It Wasn't About #Oprah2020

Years ago, when Lynn was doing a lot of public speaking, she'd give inspiring, fact-filled, entertaining talks where she'd outline tactics for meeting the challenges of managing electronic information and the key roles librarians ought to play.  Inevitably, among the people coming up to the podium to talk to her afterwards would be a few saying some version of, "That was wonderful!  Can you come and talk to my administrators?"  Back in our hotel room, she'd be exasperated.  "I've given them the information they need!  I've given them the tools!  They don't need me, that's their job!"

I'm feeling that same exasperation reading all the chatter about the pros and cons of a Wynfrey presidential run.  Certainly, if she chooses to run, she'll be a credible candidate.  I don't know if I'd support her, but I'd listen carefully to what she had to say, comparing it to what will surely be a very full field of competitors.

But in January of 2018, that isn't the point.  It's depressing that this is all so many are talking about after the speech.  It certainly isn't what she was talking about.

She was reminding us that there's a lot more work that all of us need to do.  That it was 35 years after the first black man received the DeMille award before the first black woman did -- a signifier of how deep our racism and sexism still runs.  That Rosa Parks went to bat for Recy Taylor 11 years before she sparked the Montgomery bus boycott -- and that she was not successful in getting justice for her.  We've made great progress towards fulfilling MLK's dream, but more than 50 years after that speech, the events of the last year certainly demonstrate how far we still have to go, how fierce the backlash continues to be.

The power differentials that have allowed sexual harassment and assault to go on so often unchallenged for so long are deep in the culture.  #metoo has been inspiring and reassuring for many and that's a good thing.  But remember that Rosa Parks was not just a weary maid who couldn't take it any more.  She was a trained activist who was carefully chosen to spark what her colleagues hoped would be a lever for significant cultural change.  She was part of a movement that was carefully thought out, that had a strategy and that was in it for the long haul.

Oprah said, "Their time is up."  But that's aspirational, in the way King's dream was aspirational.  She said she wants all the girls watching to know that "when that new day finally dawns" it will be because of a lot of "magnificent women" and some "pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody has to say 'Me too' again."

That they become the leaders. The young girls watching, because of the work of all of us watching and listening and talking and figuring out how to fight to make that change.

These are generational changes, not accomplished during one season's exhilarating moments of partial awakening.  

"Oprah2020" is a fine cathartic emotional response at a time when many are hungry for inspirational moments.  I feel it myself.  But putting Oprah -- or anybody -- into the White House isn't going to make the change we need.  Fixating on it is a diversion.  What's needed is the steady work of each of us.  Every day.  For the long haul.  For the generations to come.

 

 


There’s Nothing Quite Like @CHSCONF

The short answer, obviously, is: Katina. 

I’m standing at the refreshments table with a colleague who’s just told me this is the first time she’s come to the Charleston Conference.  I say, “There really isn’t any other event quite like it” and she asks, “What makes it so different?”

She hasn’t seen the differences yet.  When you’re standing in the middle of that ballroom, surrounded by exhibit tables staffed by eager, smiling sales reps making their pitches, the Vendor Showcase looks much like any other exhibit hall at any other library conference.  But that’s just the first day. 

On Vendor Showcase day, the buyers and sellers may be on opposite sides of the tables, but after that wraps they’re equals.  Librarians,  publishers and the other vendors of products aimed at librarians are all full program participants.  They’re all speakers and listeners and questioners, in the conference rooms, the bars, the hotel lobbies, the receptions, the restaurants.  (Oh yes, the restaurants! It’s Charleston.)

Back in 1980, unable to afford to go to ALA, Katina Strauch, then at the College of Charleston, invited a couple dozen people to join her for a day of discussions about “Issues in Book and Serial Acquisition.” They had a good time, so they did it again the next year and a few more people came.  By the time I first went, in 2002, there were hundreds of people packed uncomfortably into the anachronistic Southern elegance of the Francis Marion hotel and the adjoining conference center.  A couple of years later, the conference center closed, so Katina and crew expanded into two other nearby hotels, sending attendees scurrying across Marion Square or up along Calhoun.  Now, with the Gaillard Center nearby, the physical crowding has been greatly relieved, even though attendance is bumping up against 2,000.  The intellectual crowding dizzies more than ever.

There’s no association or membership organization behind it.  It’s just Katina and the brilliant crew of Conference Directors and staff she’s assembled over the decades.  They’re nimble, creative, highly professional.  Beholden only to their vision of the conference they can innovate in session design, be flexible in handling themes and content.  It’s extremely well run (much of the credit for that going to Exec Director, Leah Hinds), and the range of topics covered is staggering.  The tagline is still there – Issues in Book and Serial Acquisition – but it is so much more than that.

I went that first time because Ramune suggested I propose something – she was trying to get more medical librarians to go.  I’d just written a JMLA editorial about the retraction debacle surrounding the deletion of an article from Human Immunology and the letter that had been sent to subscribers asking them to remove the article from the print copies.  I put together a presentation outlining the issues.  I was particularly critical of the policy that Elsevier had drafted after the fact to address possible similar situations in the future.  During the Q&A, Michael Mabe, then working for Elsevier, stood up and said, “I drafted that policy.”  We had a lively exchange – lively exchanges being very much a hallmark of the Charleston Conference.  We became friends and when Michael moved on to head the STM Association he opened many doors for me in the publishing world, for which I will always be grateful.  It was also at that first meeting that I met Anthony Watkinson (aka the Connector – he seems determined to make sure that every interesting person he knows meets every other interesting person he knows).  More gratitude.

The web of connections grew.  I think now of the people who’ve been so influential in my life and in my understanding of the complexity of  the world of scholarly communication; so many of them people I met at Charleston or through someone that I met at Charleston.  It’s the opportunity for making those sorts of relationships that’s a big part of what makes the Charleston Conference so different, too.

I don’t go back every year, but most years.  I’ve done some concurrent sessions, a plenary or two, hosted some panels, been interviewed for the Penthouse series.  These last couple of years, though, I haven’t wanted to be on the program.  My neurologically challenged body doesn’t handle the stress as well as it used to.  The ratio of work to fun in putting together and delivering something that I’m proud of is no longer in my favor.  So now I go to mingle with people I’ve come to know, meet new people, have my brain tickled by ideas.  It never gets old (although we do).

It comes back to Katina.  Certainly there are many people who deserve a lot of credit for making it what it’s become.  But it’s her curiosity about the field, where it’s going, how it works, and the people who comprise it, that infuses the spirit of the conference and makes it the uniquely challenging, stimulating, and energizing event that it is.  For anyone interested in the future of scholarly communication, the business of scholarly communication, and the myriad ways people are trying to shape that future, it shouldn't be missed.  There isn’t anything else quite like it.


Such Convenient Accusations

I feel kinda sorry for Joe Barton.  Time was, a guy with a sleazy personal life and multiple affairs could become Speaker of the House.  It’s not like Barton was accused of actually assaulting or even harassing anybody.  (Although I did feel somewhat assaulted after seeing the photo that did him in).

In the current climate you just can’t get away with things. It’s not just assault or harassment that’ll bring you down.  Now the catchall term “sexual misconduct” is in vogue.  The fact is, Barton just wasn’t useful anymore.  He didn’t retire politely when he lost his committee leadership post. He kept hanging around.  And he wasn’t doing a very good job managing the GOP baseball team.  A pissed off former girlfriend and a grotesque nude selfie was exactly what the Republican leadership needed.  So long, Joe.

They haven’t been as lucky with Roy Moore.  Barton was apparently capable of being embarrassed.  Not our Roy.  (Remember, I live in Alabama.)  The tortoise from Kentucky was quick to believe the women this time.  But Mitch hadn’t ever wanted him in the Senate.  Big Luther was reliable, he could be counted on.  But who knew what the Judge might do? 

Coming from Alabama himself, Mitch can’t really be expected to be that offended by a 30 year old dating teenage girls.  But the 14 year old – that’s a story you can use.  It’s not Weinstein worthy, of course, and there haven’t been any tales of salacious behavior after Moore’s marriage (to a woman 14 years younger), but Mitch is an expert at spin.  Riding the current wave of cultural disgust was easy as pie.  Does anyone imagine that he actually gives a damn about the women?

I am a little puzzled, though, by Moore’s tactics.  Why come out so strong and claim that he doesn’t even know them?  Certainly he’d have to deny the story about the 14 year old and the one from the woman who accused him of physical assault, but those’d be easy to brush off.  Why bother to deny his dating history when it’s so easy to check?  That wouldn’t have bothered his voters.  Debbie Wesson Gibson was one of the women in the original story.  She said she’d dated Moore when she was 17 and he was 34.  She never accused him of anything inappropriate.  It was a happy memory.  She’d invited him to her graduation, they exchanged Christmas cards after she got married.  So she was shocked and hurt and angry when Moore started claiming that he’d never dated any of the women, didn’t even know any of them.  I guess he figures that in the current fact-free political environment a vehement blanket denial is a more effective tactic even when it’s easily shown to be false.  He’s probably right.

What is truly outrageous about the whole Moore thing is that the Republican establishment didn’t oppose him for twice defying the Supreme Court when he was Alabama's Chief Justice. They didn’t find it problematic that he thinks Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress and that there are whole communities in the Midwest currently under Sharia law.  His venomous hatred of same sex couples, his insistence that the first amendment only protects Christians, and his belief that his Bible supersedes all laws wasn’t sufficient to raise an eyebrow among the leaders in Congress.  Apparently these are all acceptable views for a Republican Senator.  Or at least acceptable enough.  But “sexual impropriety” – now there’s something they can work with.

It still hasn’t been enough, though.  And they need that vote.  So Trump’s endorsed him and the RNC is back to pumping him with cash.  The most important thing is to make sure the Democrat doesn’t win.

But McConnell’s still not quite giving up.  Even though he’s leaving the matter “up to the voters of Alabama” he’ll start an ethics investigation if Moore gets elected.  That might give him what he needs to push Moore out.  Then he’ll have Governor Ivey appoint a safe replacement.  Probably Big Luther.  The tortoise will have what he wants.

And then Moore will run for governor of Alabama.  He’ll probably win.

 


What Does His Daughter Think?

"I want my daughter to grow up in a country, she's 15 years old, where she is empowered and respected wherever she goes and wherever she works in whatever she does."  That's Paul Ryan, in an interview with Steve Inskeep of Morning Edition that was aired last Friday morning.  I had just dropped my 12 year old granddaughter off at school.

Inskeep has just asked Ryan about the charges of sexual harassment that are being made against members of Congress and Ryan's coming out strong on the absolute necessity of holding people accountable.  "[N]owhere should that be more obvious and apparent than working here in Capitol Hill," he says.  "[W]e should set ourselves to standards that we expect of other people and we should set high standards for ourselves so that we can be role models and set examples..."  That's the kind of thing you want to hear from the Speaker of the House, isn't it?

Inskeep mentions that Ryan called on Roy Moore to withdraw from the Senate race.  Ryan is quick and firm in his response, "That's because I believe those allegations are credible."  And then, of course Inskeep says (and didn't you see this coming, Paul?), "What is the difference between his case and the case of President Trump, who was also accused by a number of women and also denied it?"

Ryan stutters, slightly, but recovers quickly.  He's focused on Congress, he says.  He hasn't spent time "reviewing the difference" in the two cases, he says.

Inskeep presses, referring to a speech Ryan gave in 2012, supporting Mitt Romney and talking about his high character being above reproach.  Inskeep wants to know if Ryan believes the President is meeting that high standard.  But Ryan's back on firm ground now.  He says it's no secret that he's had his differences with the President,

"But what I see is a president who is fighting for the things that I'm fighting for. I see a president who's fighting for an agenda that will make a positive difference in people's lives. Is this president unconventional? No two ways about it. He's very unconventional. But if we make good by the American people by actually improving their lives and fixing problems and finding solutions that are bothering them, that's a good thing."

The strong comments about setting high standards and being role models and being held accountable have wisped away as if they'd never been said.  Trump is merely "unconventional."  And since he's helping Ryan get what Ryan wants, a little "unconventionality" is just fine.

He's certainly setting an example.  So is his President.

I wonder what the 15 year old thinks of her Dad when she listens to him dodge and dissemble like that.

I wonder if he worries about it.


#Beprexit and then what?

I expected the news that Elsevier had acquired Bepress to raise a larger kerfuffle in libraryland than it did. Certainly the people who tweeted or posted or emailed about it were deeply alarmed, if sometimes a little hazy about the actual implications. (No, this did not mean that journals on Bepress platforms had become Elsevier journals. Bepress repositories were not going to be forced to put up paywalls.)

But there wasn’t as much alarmed reaction as I thought there might be, given the depth of dislike and distrust of Elsevier in many pockets of libraryland.  Angst reigned for two days and that was about it for social media.  I’m sure the outrage was shared by many who didn’t chime in, but in this age of easy likes and retweets, I expected more.

There was another two day flurry a month later when the librarians at UPenn announced Operation Beprexit, their very cleverly named intention to leave Bepress for parts unknown. They're calling for librarian and research colleagues to join them on the journey to an infrastructure of open source, academia led, noncommercial solutions.  They’re taking a measured approach, setting up a committee to examine campus needs and open source options.  Nothing hasty.  I’m sure many in libraryland will be watching their progress with interest, but again there was rather less social media chatter than I expected. 

If I were a Bepress customer, I’d’ve greeted the news of the acquisition with cautious optimism. It’s always wise to approach mergers and changes of ownership cautiously. Even when they’re well thought out and well-designed, there can be bumps in the road and sometimes outright disasters. But when one looks at how Elsevier has handled the Mendeley and SSRN acquisitions, there’s plenty of cause for optimism. The Elsevier leadership obviously doesn’t want to do anything to damage those aspects of the acquired companies that have made them successful. They want to keep the teams in place, keep them moving in the same strategic directions.  At the same time, there’s an opportunity to more closely integrate them with other products in the portfolio. Most significantly, what Elsevier can provide is cash – they can reach into those deep pockets for development investments that would be out of reach of those small, if agile and creative companies on their own. Barring some stupid moves on the part of various managers and executives involved (always a possibility — no matter who the owner is), Bepress should continue to grow into an even more useful partner for librarians and their institutions than it has already proven itself to be.

But... but... but… Elsevier!

Yes, well, like it or not (and, for the record I do not) we live in a capitalist world where it is the for profit companies that have the resources, talent and organizational skills to build the tools that can be used to implement the kinds of workflows and analytics that librarians and researchers want.  Elsevier has done a very good job of positioning itself to be a major player in this space.  And despite its reputation, Elsevier has also done more than most organizations in providing immediate unfettered access to the Version of Record.  This is utterly unsatisfactory to those who want commercial companies out of scholarly communication altogether, but you can’t really argue that Elsevier is anti-OA.  They’re just not supportive of OA approaches that might put them out of business.  Go figure.

Librarians (the vocal OA partisan librarians, that is) complain that Elsevier’s interests and the interests of librarians are irrevocably at odds. All the company cares about is profit, they say, while librarians are focused on maximizing access. It’s a caricature caused, at least in part I suppose, by the fact that most librarians’ only exposure to people from Elsevier comes when trying to negotiate a license.  In that narrow transaction, the specific interests in getting the best deal certainly do have the two sides at odds. But viewing a company like Elsevier through that narrow lens is as myopic as publishers who see librarians as nothing but purchasers of content and are oblivious to everything else that we do. Companies stay in business only when they align themselves in supporting the interests of their customers. And most of the people in publishing that I know are in that business because they believe that the work they do has real social value and that the better they get at developing systems and services that address the real needs of their customers the more successful they'll be, the more successful their customers will be, and the better off society will be in general.

While some librarians’ angst is driven by an irrational hatred and fear of Elsevier, at least some see this as the time to take a stand against corporate dominance of the tools of scholarly communication.  A scholarly communication ecosystem managed entirely within the academy, with no need or room for commercial players, dedicated to no cost sharing of the products of research globally, remains the holy grail for many librarians who’ve dedicated their work lives to scholarly communication issues.  Many of them thought the OA movement would weaken the commercial publishers.  They look at Elsevier's continued strength with considerable alarm.  For some, the Bepress acquisition was the last straw.  Now’s the time to take a stand.

I’m sympathetic to the idealism underlying this.  I think it would be good, in the long run, for librarians and researchers to have more control over how the ecosystem develops.  So I wish the librarians at UPenn the very best.  I’m glad they’re taking a deliberate approach to looking at the options.

Still, I remain deeply skeptical of efforts to create an entirely separate ecosystem without engaging the people in commercial publishing.  These are talented and committed people with a wealth of knowledge about how scholarly communication systems actually work.  It’s the people who work in publishing who understand what it takes to develop and deliver high quality, well-vetted publications.  They understand the needs and desires of authors and readers, the challenges of developing useful peer review systems, the technical opportunities for moving beyond text, the minutiae of checking for error and fraud.  Certainly they have their blind spots, but that's why all of the other stakeholders need to be tightly engaged.  We count on the others to help us past our own blind spots.

The challenges society faces in opening access to scholarly information are vast.  They are technical, political, social and cultural.  The players include researchers, teachers, students, librarians, funders, members of the public, university administrators, people in publishing companies large and small, commercial and not-for-profit.  We all see the problems and solutions a little differently.  We all have unique insights.  We all have our own interests to protect, while we try to pursue the greater good.  We will continue to argue and fight and disagree as we struggle our way towards solutions.  That's okay.  That's what it takes.  


Making History

"The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation."  You could be forgiven for assuming this is Richard Spencer talking during his brief Charlottesville 3.0 demonstration.  It's not, but it undoubtedly cheered him and his companions when they read it in President Trump's Columbus Day proclamation.

Here's what Spencer did say on Saturday:  "We care about our heritage, we care about who we are, not just as Virginians, not just as Southerners, but as white people. ... You'll have to get used to us... We're going to come back again and again and again."  They sang "I Wish I Was in Dixie."  They chanted, "You will not replace us," and "The South will rise again," and "Russia is our friend."

In his Charlottesville Statement, posted back in August, Spencer says,“'European' refers to a core stock—Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Latin, Nordic, and Slavic—from which related cultures and a shared civilization sprang." For the White Nationalists, this is the true and only foundation of the United States.  It's the perceived erosion of that primary culture into a multiracial, multiethnic, egalitarian society that does not privilege any group over another that they find so threatening.  The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal, and the tortuous history of our country has been the struggle to figure out how to extend that promise to all people.   This the alt-right can't abide.  When Trump proclaims that the permanent arrival of Europeans was the transformative event that led to the development of the United States, he is explicitly telling them that he stands with them.

In Indianapolis on Sunday, other postures were taken.  Many of the 49ers took a knee, of course.  VP Pence, knowing that would be the case, told the press detail not to bother coming in to the stadium.  He knew he wouldn't be there long.  The Colts wore shirts that read, "We will stand for equality, justice, unity, respect, dialogue, opportunity."  Pence walked out, making it clear where he stands.  It was a great weekend for the alt-right.

History is made from our choices.  How we choose to view the past, how we choose to act in the present.  Where, and with whom, we choose to stand.  What we choose to stand for.  

 


The Violence of Ideas

Donald Trump isn't a racist.  Not in any conventional sense.  He's far too narcissistic, self-centered and opportunistic for that.  While the current crop of white nationalists proclaim loyalty to some mythical idea of whiteness, a tribal affiliation with an imaginary west European identity, Trump's only loyalty is to himself.  Hardly a white supremacist, he's a Trump supremacist.  He loves those who support him, belittles those who oppose him or are insufficiently loyal.  He surrounds himself with rich, white men because those are the people he knows.  He has no racial or tribal loyalty.  His sympathies lie with the white supremacists, not because he shares their dream of an ethnically pure state, but because their vision of the individuals who should be running things embodies how he sees himself.  His recklessness and lack of any ideology make him all the more dangerous.

His most recent comments, calling out the "bad dudes on the other side" highlights how he supports and empowers the alt-right.  By focusing on violent acts committed by people on "both sides" and then making bland statements saying that he opposes "hatred, bigotry and racism in all forms" he sidesteps any specific criticism or condemnation of the people and organizations leading the alt-right charge, while also giving comfort to those who claim that Black Lives Matter supporters (among others) are engaged in hatred, bigotry and racism.

The murder and beatings that occurred in Charlottesville are horrible.  But focusing on the violence deftly turns attention away from the ideas.  What should be even more shocking is that a mob of people bearing torches marched in support of the profoundly un-American idea that power in this country should be held only by those who exemplify a particular vision of white nationalism and who explicitly reject the principles of equality that the nation was founded on.

There's no acceptable justification for the violence perpetrated under the Antifa banner.  It is wrong morally and it is self-defeating tactically.  But I recognize that those who are willing to engage in it do so because they feel that the threat posed to American values by the alt-right is so severe that drastic action is justified.  They believe that the attempt to spread those ideas is an act of violence itself and that it must be prevented by any means necessary.  I believe they're right about the seriousness of the threat, but wrong about the tactics that can be used to oppose it.  But focusing on the violence, without examining the ideas behind it, risks equating their ideas with the ideas of those who are explicitly seeking to destroy an America that is built on the principle that every person has equal value.  This should be repugnant to every American patriot.

If the people who came to participate in the Unite the Right march had been as mild as lambs their presence should have horrified Americans just as much.  Spencer's manifesto, "The Charlottesville Statement," was written specifically to crystallize and advertise the views of the alt-right in advance of the march.   It is explicitly racist, explicitly anti-Semitic.  It proclaims the existential necessity of defining the state along racial and ethnic lines.  The people who came to march were not there to debate what we should do about statues celebrating Confederate war heroes.  They were there as part of a movement that seeks the end of a country built on democratic values.

How best to govern a nation founded on the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution has been the substance of political debate since the beginning.  The ideas of the alt-right are not part of that debate.  They are an explicit rejection of those principles and a rejection of the two and a half centuries that the nation has struggled to live up to them.  They are fundamentally anti-American.

But Trump's focus on the violence and the "bad dudes" implies that these ideas are just as worthy of consideration as any others.  After all, he says they are held by "some very fine people."  That the President of the United States can't find it in himself to fiercely and unequivocally reject and condemn those ideas is profoundly terrifying.  I don't think it's because he shares that ideology.  They just give him the adulation that he craves.

Donald Trump isn't a racist.  It's much worse than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Metadata 2020: Calling On Everybody

I wonder when I first heard the word.  I suppose I understood “metadata” as a fancy term for the cataloging I’d learned in library school, or the indexing I’d done at NLM.  A trendy, computer-y word for a very old concept.  Here I’d been “applying metadata” for all of my professional life and hadn’t even known it! 

These days you can’t take a step and a half in the world of scholarly communication without tripping over the word.  And there’s another word I see cropping up more frequently.  Metaphorically, we speak of that world of scholarly communication as an "ecosystem".  Where scientific knowledge once existed in discrete bits and the scutwork of scientific research was laboriously unearthing the connections between them in order to establish frameworks and platforms on which to build new discoveries, we now see an interconnected system of articles and data and loosely defined “research outputs.”  Or at least we see the potential for such a system.  Its infrastructure is metadata. 

The Metadata 2020 initiative is a crucial step in moving the community from the metaphorical image of what an ecosystem might be to a vibrant, effective, usable and efficient system of interconnection.  I use the word “community” advisedly, because the critical foundational insight of Metadata 2020 is that progress and realization will require a broad community effort.  As a librarian, I may think of metadata as derived from traditional tools for describing books & articles.  But a publisher sees it differently.  A data scientist has their own approach and sensibility.  The people working for funding agencies have their unique angle.  We all have different priorities regarding which flavor of metadata we think is most important.

As Ginny Hendricks points out, each of the groups that cares about metadata has approached it in their own way, developing approaches to solutions that meet their own needs.  Great progress has been made, but as long as we continue in this piecemeal fractured fashion we'll fall short of the interconnected vision we all should share.

The goal of Metadata 2020 is to bring these various approaches into closer alignment, to foster the necessary conversations and collaborations.   You can sign up here to receive occasional news and updates.  You have an important role to play.

Imagine a world in which you can move from reference to reference, object to object, gathering new insights, discovering new connections and new collaborators, revealing unanticipated patterns, all without running into the roadblocks and blind alleys and rabbit holes that waste our time and deliver frustration.  If you've bothered to read this far, you know how important this is.  And you almost certainly have expertise to contribute. Make it happen.

 

 

 


Grateful to young black men

Funny things, stereotypes.  You have a few encounters with people and decide they typify everybody who shares their characteristics.  So you make quick judgments about people you've never met.  If the stereotypes get deep enough under your skin, and you meet people who don't match them, you decide that they must just be exceptions.

When Lynn and I travel by car, as we did recently on our two week trip to Wisconsin and back, we stop every couple of hours for gas, or a sandwich, or a restroom break.  And there I'll be, unfolding Guido, my 3-wheeled walker, from the back of the car, struggling my way to the door of the gas station or rest stop or McDonald's (McDonald's being my default because the restroom is always in the same place and there's usually a handicapped parking place near the door nearest to it.)

People are generally lovely.  I can manage most doors myself, but often there will be someone who'll notice and hold one open for me.  And most consistently, that someone will be a young black man.  It's so consistent, in fact, that as I'm making my way toward the building, if there's a black dude coming up behind me, or about to exit the place, I feel myself relax a bit, because I'm sure he'll get the door.  Certainly, many of the other people who might be around are likely to help.  But I don't count on them the way I've come to count on the black guys.  

I have a theory about this.  If you know that your skin color and your sex strike a visceral fear in a large segment of the population, and that because of that fear they see you as a threat, and that because of that threat you are a target and are vulnerable, you pay attention to everyone around you.  You're exceptionally alert, because your life might depend on it.  You got the talk from your Mom or your Dad or your grandmother or the uncle who took you under his wing.  You don't make a big deal of it.  Much of the time maybe you don't even think about it.  It's not a conscious thing, it's just part of how you carry yourself.  So you're going to notice the old white dude with the black hat and the scraggly white beard struggling his way toward the door.  It takes less than half a second to see that you're probably safe from him and because you were raised right, of course you're going to wait and hold the door.  Maybe you're even going to pick up your step to get past him to get to the door first.  You probably won't make eye contact, you don't really think about it.  It's just the right thing to do.  When he looks at you and grins and says thank you, maybe you'll give him a quick nod.

I certainly don't mean to minimize the extraordinary kindness and helpfulness of so many people that we run into.  My affliction offers me wondrous opportunities daily to marvel at the generosity of people.  But the fact remains that for many people I'm invisible.  They're not unkind or neglectful when they let the door swing back at me or when they push past me in a way that almost knocks me down.  They'd be chagrined if they noticed.  But they don't need to notice.  

I'm never invisible to the black guys.  I'm grateful for that.  But I know it's because they can't afford the risk.

 


Putting Things Together

Then I remembered the ginger ale.

I was just about to put the cabbage in.  I had plenty of butter in the pan and the pancetta had rendered out its fat, but I still needed some braising liquid.  We're out of the frozen cubes of stock that Lynn makes when we've finished a rotisserie chicken or I would've used a couple of those.  I was about to give up and grab the vermouth when I gave the carrots and onions and garlic and pancetta one more stir.  The carrots' orange was bright and glistening in the butter and fat and I remembered the carrots braised in butter and ginger ale that I'd fixed some months ago.  Happy boy, now.  That's it.  Hint of ginger and a touch of sweet.  Lynn keeps a rack of soda cans there near the kitchen door.  Splash some in.  Ten minutes covered, then a minute more for the last of the liquid to cook off.  Finished with a few dashes of sherry vinegar.  

The plan had evolved during the day.  There's quite a bit in the refrigerator to work with and now that I'm taking on another meal each week I was mulling menus.  Three-quarters of a head of cabbage in the lower drawer.  That'd be easy with a bit of onion.  I asked Lynn if she'd get a kielbasa out of the freezer.  I could steam chunks of that in with the cabbage and onion.

Then, after I'd gone upstairs and was doing the morning exercising, I thought of the pancetta.  I'd been musing about an amatriciana or a carbonara later in the week, but the pancetta would go well with the cabbage.  I finished my stretches and sent a text to Lynn -- leave the kielbasa, I'll use up the pancetta.  Later on decided that garlic was now in order and that carrots would add some color and heft.  I was still making it up all the way to the moment I remembered the ginger ale.

This is my favorite way of working in the kitchen.  No recipe.  No measuring.  A notion of a plan.  I'll browse recipes online for ideas (that's where the sherry vinegar came from).  Then I'll try to turn myself loose.

It comes from being decades in the kitchen.  Some good cookbooks that teach technique and not just following recipes.  (Thank you, Jack Bishop.)  Paying close attention when we're out to eat at the way our favorite chefs find balance in the unusual.  (Praises to Duane Nutter.)  

And then there's the competition with Lynn.

In the years before the short circuit, when I was responsible for getting supper on every weeknight, I loved the chopping and combining and stirring.  It was so wonderfully concrete after another day spent planning and cajoling and nudging and trying to help the people I worked with accomplish things.  I was good at that and it was marvelously rewarding but there was rarely a sense of accomplishment that felt like completion.  Opening the wine and putting the plates on the table gave me that.

Then the years when I was incapable.  Dragging myself exhausted after working through the day, hands enfeebled, not able to stand for more than a few minutes at a time.  Lynn had to take on all the daily cooking.  It was years before I was able to do more than the very occasional special meal or my pasta lunch on Saturdays.  The Christmas spaghetti.  Josie helping me with potato pancakes.

Slowly it came back.  Truly, the competition with Lynn helped.  She expanded her repertoire, continued to hone her skills, increase her knowledge (thanks in no small part to her "beloved Kenji") and emphasize appearance as much as flavor and balance.  I'd always relished the fact that we were equal partners in the kitchen, albeit with very different styles.  Now I was clearly falling behind.

A meal like last night's, the pleasure that came from fixing it and eating it, reassures me.  I don't think I'll ever be her equal in presentation.  I just don't have that visual sense.  But I'm back to doing my share.