Sunday, February 24, 2019

August 29, 2014

Occasionally it occurs to me that not everyone is inured to the detailed workings of libraries. There are people out there, even ones who read my missives, who have not spent 20 years deep in the minutiae of library life, philosophy, politics, and operations. Whereas Jason Bourne may size up hundreds of details of risk in just the moment of entering a room, so I can walk into a library and sum up its collection, staff, and procedural limitations in mere seconds. Even not in a library I can give a nearly instantaneous general accounting of the reading materials in any room I'm in or have recently have been in just as Bourne can tell you where a gun is most likely to be hidden.

Because of this it can at times be difficult for me to imagine the confusion that people face in their encounters with libraries. Culturally, we the people are most acquainted with commercial institutions. We know what it means to be lured and sold to. We understand the spaces related to that. We also have an acquaintance with mystifying, machine like bureaucracies that insist on our participation and resent us at the same time. We even have a fair amount of peculiar overlap between the two. But the library is an unfamiliar creature to us. 

The library is a nearly imaginary glimpse of a reality in which we, collectively, as people, are not assholes.

Yes, that is a pungent way of putting it, but the collective endeavors of humanity, while presenting some amazing and much vaunted exceptions, are probably best described by the word "sick". I don't mean "sick" in the contemporary slang sense of "Wow, that nollie 360 heelflip was sick!", but more in the conventional usage of "Wait, they were put to death for skateboarding? But that's sick!" We the people hold within us the power to make a paradise, a wonderland, a garden. But unfortunately we have found thumbscrews irresistible and it's all sort of run away with us. 

But there stands the library, maybe a million of them in the world, like something from a really lovely passage in an Ursula K. LeGuin novel where you think "What a beautiful idea. If only something like that really existed in the world." Well, this one does, but it is so sweet hearted and visionary and better than us that it can be a trifle difficult to navigate. Plus it is entirely run by people who mostly live in that culture of marketing and bureaucracy and so perches precariously on the edge of them, ever in danger, ever compromising, ever trying to hang on.

Your library is real so it looks like the world. It is just another building, another government entitlement, a hard coded symbol of human culture. It is just a place in your city. It is not so fancy, or beautiful, usually. A lot of these books smell. Some of the workers there are friendly. Some are not. The library may or may not have what you wanted today. It might be noisy. It might be closed. It might let you down.

So it may be hard for you to see what is at hand when you go to a library. But I am a student of them, and I am here to tell you.

When you walk into the library, any open, free library, anywhere on earth, on any day at all, you walk into a miracle.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

November 26, 2013

How To Be Funny in Public

from Nov. 26, 2013

Have you longed to be a comedian about town, a nut, a fool, a secret font of wisdom, hilarious? That is, do you want to be funny? I advise against it. It's a long, hard, cold road. Fraught with perils, it can be dangerous and nerve wracking. But if you reject my first advice I won't abandon you. If you just have to make people laugh, if the comedian persona has clutched you in its ferocious paws, I say "Go for it!" Clearly you have no choice. But heed my advice below.

1. Set jokes will be your doom. My father used to ask all grocery store cashiers if they took Rubles. I heard that joke thousands of times. Was it new to each cashier? Mostly. Was it a bad joke? No, no, it's fine as a joke for our purposes. Did he perfect it through such intensive repetition? Perhaps. But still I must speak against it. You cannot keep running the same material without becoming complacent, unnatural. You've got to stay hungry, and you must always be testing new material or you won't notice it when people start humoring you all of the time instead of just some of the time.

2. Know your audience. Professional comedians complain about tough audiences, but I laugh at professional comedians! Their audience is made up of a specific sub group of people who at least theoretically like comedians and are even willing to pay to see them. Your audience is anyone! Anyone! Sure, some of them are up for a laugh, but some of them are easily insulted, some of them have almost no sense of humor, and some of them don't even know what to do when a joke happens and will stare at you, bewildered. You will need to instant read your audience. You will need to pitch jokes to their level (which you had to deduce only a second ago). You will need to adjust your level of daring to their level of daring (all jokes are daring, which means they can also, in the wrong context, end up as mean, offensive, disturbing, and/or inappropriate). And you may even need to guide them along in receiving your joke properly, perhaps with a twinkle or a chuckle that lets them know that, no, the director of your Library doesn't actually fly about in her own fleet of jets equipped with bowling alleys, you're just being wacky. Sometimes this is enough to let them know they can laugh, which may be all the stronger for the relief in it.

3. You cannot joke all the time. Joking thrives on its relation to the serious, to the real. Real life is like cream and comedy is like the air and whisking. If you whisk nothing you have nothing. But whisk the right amount of cream and you get whipped cream, which, of course, is hilarious. Keep whipping the whipped cream and you get butter, which is excellent on toast and is the famous secret of French cooking.

4. It's okay to challenge your audience. While it is imperative to know your audience (remember point two?) that doesn't mean you can't challenge their limits. Plus, you can only know your audience so much, and throwing out a wide net of material not only keeps them off balance and amuseable, but also helps you refine your material and become better able to actually read your audience in the first place. Writing here I have little or no opportunity to read you as my audience, and so my comedy approaches have been especially diverse. And so too it's a nice approach if in this sort of situation you can present a lot of challenging or minor material in a way that lets it fail without too much notice. For instance, an early joke in this piece was "...I laugh at professional comedians!"  This was a joke far better than my usual standard, but also one that, if you missed it, you didn't stop and say "I didn't get that joke." You merely, possibly, didn't know there was a joke there in the first place. There is an added benefit here that once it's pointed out as a joke it's unmissable.  As to the absurdist humor in point number three, what with the meaningless analogy to butter, it was even more challenging as far as comedy goes, and usually if I did that kind of joke in person I'd have to laugh winningly to assure people that I'm not a lunatic, I'm just being funny. But here, in text, since I can know that at the least you are the sort of person who would actually read all of this post, you might be up for a slightly bizarre and challenging burst of absurdist humor.

5. Try to be nice. This is a tough one because it cuts out at least 30 percent of your material off the top. Professionals perhaps can't afford this one, or, possibly, don't need the restriction due to the depersonalized and formalized relation of their work. You, however do need this, because even though it may seem like comedy comes first, it doesn't. Humanity comes first. Warm laughs are beautiful. Hard, brittle, exploding and snickering laughs are, well, great, I won't lie, but great like fast food; crappy if you actually are paying attention, obesity and cancer causing, and horrible to the world. So be careful. Besides, for all that professional comedians like to go on about the aggressiveness of comedy, its violence (i.e. I killed them out there) they're mostly wrong. You do not want to be a master jokester in order to express your hatred of the world and force people to laugh against their will. Really, you don't. You want to be funny because laughing is fun and sweet, soul purifying, unifying, wise, healthy, and full of love. You want to be funny because it it a force for good! So, remember that out there. And go knock 'em dead.

Monday, December 24, 2018

August 19, 2013

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood

August 19, 2013

You cannot see these people just anywhere. They are not in the movies, nor on TV, not in magazines or written into the pages of any books, fiction or non fiction. They don't appear on the Internet, in newspapers, or even in the imagination of anyone. They can even be hard to see when they mill about on their peculiar missions right in front of you. And yet I do see them, if I dare to open my eyes wide enough, any workday I want to. These are the people that come to my library.

This is not a just folks, salt of the earth post about the wondrous diversity of humanity as it really is, and neither is it a cynical take-down of the same. All I am saying here is that if I in anyway tried to show you these people on my own, even were I given vastly greater skills, equipment and assistance than I possess, through film, sound, prose, patience and respect, humor and vision, my, or really anyone's project in this regard, would fall hopelessly flat. Any attempt to convey the however many hundreds of people I see in a day would be unbelievably bizarre. Unbelievably. It would also be too boring to watch, and it would be cynical, treacly, fantastical, mundane, uninspired, desperate in its hopefulness, plodding, pointlessly weird, and needlessly depressing. It would be unfair, inaccurate in its representation, confusing, glamorizing, too good to be true, evil, unintelligible and inappropriately whimsical.

Just like life.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sept 4, 2015

Friday, September 4, 2015

My handy publications submission letter


___ Magazine Editor:
___ Newspaper Editor:
___ Mailroom Intern:
___ Department of Homeland Security Agent:

I apologize for contacting you with a form letter. I simply submit too many irrelevant and unpublishable pieces to media such as yours to write a bespoke letter of introduction. However, as you see, the form I use is able to be specifically tailored to you. I hope this thin patina of personalness will help endear me to you while still limiting my workload.

Please consider the following

___ blog post
___ essay
___ short story
___ pithy quote
___ collection of barely legible post it notes

for inclusion in your publication. I have

___ read
___ never read
___ occasionally browsed
___ looked at the pictures in
___ become aware of

your magazine or newspaper, and I feel that my work would

___ look especially pretty trumpeted loudly on your cover.
___ be a poor match for any publication, so why not send it to yours?
___ fundamentally alter the nature of your publication for the better.
___ halve your circulation numbers, but don't you think you've gotten a bit too big for your britches?

For your response I have

___ enclosed a SASE.
___ included my address. Stamps are not cheap, and I am not made of money.
___ included my address and a bank routing number for your first payment.
___ left no contact information whatsoever.

I hope you will also consider

___ running my work as a regular column and thus catapulting us both to fame and glory.
___ eating better and getting more exercise.
___ reconsidering your decision on this.
___ sending me a letter about how you enjoyed my submission but will never publish it.

I thank you in advance for your

___ time and attention.
___ condescending dismissal.
___ weird and frankly unprofessional response.
___ fawning praise.
___ unusable advice that is nevertheless well meant.

Yours truly,

F. Calypso

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

How to bake a potato from 12/19/14

This post is celebrating its third birthday today and furthermore falls exactly on the day of our staff holiday potluck!


How to bake a potato

I am not averse to singing my own praises occasionally, but when I say my baked potatoes went over well at the staff holiday potluck, I mean it merely as a point of order, a statistical accounting, mere impartial reporting. There was a stick of butter, some salt, sour cream, and many a toasty baked potato. On a snowy December day, amid the festive hubbub of the library staff chowing down on hot casseroles of jumbo pretzels stewed in dried onion mix and Kraft ranch dressing, my potatoes went like hotcakes, I mean, if they were potato hotcakes, albeit potato hotcakes where the potatoes were not made into cakes but rather were left in their original form. And because my potatoes were so delicious many people eagerly pressed me for my recipe.

I told them to check my blog, and I so provide it here now for any and all interested parties. 

 How to bake a potato


Some people, who have no respect for fine cooking, may scoff and think it takes nothing to bake a potato, but the reason my baked potatoes are so good is because they are done right. You can probably pop a potato in the oven for an hour and have it be okay, but for a mind blowing potato you will need to carefully follow my detailed instructions. This will produce a succulent, fluffy, out of this world steaming and lush baked potato. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it!


I only use one of three obscure heritage varieties of potato, the Russian Black Fist, Olde English Russets, or Grandpa's Knuckles. If you can't find one of these varieties with a "waist" circumference of 8.5 to 10 inches all is not lost! Any good, obscure organic variety in use before the Irish potato famine and with the right sugar reading will do just fine. You will need to bring a good quality glucose reader to your local organic farm. Only choose potatoes with a "sweet" reading of four or higher, otherwise the result will be too tart and starchy.

A note on choosing your potatoes:

Besides the obvious size ("waist" circumference of 8.5 to 10 inches only!), variety, and sugar content issues, pay careful attention to picking the best potatoes. They should be free of green tinge, water should bead freely on the surface, and they should be unscarred and unblemished. Test for firmness. They should be quite firm to the touch, but never hard. Test for a rich water content by knocking on the roof of the potato, but it shouldn't be too wet. Don't be afraid to ask your organic grower detailed questions about the past six month's weather.

Preparing your potatoes:

Rinse your potatoes lightly in Evian water (from glass bottles, not plastic!). Do not scrub your potato! You will want to brush it lightly with a sable brush (no synthetic, camel hair in an emergency) while pouring the Evian over it. This can be easier with two people, but a single person will eventually get the hang of it. Just keep the water pouring in a slender stream like you are making mayonnaise. Do not pat dry your potatoes, rather air dry them, handling them as little as possible. When they are fully dry you will be piercing the potatoes with precisely seven holes, using a stitching awl.

Using the stitching awl:

I keep an ancient Roman stitching awl for puncturing or piercing my potatoes. This tool is made of iron. This is the single most important step in the preparation of baking potatoes. Your awl must be iron. The older that iron has been in its current form the better. A good friend of mine makes baked potatoes exactly as I do, but his are slightly tastier. The only difference between us comes down to his beautiful stitching awl, which is a two to three thousand BC Chinese stitching awl.

I would kill for that awl.

But we make do with what we have. Our awl should be clean and completely free of rust. Gently heat the tip of the awl to 130 degrees F over a wood source fire. Puncture each potato in exactly seven evenly placed spots, each to a depth of exactly 7/16 of an inch. I find that I do not need to heat the tip back up after each puncture, and can do two punctures if I work quickly, which saves a lot of time.

Resting your potatoes:

Let the potatoes rest at room temperature for 8 to 10 hours.

Curing your potatoes:

"Bury" your potatoes in a wood crate of rock salt. No potato should be touching anything but salt. Refrigerate like this for two days. Remove your potatoes and very lightly brush them clean with songbird feathers. Discard the salt.

Your potatoes are now ready to cook!

Cooking your potatoes:

Place your potatoes on a slab of Italian marble in a convection oven set at 225 degrees. After 20 minutes remove your potatoes and drizzle a thimbleful of good champagne over the top of each potato. Dig a pit in your yard, reserving the displaced earth, and fill it with unvarnished teak wood. Burn this wood until the flames are nearly gone, and you are left with a pit of glowing coals. Sprinkle a large bottle of Asahi beer over the coals. Coat the potatoes evenly in about a quarter inch of raw, low fire clay. Wait an hour.

Place your clay covered potatoes carefully on the cooling coals. Cover over everything with your reserved earth. Let rest for at least 12 hours. Carefully remove potatoes from the pit and gently peel off the clay coating. Brush the potato with a stiff brush made of organic hay until it is clean. Return the potatoes to the Italian marble slab and cook at 275 degrees in the oven, without any convection setting active, until the center temperature of the potatoes are 140 to 143 degrees.

Serving your potatoes: 

Remove the potatoes from the oven and rest them for five minutes. Discard the marble slab as it cannot be used again. Serve the potatoes immediately with salt and butter, yelling at everyone that they are ready now, and will be worthless in ten minutes so they'd better get to it. They will think you're being a jerk, but they will forget all about it once they taste these potatoes, your potatoes. 

They will never have had better, guaranteed!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ready at desk from 9/14

From September 4, 2014:

Ready at desk

Sometimes lately when I am at the front desk I like to stand there, looking alertly out upon the library, with a pleasant, welcoming smile on my face. When people come to me, as they do, for help, I help them, and then I return to the alert, welcoming posture.

I don't do it much, but when I do it makes me feel very daring.

Perhaps you are wondering why it makes me feel daring. Perhaps you have an inkling that this is the absolute best mien for any clerk at any service desk. Perhaps you suspect that this is exactly how one should be between patrons.

You would be right. 

And yet, almost no one likes it. Almost no one approves when I idly (but alertly) stand facing the library, ready to be of assistance. So few people really like it that I only do it when I'm feeling like a bit of a rascal.

My managers don't like it because I am not getting anything extra done. There's always a lot of extra to get done.

My co-workers don't like it because either I am not getting anything extra done, or, more likely, because I am not entertaining them. The hours get pretty long.

Patrons who don't need help don't like it because it looks like their tax dollars are going to waste. They may be in the library looking for a job, or because they have nowhere to go and there I stand, just smiling and raking in their tax dollars.

And even I don't like it because I get bored. I get bored and restless. I could be entertaining myself with reading, writing, surfing the Internet, chatting with my co-workers, or getting a few library things taken care of. But instead I am all there. It is hard to be all there. If it were easy to be all there, we would all be the Buddha.

The fact is that standing there all pleasant and ready for business doesn't look so good. It looks unmotivated, unbusy, slackerish. If I feverishly look up exotic coffees on the Internet, listen to my co-worker tell me about flea market finds, or look through a book before putting it on a cart in order, I am being completely non productive, but I look a great deal like I might be being very productive. I look like I am super busy and engaged.

Just look at this dynamic library with the workers all flapping around! That is some place! How do they keep up?

So naturally nobody likes it when I just stand there, openhearted, for the next person who needs help. Nobody! Well, nobody but the people who need help, who, I sometimes madly dare to believe, are the people I am standing there for in the first place.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Proper Care and Handling, April 13, 2017

The following is from last April. I think it may be a kind of joke I like to make and have done so more than once in my various "Dear Publisher" letters. I suppose you are seeing this one here then because this, overwrought and fully committed, is my favorite version. Though perhaps I should add: so far.

Proper Care and Handling

Dear Publisher:

I know that everyday that you receive a manuscript query from an unknown author is an adventure of discovery, and you are keen to tear right into the pages below. But hold your horses! At least, just for a minute or two. You may well enjoy my collection of attached essays as is, but if you'll allow me the unusual opportunity to explain how to read these essays your experience will be vastly richer. Indeed, read properly, you will find these essays revelatory, magnificent, and all that you have sought for in your medium length publishing career. So bear with me.

How do you feel about wine? Many studies have shown that if people, even experts, are told, in a blind tasting, that a particular bottle of wine is expensive they will rate it higher, far higher, than a comparable wine that they are told is not expensive. And if they are told a wine is cheap they will rate that even lower.

No one wants to be a fool, which is why all these tests are a little cruel. But let us accept the psychology: A lovely, fancy, expensive, Chateau Margaux, served sloppily in plastic cups at a neighborhood art opening of no great distinction is not likely to elicit epiphanetic ecstacies from even the most studied palates, whereas a $9 shiraz served with all pomp and hushed tones by a sommelier whispering tales of terroir and black cherry and smokey rose petals likely will. 

But let us, you and I, not throw all our objectivity out the window. Let us reserve some respect for the scrupulous craft of wine making at its highest level. Let us say a gorgeous, meticulously nurtured wine, tasted in convivial mise en scene and with serious respect can, given its fair chance, raise the roof of the soul because of what it is. And a mass produced wine, though capable of bringing joy, can't reach the stars no matter how high and mighty the wine glass.

Which brings me back to my enclosed essays. These are essays that have been thrown to the world of the Internet like dross wine. Essays scattered ridiculously to the wind to find their way. Essays crammed in corked bottles to bob in the ocean forever. Essays plunked unceremoniously on your desk like all manner of unsolicited bulk rate prose. Whether they are the finest of their kind, or merely workmanlike, what chance will they have, and how will we know?

You may be thinking then that I am going to suggest that the way to read my work, to their best effect, is with careful respect, as if something fine and good has been delivered to you, and that with a little care they will bloom in your mind. You may even find that a bit cheeky, and believe that you are better than any wine taster, able to evaluate purely, in any situation. You may think "Let his work scrap it out like any other work. If it is good, I will know."

But no. That is all wrong. I am not asking for paltry half measures anyway. I do not request a quiet, ahead of time respect to let my pieces flourish. If that were all I were asking I would simply trust your judgement.

I am asking you, suggesting, that to get the best experience from reading my pieces, you must decide now, with a razor sharp and impermeable will, that I am a genius and that you will never see the likes of my work again. You must decide that you are in the presence of a once in a lifetime mastery operating at the outer edges of your comprehension.

Then, from there, go look upon my essays. If you see nothing, look deeper. Scour them for their velvety tannins and endless finishes. Hear the voice of God in them, notes of chocolate, and the breath of tall grass in rain. Faced with their obsession with trifles, their preposterous vanity, and their discursive rambling, pick out the thread of holy music lying in wait for true souls and pure seekers. Believe in your heart in their beyond-all-measure worth until the universe's answers are suddenly lying at your feet, shuddering, still live and smoking with the lightning bolt of truth. And if you read them over and over again, certain of their immortal soul, but are unable to divine any magic, do not give in to your doubt. Look deeper, again and again, until, bleary eyed, full of skepticism and hungry for illumination, it all falls into place and you realize this, yes, this absurd fool's work, unacclaimed, almost abandoned by the world, is endowed with an endless brilliance that cuts a swath through the measly face of modern literature as we know it, and finally, in the darkest times, rips the clouds away to reveal, against all the odds, that the night is full of more stars that any of us ever dreamed was possible.

And then at that point, with regret, politely decline to publish them, because, seriously, even I can see how that's hardly likely to attract many readers or sell many books.

Thank you for your time.

With all due respect and appreciation,

F. Calypso