Libraries I Have Known

The Southern Belle was dubious when I strode toward the checkout station with a baker’s dozen of books, most of them hardcover, in my arms. She added her own modest three novels to the stack, then proposed using the plastic bags provided by the library to transport our literary loot out to my car.

I scoffed.

“Nearly all of these are hardcover – they’ll tear holes right through those bags,” I told her, starting to gather the scanned books back into my arms.  The Southern Belle sighed, and because she is a fabulous friend, grabbed half the stack for herself so I didn’t actually have to carry them all.  I would have, though.  I’ve done it before.


To me, a library trip is only successful when it results in such a large haul of reading material that I can’t quite open the front door when I get home.  I’ve developed this habit from childhood; ever since I got my first library card in kindergarten, I would toddle up to the counter with a stack of books tucked under my chin, my fingers barely gripping the bottom of the pile as I propped it against my torso.  The librarians would lean down and peer at me as I tried to shove my heap up and over the counter for them to scan.  “Are you really going to read all those?” they would ask, half to me, half to my mother, who stood by nodding.

“Oh yes, she will,” my mother said.

That was in the first library I knew, the brick one with the lane of trees out front and Reading Riley, the brass turtle, on his pedestal just outside the door.  That was the library where, seized by one of those fevered obsessions that strikes third-graders, I checked out nearly every book available on lemurs and wrote a report.  For fun.  During the summer.

That library is gone now, torn down and the spot where it stood filled in with mountains of dirt.  The city promised a new library in that same spot, a bigger, better one.  A year, two at the most, they said.

It took five.

During those five years, the temporary library was crammed into a space that used to house an auto parts store.  Many of the books, including some of my favorites, were now in storage elsewhere.  I had to request a lot of things from other branches.  The librarians who had watched me grow up shook their heads whenever I asked about a beloved volume.  Probably in a box somewhere, they said.

Now we have a new library, with floor to ceiling windows and self checkout stations and conference rooms for readings and signings and book clubs.  There’s a job search area with resources for unemployed people, a teen area, a kids area.

I think the kids section might be the only one without computers.

Of course I miss the library of my childhood, the one with brick walls and a hushed atmosphere and a counter that allowed me to get to know the people who worked there.  But at school, what I’m really homesick for are those teetering, heavy stacks of pleasure and leisure reading.  Spring break means getting to pile books up to my chin, crash through the door, settle in, and devour half the stack in one afternoon.  And that, to me, is home.

“This is Mother Land”

One of my grandma’s friends, Sally, was going through her old papers recently when she came across a scrap from September, 1998.  Apparently when I was little, my nana would take me with her to visit Sally, a retired schoolteacher who was fascinated by the stories that came pouring out of this jabbering toddler.  One in particular evidently demanded recording:

This is Mother Land – It’s a place for mothers with fevers. Would you like to have a seat on our bench? Rule number one is – I’m going to explain to you about mothers with fevers and babies with colds.  This baby has no cold.  This baby has a cold that is SO bad – This is a big sneeze – a really big sneeze.  The mother has a fever.  It started in her head.  The arrows show where the fever goes.  It went down to her belly button.  It went down her arms to her hands.  It went all the way down to her toes.

Age 4, 9/22/98

This subject matter probably had to do with the fact that my baby sister had been born not eight months previously.  I don’t know why I never explained what Rule Number One was, but I’m curious as to what my four-year-old self would have said!  Similarly, I kind of want to know if the bench was a real piece of furniture or just a figment of my overactive imagination, and if I was actually drawing arrows on some kind of diagram while I said all this.

My parents always said I was telling stories my entire life. As my mom liked to tell people, I didn’t start speaking in sentences; I started speaking in paragraphs.  I chuckled along, happy that my parents didn’t mind that I wanted to major in creative writing and work as a writer.  But to see it written down is to see proof that I really have been doing this since I could talk. Sally’s beautiful handwriting, left over from a day when penmanship was as important in schools as the Pythagorean Theorem, captures my four-year-old imagination’s ramblings, setting my sentences down far more coherently than I probably said them at the time.  Even though I can’t quite make out the narrative arc of this particular “story,” I can see the roots of one of my favorite fiction-building tendencies: fantasizing and describing new places and cultures, building a whole “land” out of thin air.  This is where the magic begins for me, the words that will spill over into every part of the rest of my life: a four-year-old jabbering away.

Throwing Sharp Things

I had just walked into the apartment when WHUMP!  Something flew into my roomie, the Commodore’s, closet door, followed by cheers from her and our neighbor, the Hamster.

“Um…whatcha doing?” I asked, tentatively tiptoeing toward her door.  The Hamster popped his head around the door frame, grinning at me.

“We’re practicing with our throwing knives!” he announced.  Sure enough, the two of them had stacked a pyramid of cardboard boxes in front of the Commodore’s closet and stood over by her window.  With a flick of the wrist, the Commodore sent another blade flying into an Amazon Fire box.  It stuck.

“This is so fun!” she exclaimed, reaching forward to pull her weapons out of the cardboard.

The Hamster proffered his knives to me, hilts first.  “Do you want to try?”

“Is that even a question?!”  I took the set of three knives and, after a few practice flicks, sent one hurtling toward the boxes.  It hit, bounced off, and lay flat on the carpet.  I sighed.

The Hamster and the Commodore told me they’d had several throws just end up sticking in the carpet, or even the closet door above and around the pyramid.  (Oh well.  We probably would have lost our security deposit anyway by the time we finally move out of the apartment.)  But as the night went on, a lot of throws flew straight and true to their targets.  I even had one go through a hole in a box to pin the back wall of the box to the closet door behind it!  The Commodore was aiming for a specific box with an enemy’s name on it, while the Hamster and I were just sort of trying to stab boxes in general.  The poor cookie mascot on one of them ended up rather tattered and scarred.

After a particularly bad round, where none of my throws stuck, I noted, “Even when they don’t hit, there’s something really satisfying about throwing sharp things at a great speed.”  The Hamster and the Commodore enthusiastically agreed.  It was like being little again and illicitly running with scissors (not that we ever did that, of course…).  It was the heady feeling of realizing that we were all legal adults and could, if we felt like it, spend the evening hurling sharp bits of metal at a pile of cardboard in our own home.  It was cathartic, stress relieving, and just plain fun.  I could imagine myself as one of my childhood heroines in battle – never mind that the target was stationary and less than five feet away.  Even though I’d never thrown a knife before in my life (and keep in mind, boys and girls, these were sets of throwing knives, specifically designed and balanced for the purpose, not like your ordinary Cutco stock), I’d always wanted to try it.  And I didn’t need anyone’s permission.  The opportunity just presented itself.

Of course, I never exactly expected to come home one evening and find two people in my apartment tossing blades around as a way of blowing off steam.  But then again, that’s why I love my friends: we’re all a little weird.

[I feel like I should put a disclaimer: no one was hurt.  We took turns and stood well out of the way while throwing and never even jokingly aimed at one another.  Ironically the next day I stabbed myself while cutting an apple, but that’s another story.]

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

I sat in Starbucks yesterday working on an essay and found myself grinning like an idiot when John Denver and the Muppets came on singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Singing along under my breath to Miss Piggy’s “BA DUM BUM BUM” earned some alarmed looks from the students around me, but I didn’t really care. Christmas music makes me so happy. Even when I’m stuck at school until only a week before Christmas (yay finals!) and it feels like I’m missing out on all the anticipation at home that makes the season so wonderful, I can dance around in my kitchen to Dan Fogelburg and sing along to Idina Menzel in my room and it feels something like the magical season I remember from being a kid. We only haul out these CDs once a year, but I never fail to remember every single word. They’re carved deep into my memory, an accessible form of time travel as this thing called growing up slowly seems to steal some of the magic left over from childhood.

Mysterious Water Leaks Don’t Care About Feminism

I came home last night to a squishy floor. My roomie informed me that water had been pooling in our hallway (really more of a smallish space between doorways, but we call it a hallway) ever since she got home, and it was starting to soak through the carpet. As the evening went on, we put down more and more towels, the water spreading until our floor looked like laundry day dumped out on the rug.

In one respect, I was glad we were both girls, because my boyfriend would never have had enough towels to deal with this. (I once had to explain to him what a linen closet was.) Not to stereotype, but girls just tend to accumulate more fabric goods, if only because our relatives don’t know what else to give us for graduation and Christmas.

But toweling needs aside, when we realized we didn’t want to wake up to an entirely flooded apartment, we called – you guessed it – a male friend to come over and look at what was wrong. Our neighbor, who is a friend of ours, stopped by and showed us how to turn off the heating part of the water heater, but he couldn’t turn the valve to stop the water flow to the tank.

After he left, we started thinking of who we knew who might have the tools we needed. I actually ended up calling my boyfriend’s roommate, because I knew my boyfriend was already asleep and turns his phone off at night. So BF’s Roomie graciously came over, even though he had almost been asleep himself, and figured out a way to bust through the corrosion on the valve and cease the water flow. I rejoiced!

Except we could still hear dripping.

Turns out it was a pipe behind the water heater, which BF’s Roomie found with the help of my little ladybug mirror from B&BW (three cheers for sparkly impulse buys!). I called maintenance at precisely 8:00 this morning, and a very nice man is now draining our hot water tank and explaining to me how these older apartments have this super awesome design where a drain is placed behind the water heater where only house-elves could possibly reach it to keep it clear and clean. So that’s clogged, obviously, but he says we’ll have it fixed by the end of the day.

But once again, as with my car, I found myself succumbing to an instinct that told me I had to justify my decision-making in a home maintenance problem. Even as BF’s Roomie was working away at the shutoff valve, I was rambling about the evidence that suggested it was the water heater, or something in that area, and how shutting off the power and the water made sense. BF’s Roomie patiently listened and agreed with everything I said, but he gave me a few funny looks, so at one point I stopped myself.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but as a girl I’ve sort of been raised with this societal instinct that whatever I decide to do about home maintenance stuff is probably wrong.”

“Yay stereotyping,” he answered dryly.

I was able to recognize, identify, and control the ingrained tendency to second-guess myself this time, so I suppose my experience with my car breaking down has made some inroads into my mental definition of Me As Female Dealing With Problems of Male Expertise. And even though it turned out it wasn’t the water heater leaking, we would never have found the real problem without the logical decisions my roommate and I made.

Cosmic Comfort

Bath & Body Works is a dangerous, dangerous place – for my wallet, at least.  But today I think it was exactly where I needed to go.

I ventured into the store firmly telling myself that I was here solely for the hand soaps that were on sale – some for my mom and some for me to take back to school for my new apartment.  That was it.  No more lotions or shower gels or God forbid another buy-two-get-one-free deal on lip gloss.  I had enough at home.  That was my mantra.

A perky employee popped up from behind one of the pyramidal displays and asked how I was doing.  As was my habit, I said, “Good, how about you?”  We ended up chatting about how boring an empty store was and how excited she was to have a customer at last.  When I told her what I was looking for, she led me to the hand soaps, where we exulted over our mutual love of apple smells and fresh scents.  As other customers drifted in, the salesgirl bounced back and forth between all of us, asking me how my selection was going (it’s surprisingly difficult to choose 7 flavors of hand soap) and generally being friendly.  

Of course, I realize this was her job.  She was no doubt chosen for her ability to converse easily with customers and make them feel welcomed.  But it wasn’t that – laughing over my addiction to lip gloss and picking out a car freshener in addition to the soaps (I am weak, don’t judge me) was typical.  It wasn’t her sunny demeanor or ready smile, either.

It was something she said while ringing up my order. 

It came up somehow that I would be studying abroad for a month this summer (remember the Exciting Thing?) in England.  She told me, “Oh, you’ll fit right in – you look like a stylish English girl already!”  I thanked her and found myself admitting, with a laugh, as if it were no big deal, that I’m somewhat apprehensive about the awkwardness of making new friends.

“You’ll be fine!” she cried.  “You made a new friend right here!”

I chuckled and thanked her, heading out with my ridiculously heavy bag of good-smelling things, but she made a point that I felt the need to analyze in this blog.  

See, I tease my parents, specifically my dad, all the time for their ability to “make friends” wherever they go.  (Seriously – my dad can get our waitress to tell her life story in about two minutes.)  On some level, I suppose I’m aware that I have learned/inherited this ability, since I often find myself finding something to chat about with the stranger next to me on the plane, etc.  But I’ve also been rebuffed in such advances, I still think of myself as “shy” more than anything else.  Why would someone who’s outgoing get the kind of nerves I do when faced with a new situation?!

But I’ve been overlooking an important part of the two-way interaction – the perky girl at B&BW was required by the social context to make a connection as well.  I was not alone in making overtures of friendship; in fact, I made her job easier with my reciprocal enthusiasm.  And the other Select Few participating in the Exciting Thing will also be looking for new friends among the group of strangers.  It’s kind of like being a freshman all over again: we’re all in the same new-kid boat, which hadn’t really sunk in until this little encounter today.

Cosmic comfort is cool (and I got citrus soap too!).