girls feeling thug, rapping out the window to EZ-E. We turn low onto the gravel drive at dusk and park at an angle next to the big wheels of big trucks. It's summer and we've got time tonight and forever. Here because my beautiful friend has confidence, a car and a boyfriend who lives in this house which is open to us.
He is the latest in a string of boyfriends that stretches back to the beginning of her existence. Late at night, while I and most other girls are sleeping, she is busy with important transactions on her cordless phone, exchanging boyfriends. We, her friends, appreciate the spoils of her conquests; tonight she's gotten us access. In the house beyond the big trucks is a collection of the coolest boys, most of whom we've never talked to, none as beautiful as hers but close.
We will be Hanging Out.
Stepping into the house we're surprised by the presence of people less shiny than us: parents. Even more shocked because they are having a good time. In the evening's offerings we take only youth. The beer and the smokes and the real fun are theirs. But, they might share for a small reflection of their younger selves in us, all scrubbed clean and looking for trouble.
Our expectations of the evening had been wrong. Houses in which to Hang Out are not supposed to be occupied by their owners. They are supposed to be like large hotel rooms, free, impersonal, existing solely for our needs, and we don't need reminders that lives are being lived here. Teenagers don't need cooking smells and coat racks. We need a tile foyer to play indoor hacky sack, as many couches as possible and decks. Everything important happens on decks.
In the middle of the full den we have a cackling mother who so resembles her beautiful son that his face loses its identity. It's now obvious that his usual sexy smirk is merely the bud of this fully mature, maternal guffaw. The men on the sofas, spongy cozies between their fingers and their beers, seem to be made of the same materials as their dusty boots and faded jeans. They wear the same baseball caps as our cool boys but theirs fit more snugly, and from behind you wouldn't see soft smooth necks that you want to run your thumb over, but greased hair bent from habit.
The jostling molecules in the air tell us that the room is happy that we're here. The mother and the sons and the beercan-men and the sofas and the roaring television all welcome us. We form a line of cutoff shorts to pluck our own beers from the cooler. Sorry, but they've run out of cozies.
"Mom, we're going to play pool."
Eyes watch us as we file to the back of the house. This feels familiar, like a slumber party, the noises of adults in the next room, the kids in the other. We hadn't wanted to be children this evening, but it's still comforting, and a relief after the brief prospect of having to find a seat on the sofas next to faded-jeans-faces.
Boys shoot pool with the coolest of the girls, the ones who know how to flirt. The rest of us, minor players, take our places on the periphery, arms folded, watching the action. Just being a spectator is exhilarating. Proximity. Possibility. This is the essence of Hanging Out. Boys tease inexpertly. Girls smile and shrug. We sip our beers until they're warm.
Noises in the den shift and adults make their way down the carpeted corridor to us. It's clear that the room with the pool table is the boy's territory. There's a poster on the wall with a blonde in high heels and a string bikini crouched down against a black backdrop. In another one a woman on a beach walks away from the camera, looking over her shoulder, her fluorescent thong wedged firmly between sandy cheeks. These posters look completely normal being stared at by our boys. It seems like the natural order of things, or a mysterious mathematical proof that dictates that these boys will wear baggy jeans and canvas Vans and striped Stussy shirts, and that they will look at posters of improbably naked women who oversee pool tables.
"Hey there kids! Ready for some real competition!" Boy's mother still cackles.
One of the men with a mustache so sun-bleached it looks like it's permanently dipped in beer froth has been charged with carrying a cooler. "Another round ladies?"
Balancing the damp cooler on his knee he slides open its white plastic top. The slumber party motif no longer works. Their party leaks into our party, and in an instant The Hang Out dissolves. Now we're just standing around the pool table, an invaded territory. To avoid these new circumstances I stand in a corner, which happens to be right next to the crouching blonde in heels. I cross my arms tighter in a prayer for invisibility and it works perfectly until it doesn't.
An older man walks over to my corner and silently contemplates the poster like it was a painting by Matisse. He glances over at me as if to check to see if in my youth I could possibly understand this unique genius. His expression is so convincing I turn toward the poster and take a deep look. Yes, those are very shiny red patent leather heels. They are the exact same red as her mouth, which is just as slick as her heels. The whole image is slippery. The black and the red and the oil remind me of the old Robert Palmer video with the row of simply irresistible guitar playing women.
I'm not sure what the man wants me to say. I smile, meaning, leave me alone.
He takes a sip of beer and in a most fatherly, good-natured voice, declares, "I bet you have straight pubic hair."
In a jumbled second folded in on itself, I…
plummet into mute mortification
look closer at the model in the poster in a plea for help
scan the room to see if anyone else heard the declaration
wonder how it's possible that such a sentence could be conceived, manufactured and lobbed like a weapon
then finally crawl out of the silence and say
"No!" meaning, leave me alone, get me out of here, onto the gravel driveway, into the car and back into my own home away from this wrong house
"Yeah, you probably don't know yet." He laughs a smoker's laugh and backs away from me in my red fury.
I have the sudden gagging realization that with a flick of imagination we are the women in the posters. One minute we're standing here flesh and blood, clothed, and the next, our faces are affixed to the slick bodies on the beach, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.
Beer-can man can bore right through to any layer he chooses and then remind us of this power. If he has it then the cool boys have it, and I am naked all the time. The prayer for invisibility gets louder and louder, arms cross tighter and tighter. I want to recede forever behind my long straight (straight!) hair, and for the most part I succeed, like a baby playing peek-a-boo, behind the dark shield the world does not exist.
Later, headlights on the gravel, another friend in the backseat pukes quietly into a newly borrowed letter jacket.
On rainy days, Venice reminds me of Millais's Ophelia, her long dress and hair billowing in the deathly waters, seeming to buoy her up before dragging her below. As the river takes her, her face and hands rest just above the water line, in a pose both saintly and sensuous, so that she seems at once oblivious and acquiescent to her fate. The scene is so rich with green life you can almost smell the natural rot of weeds and mud and feel the cold water on the back of your own neck.
It's the rain and the tides which flood into the Piazza San Marco like Ophelia's drowning waters, soaking the city's shifting foundations like her dress.
One moment, the sky is gray, the wide square bustling with tourists with tripods. Chairs are tucked in neatly at cafe tables where tuxedoed musicians squeeze out bittersweet melodies to make one forget the exorbitant prices paid for the ambience. The next moment, with what seems like merely a splash of rain, the image of the Basilica is now reflected in water that comes up to one's shins. The north side of the square seems to be filling up more quickly, but the scene is so unlikely it feels like the ground could begin to tilt the other way.
We run from the center like billiard balls sliding into the pockets of the stone archways. Suddenly the smart tourists have shod themselves with colorful plastic overshoes and rain ponchos and are splashing and stomping in the square where gentlemen once strode with walking canes and top hats. Ducks float where Venetian Doges in long robes must also have glided. Thin wooden planks on stilts appear as if by magic, and those of us who forgot our overshoes clamor aboard and shuffle slowly in a long, sad line of umbrellas and soaked paper shopping bags.
Soon the waters should permanently recede. The Commune of Venice has almost completed a massive flood barrier project that should keep the high waters at bay. Ophelia will wake from her reverie and drag herself to dry land, subverting fate.
When the high waters no longer eat away at her foundations, will Venice live? Are her history and beauty grand enough to survive the daily crush of tourists stepping on her bones. Does she welcome us, the watchers and gawkers or does she fight back with fetid, reeking canals and moldy black steps?
On a gondola ride down one of those slim waterways between palazzos' ancient front doors, we see a woman in high heels lying on her side, draped on a set of stairs leading directly into the water. Two men lean over her. As we glide by we look closer at the odd figures and see that her ankles are twisted grotesquely and bright red blood pools on one of the steps. A street vendor and a policeman comfort her, and soon we hear the splash and wailing siren of a water ambulance coming for her. Had the waters beckoned her? What had lead her down those stairs to nowhere?
"Watch out for the black steps," the gondolier warns.
Each day, we look out on the lagoon and its choppy waters. Its tethered gondolas bob, and its gray-pink domes melt into a pastel sky. Then, a massive cruise ship appears like a sideways Vegas hotel being pulled slowly to port in order to disgorge its tourists for the afternoon. The huge form blots out the modest lines of the lagoon like a watercolor being held in the rain.
With so little time, the tourists are in a frenzy, and they run greedy through the city, piling into gondolas even though they can barely see out from underneath their competing umbrellas. The gondoliers might be the only Venetians they meet.
This is not surprising considering there are only 60,000 permanent residents in the city of Venice and millions of tourists per year. We utterly eclipse the contemporary life of the city even as we do our part to keep its history alive, just like the gigantic cruise ship in the lagoon. What must modern Venetians think of us taking up so much space in their small, but magnificent city?
Personally, as tourists we vow to step lightly and try our best to fit in. We will not wear ponchos. We will try to a speak a little Italian. We will not clog pathways in order to set up the perfect shot of the bridge. We will walk reverently.
And these particular pilgrims are hungry. The restaurant is down a narrow street, and yes, they have room for two. We pass a grand front room that embodies the fading opulence of many Venice establishments. A small dog snarls from underneath a table covered with a tasseled cloth. We follow the host out a door, through an alley, past another anteroom where a shimmering display of fish, vegetables and fruit bulges, and into a back room, which is packed full of garrulous, poncho-ed tourists.
It is plain that there is a room for regulars, who will eat gazing at the beautiful display of fish and produce, and a room for the rest of us. The host had not asked, "Would you like to sit in the Tourist or Non-Tourist room?"
So, we take matters into our own hands: "Do you mind if we sit in the first room?" The host genially fills our request and we back away from our quarantined peers. We are seated directly in front of the figs, which we notice are being slowly picked off by a well-dressed woman in her later years who walks by the display half a dozen times in order to swipe the delicious fruit.
Next to our table, an Italian man dines by himself, and we watch as he spoils himself on this rainy weekday with fine wines, an appetizer, a pasta course, a fish course, dessert and a digestive. It's a thing of beauty. We follow his lead, and by the end of the meal, the waiters smile at us, seemingly impressed at our gluttony. See? We tell ourselves. It's possible to pretend, just for a moment, that we're not visitors.
Later that night, confident that we can create that magic again, we make our way to another restaurant for dinner.
The place glows .With the candlelight, heavy tapestries and red upholstery on the banquettes, we feel like we are looking at the world from within a bottle of wine. It's cozy and packed. We're led to a small table for two, in a row of other dining couples. On one side is an American couple, both rosy-tipsy and giddy; on the other, another American couple, both angry-tipsy and annoyed that their food hasn't arrived.
As our eyes and ears adjust to the din and the low light, we realize that the room is populated exclusively by Americans and that a large-scale, pan-table conversation is taking place. Travel itineraries, restaurant recommendations and anniversary stories are being swapped over our heads.
"Next we're going to Rome!" the woman at one table shouts to a man at the other side of the room.
"We're from Nebraska," a young man leans back in his chair to communicate with a gentleman sitting three tables down.
A woman notices me following the bouncing conversation and asks, "Where are y'all from?" It's jarring, this camaraderie. It feels very much like a school cafeteria, rather than a romantic Venetian restaurant. We huddle in, and I try to ignore my compatriots.
Later I make my way to the ladies' room in another part of the restaurant and glance around and notice that quiet Italian is being spoken discretely at tables, where couples look into each other's eyes, and realize, we had forgotten to ask for the Non-Tourist room. We can't separate ourselves from the rest of the flood. We're the same, in search of an authentic Venice, which struggles against the weight of us. At least she has history on her side, and science. The high waters will recede and she'll stay strong, and those who love and know her will buoy her up, preserving her culture.
On a recent trip to Paris we brought our friends, an American couple, to one of my husband's old haunts, Harry's New York Bar on Rue Daunou in the middle of the afternoon.
We swung open its kitschy saloon-style doors and left the bright day behind us at a completely inappropriate hour.
The bar is covered with Americana—license plates, college banners, decals—and other ephemera, evidence of its long history as a favorite watering hole of expatriates, including the patron saint of all expats, Ernest Hemingway.
The place was empty except for one lone man who looked a bit like Ernest's daytime ghost, sitting in front of the bartender who was silently wiping down glasses. It was far too early for the stampede of tourists who make a nightly pilgrimage here.
We knew we had to try the bar's speciality, the whiskey sour, but made a good show of hesitation. It really is a bit early, no? Maybe I'll just have a mint tea. Or a mimosa. But our friends found an excuse for us all: jet lag! We didn't bother to remind them that, coming from London, we weren't suffering from jet lag, and no one did the math to determine that it was more like morning for them. Rise and shine and taste that bittersweet Bourbon cocktail.
It's easy to make friends with strangers in a dark bar in the middle of the day. Ernest's ghost was, of course, a young expat writer with a respectable amount of facial scruff and clothes one might wear when painting. But, anachronistically, he scrolled through emails on his BlackBerry and was himself trying to forget a case of jet lag from a flight from Los Angeles. Would a modern Ernest be a burgeoning screenwriter?
We toasted and noticed that another day drinker had crept by us and now sat at the other end of the bar sipping something out of a martini glass. As he slowly drank he slid imperceptibly from barstool to barstool and finally sat next to us, actively listening. Eventually, without preamble, he joined the discussion. As he talked he occasionally drew out an electronic cigarette from the breast pocket of his navy blazer like it was a fine writing instrument and took discreet puffs, blowing odorless smoke from his nostrils.
Another Parisian gentleman, casually chic and confident in his charm, made a bold entrance and immediately introduced himself, shaking the men's hands and kissing the ladies', a gesture which I am convinced was designed for men to easily determine a woman's marital status. (I'm still not sure if the fact of a wedding ring makes a woman more or less a target for a Parisian man.) He tossed back a drink like he had just come from a punishingly boring, sober business lunch.
Between the seven of us, multiple threads of conversation spun out and broke off and interwove, and though we were the only patrons, the space felt fully occupied by our presence, getting thicker and louder as we talked. The effects of a cocktail so mimic the warm, radiating pulse of the feeling of friendship that strangers have been benefiting from this shortcut to intimacy for ages. Sometimes the moment is an entry into something true, other times it's just a flash, a good cheat, a trick to turn everyday life inside out by gold joy sipped and shared. Travelers, expats and businessmen bond, fuzzy plans are hatched; yes, next Thursday we'll meet again. This round's on me. To Hemingway!
We talked about books and bars and Paris. Recommendations for restaurants and advice on life were given. There's a sloppy beauty to the nonsense distributed. A few choice pieces from our afternoon sojourn:
Travel Advice from Bar Philosopher I: "The jet lag and fatigue of an overnight, trans-Atlantic flight can be bypassed entirely by heading straight to the bar upon arrival. With a good buzz, sleep is unnecessary."
Health Advice from Bar Philosopher II: "If you smoke fewer than five cigarettes a day, you will live a long and healthy life. A famous heart surgeon confirmed this to me."
Fitness Advice from Bar Philosopher III: "You may eat as much and drink as much as you like, as long as you don't snack between meals and take the subway rather than drive. My obese American friend came to Paris for three weeks and lost 10 kilos this way."
Did they believe their own advice? Perhaps. Certainly in the dark gleam of Harry's Bar, after convivial drinks, it's easier to. Anything is possible. Ernest's ghost walks. Friends can be made in an instant. A Paris scene retains its allure even when the tableau contains e-cigarettes and smart phones.
Every day at lunchtime the smiling redhead who works at the shop next door comes in for soup. She loves asking what the soup of the day is and her face lights up when she is passed her steaming bowl. One day the electric soup warmer blows a fuse. There is no soup. When told, the woman regresses thirty-five years. Her lip quivers, her eyes well. She stomps her feet, shouts and slams the door behind her. The next day she arrives and asks, beaming again, "What's the soup of the day?"
Those working in customer service will inevitably witness this perplexing performance: the adult tantrum.
If you work in a restaurant, it's a regular occurrence (perhaps hunger strips decades from our maturity). It might be a rarer sight in other industries, but we should still be prepared for it, just like the parent who knows her sweet baby will one day hit the terrible twos and is wise to have her tips, tricks and techniques at the ready for when disaster eventually strikes in the middle of the grocery store.
In the grand scheme of things, we have it easy in libraries. Our customers aren't completely "customers"; they are patrons of an institution, while we, the library staff, are the stewards of that institution's collections, so a sense of community imbues interactions more often than not. Ninety-nine percent of the time, patrons are gracious. And, most of us, having entered into the profession in order to, at least in part, help people, love doing just that.
Oh, but that one percent.
Thankfully many librarians are practically patron-whisperers. Their sheer presence is enough to pacify the most irate individual. I've had several bosses and colleagues with this magical power, and watching their diplomacy, goodwill and patience in action was like taking a master class in patron service.
It's a tricky business though, because we must strike an extremely delicate balance between providing service and enforcing rules. We must be welcoming and helpful while protecting the collection and the greater good of the library. We must smile while we shush. Ask if there's anything we can help with while confiscating your open beer bottle.
Our techniques for handling the odd tantrum must be honed for this very particular dynamic. From an institutional perspective it helps to hire people-whisperers, those blessed with poise and imperturbability (for example, the American Midwest is a hotbed of such individuals), right off the bat. But, even if someone's not so naturally gifted, we can still learn how to diffuse challenging service situations.
But first, certain conditions should be in place at the library.
At one of my first library jobs, a patron, frustrated at having to produce his student ID in order to enter the library, threw his card in the face of the student staff member who was manning the entrance. The staff member was stunned silent. My boss watched this interaction, strolled over, and with a voice as soothing as warm honey, explained to the card-flinging student that this was his first and last warning and if he ever abused a library staff member again, he would lose his library privileges for life.
My boss's calm demeanor, coupled with firmness, took the student from recalcitrance to contrition in five seconds. Of course, he was one of those bosses with special powers. But, for the staff, just knowing that he supported us was enough to give us confidence in our ability to handle such interactions. We felt protected by the institution to do our jobs.
Along the same lines, drawing boundaries helps. At another library we developed a Patron Code of Conduct, providing clear guidelines on proper behavior, just in case. It was rarely used, but it helped staff know how they should expect to be treated (for example, no cards should be flung at any faces). It gave us peace of mind so that, in the moment, we could manage a difficult patron with steadiness and ease.
Of course, how we handle those tricky tantrums, outbursts or just plain old naughtiness depends upon the situation, but here's a sampling of techniques:
"The Empath" - At the circulation desk a patron is yelling because he needs a book for a paper due today. Not tomorrow. TODAY. With empathy (the greatest tool in the arsenal of the customer servant) we feel for the guy, knowing his frustration is probably about something bigger than the unavailable book. We don't have to know what, but we recognize that he's just human, and with a little compassion, we might be able transform his bad attitude. "The Empath" is the perfect antidote to taking things personally.
"The Silent Treatment" - Sometimes there's nothing you can do to stop the woman stomping and storming out of the restaurant. We know, as she will probably realize, that her behavior stinks like last week's turnip soup.
What we would like to say:
"Cloak of Invisibility"- an extension of "The Silent Treatment". Both parties pretend that the outburst never happened. That way the customer can return the next day and ask for the soup specials without embarrassment.
"Good Cop/Bad Cop" or "Blame the Policy"- A classic. You're just enforcing the policy. It's your boss who is the bad guy (your boss is in on this). If someone is shouting about the library's entrance policy, you can shrug (empathetically), wave a copy of the written rules and refer them to your friendly-but-tough boss.
"The Information Deluge"- I worked with a staff member who was brilliant at diffusing situations simply by explaining the intricate minutia of the library's policies and procedures. Boredom quickly eclipses anger.
"The Sneak Attack" - Rather than showing his ID, a man gives the attendant a dirty look, hurdles over the turnstile and sprints into the library. Instead of running after him in a game of inappropriate library flag football, we wait. Eventually he comes to check out a book, and we say, "Sir, your hurdle is impressive, but I'm afraid I have to insist that you show your ID next time." He sheepishly agrees to leave his track workouts outside.
We're probably all guilty of bad behavior from time to time. Bad moods descend on even the sunniest personalities, and unfortunately, sometimes other people get the brunt of it. Hopefully most of us have left our public tantrums back in our toddlerhood, but we can still find some compassion for the foot-stomping patron.
In customer service, it can be a challenge to maintain your humor, patience, empathy and faith in humanity. But, if we feel supported by our institutions, if we know that we should expect to be respected, we can stay neutral and not take things too personally. We won't be daunted by the rare tantrum and can enjoy the ninety-nine percent. And keep in mind that the best stories come from the stompers and yellers and hurdlers.
When I was fifteen, like most American teenagers, I was desperate to drive. My friends and I longed for freedom (though we were far from unfree) and the unfamiliar (really, life itself should have been strange enough for us at that age) and were convinced that as soon as we got our licenses, we would drive out to meet the world and the world would come to us.
Big Events that we couldn't yet even imagine would transpire. Weren't our desire and longing grand enough to merit such a reward? It turns out that the most exciting result of this momentous right of passage, the procurement of a driver's license at sixteen, was that we were able to stop for coffee every day before school, and sometimes, if feeling really rebellious, return to the same coffee shop for lunch. Driving widened the circumference of our lives by approximately four miles. But, that's not what this story is about.
This story is about secrets, and what we do when we are burdened with someone else's secret. And, also about vulnerability and how blind we sometimes are to our own.
Driver's Education happened to everyone. No one complained much about it, since it shook up the regular routine, which definitely needed shaking. Plus, we could take the classroom portion of the program with our friends, provided our birthdays fell around the same time. After hours of driving observation, course instruction and countless cautionary videos—the instructor warned us of their graphic content, unaware that we'd just watched Pulp Fiction in the theater for the third time—we would finally get behind the wheel. Granted, this particular wheel would be in a car festooned with embarrassing STUDENT DRIVER signs, and the driving instructor would be riding shotgun, his foot hovering over his specially designed passenger side brake; nevertheless we were thrilled.
My driving lessons took place on summer days, which had been, up to that point, lazy. Innocence is long and unperceived. Summer upon summer, we had run between houses, scorching our young feet on burning sidewalks, feeling punished by boredom of our own making. Then sprawled on carpets and cool soft couches we would talk endlessly about life or read books side by side. Massive pizzas would be eaten, VHS tapes played. Occasionally, prodded by mothers fed up with our sloth, we fashioned half-adventures out of walks to Thundercloud Subs and trips to the mall.
So we were ready to grab at any shred of the banner of adulthood hanging in front of us, and I was hyper with excitement when I finally got in the crappy little red car for my first hour of driving practice.
After less than five minutes on the road my palms were pouring sweat, slipping too easily from the correct position of ten and two. In the back of the car were two other students who were logging their requisite hours of driving observation. Furtively, I took one hand at a time off the wheel and held them in front of the blasting air conditioner. I could feel my anxiety leaking over onto the previously calm instructor, who sat straighter and straighter in his seat. "Easy, easy," said the middle-aged teacher, poised rigidly with adrenaline, as I rolled down the street at half the speed limit. Suddenly I realized I was responsible for every single body in the car, whose exoskeleton was not enough to protect the life within—everyone needed their own, like hermit crabs.
Slow motion crashing cars from the safety videos crumpled one after another in my mind. This was too much power. I wished I was in the backseat, at the mercy of some other nervous teenager, not the one in command. A new facet of my personality blazed—I would prefer to be the observer, a position in which it's far easier to convince oneself of security, and, if forced into a position of control, I would at least like the luxury of not being watched.
Sometimes the universe answers a silent plea, and thanks to some scheduling miracle, I didn't have any more student observers for the rest of my driving hours. It was just me and my new instructor, who had recently started teaching at the driver's ed school. I was happy to have the teacher from my first hour replaced by this younger one, who was more laid-back and relaxed. He wore shorts and casual t-shirts that stretched over a big, friendly belly. He was so chill that he seemed impervious to my anxiety. In the passenger's seat he rode like a friend, his elbow out the window, and occasionally he would lean forward to turn the radio dial, looking for a good station. Every so often he'd point out where to turn, but it seemed more like a suggestion than an order. Unlike my friends' instructors, he didn't make me do anything scary like take the highway or parallel park.
It was like an episodic road trip. All that was missing from the scene was a plastic bag full of snacks from the 7-Eleven. I don't remember how many hours we logged, but even one hour is a long time to make conversation, especially when cruising slowly around wide, quiet neighborhood streets. Whereas I could talk for days to my friends, I didn't have much to convey to this man in his mid-twenties. He wouldn't understand my particular plight of itching to start life, as his had already begun. Plus, I was concentrating on the road. So, I listened and asked questions, and hour by hour, he began to reveal himself. He talked deeply about his life, his upbringing, his move to Austin, what he wanted to do, his loneliness. Just like two friends on an endless empty road.
During one of our last hours he began talking about how he had never had luck with girls.
Here we were moving into new conversational territory and I started to feel uncomfortable. The gap between our ages and genders snapped into place between us. I didn't want to hear about my friend/teacher's love life, or lack of love life, but in my hours of listening, a feeling of empathy and complicity had been growing in the car like a protective amniotic sac, and I would not have dreamed of puncturing it by changing the subject or revealing any discomfort in my face.
Girls just didn't go for him. They saw him more as a friend. Just look at him. Big and cuddly, not the kind of guy that girls want.
I nodded in sympathy, keeping my eyes on the road.
So, in the past, a long time ago, he did something he's not proud of—his throat tightened with guilt around his vocal cords--it's just he'd been alone for so long, and he was stupid, and that's just what his friends did. He would go to bars and wouldn't know how to talk to girls or even approach them. So, a few times, only a few times, he'd put a roofie into a girl's drink when she wasn't looking.
I swallowed hard. My sympathy swerved away from him toward those unknown girls being slipped rohypnol (was it even then called the date-rape drug?). I looked at the empty console and felt relief that we hadn't stopped at the 7-Eleven and no sodas sat in the cup holders.
But I listened to his confession as a priest hearing a penitent's regret—at least that's how I felt at the time—solemn, assuming a mask of compassion while, internally, compassion slithered away.
Even now, describing the moment, there's a whiff of betrayal, like I'm breaking a code of silence. And, in fact, my memory has done a partial job of locking down the secret, because, even though I remember those hours and the beginning of his revelation like it was yesterday, I do not remember how the conversation ended, which is appropriate for a story about a drug that erases one's memory.
Put a roofie into a girl's drink… and then, a blank.
Did he trail off? Did he assure me that nothing came of it? That he slipped the sedative into an unattended tropical cocktail, but then slunk away into the night without committing any further crime? I don't know. The information is suppressed, swept away under some heavy, shameful rug.
What I do remember is my own guilt, which has changed over time.
First, there was the original guilt in the moment, of hearing the secret (whose proportions also shift upon inspection; one minute I look and it's a small misdeed, the next, a grave one), of a girl who felt she had given tacit permission to accept the burden as a listener and in so doing, became a conspirer. Of disgust at my concurrent and contradictory judgment and pity of him—I understood his loneliness, but not his deception; I understood his feeling of ugliness, but not the manipulation that only magnified that ugliness.
Then, later, I felt guilty about keeping the story to myself. Even if all he had done was slip a strange girl a party pill behind her back and nothing more, should I have done something? Telling someone at the driving school, for example, was the farthest thing from my mind. But why didn't I whisper it to my friends, my partners on the long road to maturity? Was I flattered that I could be trusted with a grown man's shame, or embarrassed that I had somehow elicited this information?
I also circled back and told myself that he merely shared this story as a cautionary tale, like one of those crash videos, so that someday I would remember this friendly, lonely man when I stepped into a bar and would guard my own cocktail, covering it with a coaster when turning my back. It was a lesson from a teacher, a warning to me, his student, to stay away from guys like him.
Maybe over the hours in the car, from the passenger side, I had grown to resemble one of those girls and his remorse built until he forced himself to confess as an act of absolution. Or maybe the fellow-feeling we had conjured was a true one, the empathy real, and he simply felt safe to share.
But, what is that bond? One between a young man hired to teach left-hand turns and a fifteen year old, fresh to life, buckled in next to him for a required hour? Perhaps the same impulse that drove him to slip a pill into a vulnerable girl's drink was the same impulse that pushed him to reveal a secret to another one: a dangerous mixture of a need to control and a lack of good judgment.
Or was he just a human doing what humans do, sharing all sides of ourselves, trying to lay some of the heavy burden of being at another's feet, hoping that they will receive it with kindness?
Analysis and memory deceive. The recovered mental images skid and jump and smear. I almost remember canceling my last hour of practice with him and rescheduling with another instructor. But, perhaps that's just a redemptive wish. It could be that I drove with him one last time with a smile pinned to my face.
I had wanted to be the observer, and not the observed. I wanted to avoid the highways, but still keep the windows down and the music loud, to keep a child's feeling of safety but also experience the thrill of adulthood.
Although I didn't do much with my license once I got it, I had already gotten a taste of the complexity of the world. Even when the streets are wide and easy, twists appear, and sometimes our own minds can't be fully trusted, changing perceptions as they do over time, keeping some fragments of memory immersed while letting others drift to the surface to confound us, years later.