Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The 50's were a long decade

Born in 1949, I grew up in the 50's. Those were the days of Gracie Allen ("Say goodnight, Gracie." "Goodnight, Gracie."), Lucille Ball, and Alice of the Honeymooners, for whom "To the moon, Alice!" did not mean that she could ever be astronaut. These were the models for the 1950's woman.

I was always bright and precocious. Before starting kindergarten I taught myself to read the Dick and Jane books that were being read to me. My parents didn't believe that I could read so they bought a book I had never seen and I read it to them. From then on my mother's mantra was, "Karen, no one is ever going to love you if you don't play dumb." Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Not Myrna Loy in The Thin Man.

I wore glasses (from the age of 5) in a time when the chant "Men never make passes at girls who were glasses" was often heard.

Being smart and being female is still difficult in our culture. Esther Dyson, who for long has been one of the cultivators of deep thinking around technology, was introduced as "the most powerful woman in American business", to which she replied that she considered herself at least one of the most powerful people in her field. She's right. But being saddled with the "woman" category it means that she can be considered apart, not a threat to the status of any men who might otherwise be lessened by her success in "their" world.

I was fortunate to have a few high school teachers who appreciated intellect in a girl. (I was unfortunate to also have the local high school lech who paid girls A's to sit in the front of the class in mini-skirts but without panties.) It wasn't really until I hit college that the discrimination against smart women became intense. I can only imagine that it is because college professors see themselves as grooming the next generation of college professors, while high school teachers instead had the task of helping us learn what they had to teach, then leave. In my first semester at college I had one of those introductory courses that was held in an auditorium -- probably a history class of some sort. After class one day I walked with the professor toward his office and chatted with him about some idea that had come to me from his lecture. He was friendly and encouraging. At the next class meeting he began by saying: "After class last time, a young man presented me with a very interesting idea." He had not mistaken me at the time for a boy. This was a small private college and there was a dress code. I had long, flowing hair, wore makeup, and was wearing a dress. Instead, his memory turned me into a boy because it would have been impossible for him to have received a new and interesting idea from a girl. You can imagine how likely it would have been for him to become the mentor to a bright woman looking to pursue an academic career.

You may also be able to imagine how this statement made me disappear, not only in his eyes and the eyes of my classmates, who would never know that I was that "young man," but also in my own eyes. Psychologists call it "loss of significance" -- that your very being is denied; you are erased, post facto. I don't wonder that so many women suffer depression, because there is nothing more disorienting or more discouraging than having your own experience denied, pulled out from under you, and to be made invisible.

The stories, of course, abound; I couldn't begin to tell them all. This one, though, must be told: There was the boss who had hired me as the only woman holding a management position in the organization. He chuckled in surprise and disdain when I asked to be included in the meetings that he held with the otherwise-all-male management staff, which he had not thought to invite me to. He was even more surprised when I spoke up at the meetings. One day he called me into his office and praised me by saying "We're lucky to have found you. If you were a man we'd have to be paying you twice as much."

With great pain I realize that I experienced all of this from a position of great privilege, as a white, middle-class, educated American. I cannot imagine the prejudice of race or caste that others must live with, nor how that affects their sense of themselves as whole human beings.

I'm glad I went into librarianship, with all of its warts. I have spent my career surrounded by smart women. I got to create technology with women. I hope to do more of that. My main message here today, though, is this: if you can help a young woman understand her own worth, to appreciate her abilities, and to see being smart as a positive, please do, in whatever way you can. Whether it's encouragement, scholarships, or raising a daughter who never hears "no one will ever love you if don't play dumb." Let's make sure that the fifties are behind us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Come in, no questions asked

by Eusebia Parrotto, Trento Public Library*

He is of an indeterminate age, somewhere between 40 and 55. He's wearing two heavy coats, one over the other, even though it's 75 degrees out today (shirt-sleeve weather) and a large backpack. He's been a regular in the library for a couple of months, from first thing in the morning until closing in the evening. He moves from the periodicals area along the hall to the garden on fair weather days. Sundays, when the library is closed, he is not far away, in the nearby park or on the pedestrian street just outside.

I run into him at the coffee vending machine. He asks me, somewhat hesitantly, if I have any change. I can see that he's missing most of his front teeth. I've got a euro in my hand, and I offer it to him. He takes it slowly, looks at it carefully, and is transformed. His face lights up with a huge smile, and like an excited child, but with a mere whisper of a voice, he says: "Wow!! A euro! Thanks!" I smile back at him, and I can see that he's trying to say something else but he can't, it tires him. I can smell the alcohol on his breath and I assume that's the reason for his lapse. He motions to me to wait while he tries to bring forth the sounds, the words. I do wait, watching. He lifts a hand to the center of his neck as if to push out the words, and he says, with great effort and slowly: "I don't speak well, I had an operation. Look." There is a long scar on his throat that goes from one ear to the other. I recognize what it is. He says again, "Wait, look" and pulls up his left sleeve to show me another scar along the inside of his forearm that splits in two just before his wrist. "I know what that is," I say.

Cancer of the throat. An incision is made from under the chin to arrive at the diseased tissue. They then reconstruct the excised portion using healthy tissue taken from the arm. That way the damaged area will recover, to the extent it can, its original functions.

With great effort and determination he tells me, giving me the signal to wait when he has to pause, that he was operated on nearly a year go, after three years in which he thought he had a stubborn toothache. When he couldn't take it any more he was taken to the emergency room and was admitted to hospital immediately. I tell him that he's speaking very clearly, and that he has to exercise his speech often to improve his ability to articulate words; it's a question of muscle tone and practice. I ask him if he is able to eat. I know that for many months, even years, after the operation you can only get down liquids and liquified foods. He replies "soups, mainly!" It will get better, I tell him.

His eyes shine with a bright light, he smiles at me, signals to me to wait. Swallows. Concentrates and continues his story, about a woman doctor friend, who he only discovered was a doctor after he got sick. He tells me some details about the operation; the radiation therapy. This is the second time that he has cheated death, he says. The first was when he fell and hit his head and was in a coma for fifteen days. "So now this, and it's the second time that I have been brought back from the brink." He says this with a smile, even a bit cocky, with punch. And then tears come to his eyes. He continues to smile, impishly, toothlessly. "I'm going to make it, you'll see. Right now I'm putting together the forms to get on disability, maybe that will help." "Let's hope it works out," I say as we part. And he replies: "No, not hope. You've got to believe."

The derelicts of the library. A few months back it was in all of the local papers. One student wrote a letter to the newspaper complaining that the presence of the homeless and the vagabonds profaned the grand temple of culture that is the library. Suddenly everyone had something to say on the matter; even those who had never even been to the library were upset about the derelicts there. They said it made them feel unsafe. Others told how it made them feel uncomfortable to come into the library and see them occupying the chairs all day long. Even when half of the chairs were free they were taking up the places of those who needed to study. Because you can't obviously mix with them.

I don't know how often the person I chatted with today had the occasion to speak to others about his illness. It's a terrible disease, painful, and it leaves one mutilated for life. Recovery from the operation is slow, over months, years. It's an infliction that leaves you with a deep fear even when you think you are cured. That man had such a desire to tell the story of his victory over the disease, his desire to live, his faith that never left him even in the darkest moments. I know this from the great light that radiated from his visage, and from his confident smile.

I don't know of any other place but standing at the vending machine of a library where such an encounter is possible between two worlds, two such distant worlds. I don't know where else there can be a simple conversation between two persons who, by rule or by necessity, occupy these social extremities; between one who lives on the margins of society and another who lives the good life; who enjoys the comforts of a home, a job, clean clothes and access to medical care. Not in other public places, which are open only to a defined segment of the population: consumers, clients, visitors to public offices. These are places where you are defined momentarily based on your social activities. Not in the street, or in the square, because there are the streets and squares that are frequented by them, and the others, well-maintained, that are for us. And if one of them ventures into our space he is surely not come to tell us his story, nor are we there to listen to it.

He is called a derelict, but this to me is the beauty of the public library. It is a living, breathing, cultural space that is at its best when it gathers in all of those beings who are kept outside the walls of civil society, in spite of the complexity and contradictions that implies.

The library is a place with stories; there are the stories running through the thousands of books in the library as well as the stories of the people who visit it. In the same way that we approach a new text with openness and trust, we can also be open and trusting as listeners. Doing so, we'll learn that the stories of others are not so different from our own; that the things that we care about in our lives, the important things, are the same for everyone. That they are us, perhaps a bit more free, a bit more suffering, with clothes somewhat older than our own.

Then I read this. It tells the story of the owner of a fast food restaurant who, having noticed that after closing someone was digging through the trash cans looking for something to eat. So she put a sign on store window, inviting the person to stop in one day and have a fresh meal, for free. The sign ends with: "No questions asked."

So this is what I want written on the front door of all libraries: "Come in, whoever you are. No questions asked."

*Translated and posted with permission. Original.

[Note: David Lankes tweeted (or re-tweeted, I don't remember) a link to Eusebia's blog, and I was immediately taken by it. She writes beautifully of the emotion of the public library. I will translate other posts as I can. And I would be happy to learn of other writers of this genre that we can encourage and publicize. - kc]