"Joy As An Act Of Defiance"

"Rock 'n' roll is a life force.  It's joy as an act of defiance." That's Bono explaining why it is necessary and important for U2 to get back to Paris as soon as possible to do the concerts they had to cancel after the attacks.

Terrorism drains joy from the soul. Replaces it with fear and suspicion. When we give in to that we are doing exactly what the terrorists need us to do.  

As Scott Atran and Nafis Hamid explain so very well in a recent New York Review column, the theorists of radical Islam are driven to destroy the corruption of the modern materialistic world and create "a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner."  Their tactics are not mindless nihilistic violence.  They are "part of a conscious plan designed to instill among believers a sense of meaning that is sacred and sublime, while scaring the hell out of fence-sitters and enemies."  They are intended to provoke a particular reaction that will rip the veil of illusion from the spiritual impoverishment of the West.  As prominent voices throughout the United States proclaim that we must do "things we haven't considered before," that we must all arm ourselves, that all Muslims are a threat, and on and on, it is apparent that the strategy is working fabulously well.

I was raised to believe that "liberty and justice for all" was the truth of America, that the dream really was a dream for everybody.  As I grew older I became more aware of how often we, as a country, and as individuals, fail to live up to that ideal, but I have still always believed in its potential.  When Americans are at our best, we are that shining city on the hill.  We are capable of astonishing acts of kindness and generosity.  In those moments, when we live up to our ideals, we deserve to be known as the country that people all around the world want to be a part of, we deserve to be the example that patriots everywhere want to model their own countries after.  That's when I'm proud of my country and the people who are a part of it.  There is no contradiction in feeling that pride while still wanting us to be better.

The jihadists believe that I am either a fool or a liar.  They believe that this talk of freedom and equality is a charade, that the system is created only to sustain the power of the powerful, to keep the weak in their place, where they will supply what is necessary to sustain the culture.  These horrific acts of violence are very specifically designed to generate a response, to send a message to those who they would call back to the fold.

 Did you think that if you went to the United States they would embrace you? Did you believe their chatter about liberty and justice for all? Did you think you were really going to have a share of the wealth and power that they dangle in front of you? All lies.

See now their true colors. See how quickly their fear turns loose their hatred for you. They have always hated you. When they felt they could control you and keep you down they tolerated you because they needed your labor. But they have no souls.  They are easily frightened and when they are frightened they become vicious. 

Some of their leaders claim to be appalled at the violence turned towards immigrants.   They say 'this is not who we are.' But they are as deluded as you have been. This is exactly who they are. You have no place there. There is nothing for you. See how quickly they shout their readiness to abandon their so-called principles in order to round you up, beat you, chase you from their shores. They have nothing for you.  Come home.

I imagine the leaders of the caliphate watching the bellicose rhetoric unfold, grinning at each other in amazement.  Even better than they'd hoped.  

On my university campus here in the deep South I see young women with headscarves on the sidewalks, walking to class, laughing together like college kids everywhere.  I think they are incredibly brave.  How often do they get jeered at?  When will someone, feeling emboldened by the rhetoric of some congressional leaders and too many presidential candidates, take it a step forward and commit some retaliatory act of violence?  When some young Muslim girl is standing in the dorm room, before the mirror, getting dressed, does she hesitate now before putting on the scarf?  Does she decide, maybe not today?  Maybe she was born in Indianapolis, of immigrant parents so proud to have made it to this country, to raise their children as Americans.  Maybe she spent her life having her mother tell her, when she came home from school crying at the taunts, to ignore them, to stand up for who she is, a real American.  Maybe her father convinced her that the true America would cherish and protect her.  Maybe she believed that.  Is her belief starting to weaken?  Is she beginning to wonder if the hatred and fear that seems more and more to be trained on her is the real America after all?

Yes, it's a war.  When U2 goes on stage tonight in Paris they'll be wielding a potent weapon.  The arena will shake with hope and the belief that the goodness of people will prevail as long as we don't let our own fear subvert that goodness.  They'll use rock 'n' roll as an act of defiance against those who seek to unleash the worst in our selves.

Each of us needs to be a joyful warrior.  Generosity and kindness are the weapons that we all can wield. Yes, yes, we need to be vigilant.  We need to be cautious.  Defeating the jihadists will require multiple tactics, some military, some political.  But those tactics will not prove the jihadists wrong.  We can only do that if we truly live the American dream, if we make the quest for justice and freedom, the realization of the words on the Statue of Liberty and the principles of the Constitution our daily touchstones; if we protect those ideals with all of the joyful fierceness we can muster.  If we don't, if we allow fear to replace joy with hatred, if we let the quest for security eviscerate personal liberty, if we scapegoat and demonize Muslims and immigrants, then not only do we lose the war, we prove that the jihadists were right about us all along.

 

 

 


Epistemology

Mr. Lucky posts to his timeline: If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people seeking refuge and being turned away.

Nicely done, I think, and indicate approval.  As do a couple of others.

But very soon, not surprisingly, comes the dark side. "Why are they all young men? What about women and children first? Think about it."

Absurd, of course. I'm a librarian, so immediately I go looking for facts.  I quickly find them from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 50.5% women, 38.5% under the age of 12. I post that.

Did I expect the dark side to express gratitude and surprise?  Well, no.

He just says, "Sure they are."

Mr. Lucky bans & blocks him. This is good for Mr. Lucky's page and the friends who hang out there, but the dark side remains.  Unmoved.

How do we know what we know? How do we know that we can trust it?

My way of knowing is constructed from a set of principles developed in Europe over several centuries, starting with the Greek invention of symbolic logic and the beginnings of an empirical approach to science, a way of looking at the world that comes to fruition in the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

That way of looking at the world leads me immediately to search for verifiable objective facts, to balance competing narratives using logical principles, leavened by appeals to trusted authority.

But that's just one way of looking at the world. It "works" in the sense that it provides an epistemological underpinning for Western science & engineering that enables us to manipulate the world pretty effectively to improve health and physical comfort -- along with building extremely effective tools of destruction.  Those of us who follow this path believe that it gives us an accurate picture of the world.  It leads to true knowledge. (It is, however, pretty useless for answering questions about morality or the meaning of life.)

So what of someone who rejects all that? What if one's epistemological principle is to rely on intuition and how one feel about the world? Rather than building knowledge empirically, using logic, construct it from emotion, a sense of tribe, an appeal to religion, history and family. Knowledge comes from who one is and the place one occupies in the world.  Perhaps the goal is not to test knowledge, but to keep it safe.   Use information to reinforce a construct of the world that is organic and that rejects western logic altogether. Make judgments about facts in an entirely different way -- accept those that reinforce one's views and reject those that challenge them. Rather than an appeal to some objective reality, to logic or science, measure facts against the reality that one already knows to be true. Proceeding in this way makes my views ever stronger, makes my hold on reality -- my reality -- that much more solid.

I can't argue against this using my tools of logic and empiricism.  My appeal to the UNHCR is useless. Since my antagonist already knows that the refugees are all young men, the facts that I present are evidence that the UNHCR cannot be a trustworthy source.  I think my facts will undermine his beliefs; instead, his beliefs invalidate my facts.

The rationalist says, "You're entitled to your own opinions, you're not entitled to your own facts."  And so the rationalist looks at the comment threads in frustrated bewilderment, throwing more and more facts, never wavering in the belief that eventually facts and logic must win.  They must. Otherwise, how is knowledge even possible?

And yet, it is apparent that for many people, belief comes first.  Then one chooses one's facts.  The rationalist has no way to counter this.  I can say this is illogical.  My antagonist counters, That's your problem.

 


The Despicable Senator Cruz

Throughout our re-watching of The Day of the Doctor last night I kept thinking of the bellicose Senator Cruz arguing that we needed to accept civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq in order to defeat ISIS. Most disgusting is his claim that by trying to adhere to international law on the avoidance of civilian casualties, Obama "does not wish to defend this country."

This will be very popular with Cruz's fans, many of whom would be happy to make no distinctions among the people of Syria and Iraq in any case.

The plot of The Day of the Doctor centers on the Doctor's guilt at having wiped out Gallifrey in order to end the Time War. He made the utilitarian calculation that killing those billions of innocents was justified in order to spare the many more billions who might die in the wider war if it could not be contained. Then he spent four hundred guilt-filled years regretting it.  He has the chance to undo that decision, and he takes it.

The dilemma is a classic one. What lives are you willing to take in order to prevent greater harm?  We see it play throughout the history of war. The U.S. chose the destruction of innocents in Dresden and again in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We still argue about it.  Was it better that we kill all of those innocent, suffering men, women and children in order to end the war?  

At the Nuremberg trials we began to understand what happens to a culture, and to the people who are a part of it, when you choose the path that leads to dehumanizing the "other."  There's no easy solution, and in war, innocent people die, But we try to recognize that the easy acceptance of "collateral damage" (that soul destroying phrase) places us on the same plane of barbarism of those we are trying to subdue.

Cruz appeals to the barbarism that is still within us, to the fear and the tribalism that will make it easy to accept those civilian deaths in order to save ourselves from this "threat to Western Civilization."   But our response, when it leads to torture, loss of civil liberties, dehumanization of those we see as not like us, and a willingness to easily accept the destruction of innocent life, profoundly threatens the values on which that civilization has been built.

I don't know what the solution is. I'm not a tactician.  Clearly ISIS is not amenable to a diplomatic solution. They need to be fought militarily and more aggressively than we have figured out how to do so far.  But I have no patience for the internet armchair generals who will rage in comment threads and on twitter about what we "obviously" have to do, and who will boast about their willingness to be tough enough to kill as many children as it takes.  Idiots, who will never have to stand for the consequences of their choices.  

I am not willing that we should descend to their level of barbarity and ignore the humanity of those who are caught on the ground. I want to see leadership that will find a solution, difficult as it is, that doesn't destroy our values on the pretext of defending them.  Unlike the Doctor, we don't get a second chance.

 


Must Do More Cooking

Among the indignities I suffer following my bout with the peculiarly aggressive case of transverse myelitis is the gradual atrophy of my cooking skills. This might be slightly more tolerable if it were not for the fact that Tambourine Grrl's abilities have advanced substantially.

Three years ago, and for most of our life together up to then, we split the cooking duties. During the week, I handled suppers, working on the stove top. We ate pastas with a variety of fresh vegetables, stir-frys of endless variety, the occasional risotto, simple meals based on rice or potatoes or roasted vegetables. After a long day at the library, where I rarely had the satisfaction of simple completion, I loved the act of chopping and swirling and turning out a wonderful meal of fresh ingredients and big flavors in 30 to 45 minutes.

On weekends, Lynn took over the kitchen. Soups and stews and roasts and fresh breads and homemade ice creams. She filled the freezer with leftovers so whenever neither of us was in the mood to cook it was simple to pull out something lovely. When we renovated our kitchen ten years ago, stripping it back to the rafters and starting from scratch, she designed it around our two styles, with a 5-burner stove top, work area and dual sink on one side, and on the other a lower work surface and sink (she is short) next to the ovens. And we continued to grow as cooks and share ideas and learn from each other and from Jack Bishop and Serious Eats and I think we were pretty evenly matched and life was good. And meals were delicious.

Then came my collapse and Lynn had to take over all the cooking. Her skills continue to grow. Old favorites are even better now, as she subtly adjusts the seasonings. Every week there is at least one meal that is wholly new, based on some recipe idea she's seen somewhere. She was always better at presentation than me, and the plates are lovingly arranged. She thinks of colors and shapes in ways that I never bothered to.

I am so jealous.

Physically, I'm improving. I'm gradually doing a bit more cooking. I'll make a plate of linguine with clams for my lunch on a Saturday. For Mother's Day I did the grilled steak dinner. I've still managed the meatballs sauce for Christmas. With Josie's help I make potato pancakes for special occasions.  I'm teaching her to make her favorite Cacio e Pepe. But these are all long-time standards. I'm not learning anything! Lynn is so far ahead of me now!  

Case in point. Earlier in the week she made a dish with fresh tomatoes, herbs and linguine, the pasta cooked into the tomatoes. It was good (although not worth the amount of work the peeling and seeding of all those plum tomatoes required. She won't make it again). We had a lot left over. I offered to make a frittata with the noodles if she'd take the tomato drippings and make some kind of sauce. When I got ready for the frittata I drained the pasta and what was left was a little less than a cup of tomato drippings with a quarter inch of olive oil on top. I didn't have any ideas for turning it into a sauce.

I concentrated on the frittata. Simple. Eggs, grated parmesan, a little oil to coat the pan. The frittata was very good. And when we sat down, she brought a little gravy boat of smooth, thick delicious tangy sauce to spread over the top. How did she do that? She described what all she put into it and, frankly, I was simply so impressed I didn't process the details. But that's the kind of thing she can do now.

I am so jealous.

This weekend she's off to visit her Dad, so I'm on my own. Last night I made a big batch of the lemon chicken pasta so we can have that for supper when she gets home. It was good, but again, it was a dish I've been making for 20 years without variation. Today, though, for lunch, I had some leftover spaghetti aglio, olio and pepperoncino from Joe's and I was trying to figure out how to turn it into lunch. There were a few wilted scallions in the bottom of the vegetable drawer, so I trimmed those and cut them into half inch pieces. I put a little peanut oil in the wok, cooked the scallions for a minute, added the spaghetti to heat, and then put in a splash of sesame oil. It was simple.  It was delicious. It was fun.

My energy level isn't to the point where I'm ready to resume the weekday cooking, but I could step up for weekend meals more often.  I have so much catching up to do!

 

 


The spinal cord in springtime

Email alert Wednesday morning that there was a message waiting for me in the patient portal.  Nervous as I logged in, anticipating the results of the previous afternoon's scan.

"Your cervical spine MRI looks good. There is some signal change consistent with old scar tissue. The lesion is slightly smaller in size and does not show any enhancement (active inflammation)."

Flooded with relief.  It's not a surprise.  It's what we expected.  I'd done a good job of not dwelling on the slender possibility that the inflammation would return, but there's no denying the fear.  Generally, transverse myelitis doesn't recur, but there's been nothing typical about my case, so that factoid hasn't given me a lot of comfort.  But now that I'm seven months from the last cyclophosphamide treatment with no recurrence of inflammation I can feel a little more secure.

Improvements continue, although they're slight and not very apparent to the observer.  For short distances (getting around the house, navigating a restaurant, making my way around a classroom building on campus) I can make do leaning heavily on a cane (I alternate between Mr. Whiskers and Roadrunner).  If I've got to do a bit more than that (for example, making my way around a conference) I use a walker, and if there are longer distances to negotiate, Lynn can push me in the wheelchair (Lightnin' McQueen).  It's not great, and I long for the days when I could stroll around interesting cities by myself for hours.  But I can still drive and throughout all of this I've kept up my normal work and travel schedule and gotten to much of what I would have done previously.  I'm grateful for that.

My hands remain too stiff to play guitar, but I still write in my journal with a fountain pen for an hour nearly every morning, and I can type.  I can cook, although I don't do it as much as Lynn or I would like. My overall stamina is the limiting factor there (but when I made the bolognese a couple of weeks ago I was on my feet in the kitchen for two hours straight).

I take baclofen daily, which minimizes the tremors & twitches & spasms that were so prevalent 20 months ago.  The arm, leg and back muscles are all in a constant state of tension, as if I'm flexing them all at once. They never quite relax. (As Hooks put it, I'm perpetually in neutral, never settling into park).  Instead of working smoothly in pairs, the muscles fight each other.  So all motion is difficult and tiring.  I started with a new muscle relaxant yesterday.  As always, we're in uncharted waters.

Strange to think that this has been going on for years.  Looking back, I now realize I was having symptoms three years ago, although it took another six months to get to the paralytic attack that sent me to the hospital the first time.  I don't expect ever to be "fully recovered" although it is still not unreasonable to think that I'll play guitar again and be able to walk more easily.  Exercise and neuroplasticity can achieve amazing things.

Here in the deep south we are fully into early summer.  When I drive home from work the trees on either side of the freeway are thickly lush in a calico of a dozen shades of green.  The good news from the scan of my poor chewed up spinal cord reminds me to pay attention and enjoy the gorgeousness of the sun splattered leaves even while I'm maneuvering through rush hour traffic.  I could be annoyed at the lousy drivers ahead of and next to me or I could grin with pleasure at the personalities of the trees.

Easy choice.

 


We Are Librarians

He's in the family room, half dozing over his evening scotch.  He's feeling pleasantly sluggish from the football game and the beer.  His team won.  Now the kids are watching their latest favorite show.  He's not paying attention, hears the voices drift in and out.  Some silly sci-fi something.  Some group of quirky, not quite normal eccentrics, out to save the world.  Snatches of dialog drift in. 

"Who are you people?"

"We're librarians."

He snaps awake.  The memory comes back.  The one that has mystified him all these years.  Oh my god!  They're real!  I met them!

****

It was 2000.  I'd gotten one of those Marriott timeshare offers -- 5 nights in a deluxe villa near Disneyworld for some ridiculously cheap price.  The only catch was that before you left you had to sit through the hour-long sales pitch.  Why not?  We like Disneyworld.  We'd bring Marian along.  We'd be polite during the pitch.  Hell, maybe we'd even buy in after all (this was just before we found Lynn's dreamhouse).

The villas were quite nice and the vacation was lovely.  By the time we entered the sales office on the morning of our departure we were in a mellow mood.  We weren't inclined to buy, but we were willing to have them try.  It was all relaxed and low-key.  First a video, then we sat down with the very nice, professional agent.  He asked us questions about our likes and dislikes, trying to sort out which of his categories to slot us into.  No, we didn't golf or ski.  No watersports.  More interested in cities than mountains or beaches.  He flipped through the album of pictures of the various properties.

He started to talk about financing options, but Lynn stopped him.  "If we do this, we'll probably just pay cash." An eyebrow went up.  We could see him mentally recalibrating.

So do you travel much?  Quite a bit, actually.  And is that for business or pleasure?  A pretty even mix of both.

And what do you like to do when you're traveling?

"Have lunch," said Lynn.  He looked confused.  I elaborated, "If it's a day when neither of us is working, we'll sleep late and then try to find a nice place for a leisurely lunch.  Then maybe a bit of sightseeing or a museum.  Find an interesting restaurant for dinner and then maybe a local dive bar for drinks and some live music.  That'd be kind of a perfect day."

I could see that we weren't making this easier for him.  "So where have you been in the last year?"

"Oh, let me think...  Chicago, Cairo, New Orleans..." (It had been a particularly busy year). "London & Paris, Vancouver... DC, Charleston, Bucharest..."

He looked back and forth at the two of us as we sat quietly smiling at his perplexity.  "I'm sorry," he said.  "But I have to ask, what do you do?"

Without missing a beat, and in perfect unison, we said, "We're Librarians."

We didn't buy, but we left content with the knowledge that we had rearranged his impressions of librarians forever after.  I do hope that he sees the show and thinks of us.

****

I know the members of my tribe are split on the merits of the show but Lynn and I rather love it.  Some of my favorite lines:

"Dad? Who are those people?"
"They're librarians, honey."
"Librarians? Wow."
 
"Librarians win with knowledge.  Librarians win with science."
 
"What is a librarian?! [Sighs] They're the ones who protect the rest of us from the magic and the weird and the things that go bump in the night."
 
Story of my life.
 

Of Course She's Going To Get Hurt

I went with JoBug and her Mom to Andrews to have her hand x-rayed.  She'd started having a sharp pain after a particular move during practice the day before.  Her Mom didn't think anything was broken, but better to be sure.  Josie wasn't too concerned about the pain, but there was a competition coming up in two days that she did not want to miss.  Dr. Miner was superb -- working with a doctor who understands young athletes makes a world of difference.  When she came into the examining room she sat down and talked directly to Josie first.  The x-ray showed nothing broken -- most likely an irritated tendon.  Ice it, have the trainer wrap it if need be, but nothing to prevent her from competing.  That's what we wanted to hear.

When I tell people about Josie and her passion for gymnastics and the 20 hours a week she spends in the gym, someone will inevitably ask, "But aren't you afraid she'll get hurt?"  "No," I say, as gently as I can.  "I assume that she'll get hurt."  I certainly hope she doesn't get seriously injured, but the odds are good that there'll be some broken bones along the way.  

In just a few weeks she'll be ten.  The big One-Oh, as Alejandro Escovedo would have it.  During her first year there were times it seemed that I was the only one of us that could settle her when she was colicky.  I'd hold her close, rocking her gently, pacing around the living room mumbling nonsense to her and she'd sleep and snore gently.  I was fifty years old and for the first time I understood the deep terror that accompanies being a parent.  For the rest of my life, I now knew, I'd have to carry the worry about what she would have to deal with.

And the knowledge of how little I could do about it.

Perhaps, if I'd become a parent at twenty, I'd've imagined I could protect my child from harm.  But much of my adult life has been growing to appreciate my own helplessness and by the time I held the little critter in my arms I knew that I could protect her from very little.

More than that, though.  Hasn't it, after all, been my own sorrows and heartaches and mistakes that have formed me just as much as the moments when the best of me has had the good fortune to shine?  Why would I want to keep her from the fullness of a messily wondrous human life?

She was beautiful as a baby, and is growing into an even more beautiful young girl.  Already, when friends see pictures, I get the jokey comments about having the shotgun ready when the boys start coming around.  But I'm not going to be that guy.  Her magnificent mother is making sure that I won't need to be.  She will be able to stand on her own, with a strong moral sense.  She is kind and gentle and coming to understand that what is right and what is easy are often very different things.  I don't think she will give her heart foolishly, but she will give it completely.  So inevitably she will have her heart broken.

 Without a doubt, she will make decisions that she will come to regret.  It makes my stomach turn over to acknowledge these things.  I can't protect myself from that hurt either.

Bones, hearts, the aches of disappointment and failing to live up to one's own standards.  No wonder parents go crazy.

Walking her around the living room ten years ago I knew I could protect her from almost nothing.  Now watching her twirl through the air and catching my breath while I watch for her hand or foot to slip and send her crashing to the mat, I know that the breaks are likely coming.  I can't stop it.

What I can be is part of the safe harbor.  That when the inevitable happens she will never have to face it alone.  Her Mom, Nonni & me, the people that she populates her planet with.  Keeping her safe isn't the goal, helping her to be strong and open to the world is what I hope to contribute to.  It would be foolish in the extreme to think we have the power to do anything more.

 

 


The Goorin Guys and Their Magic Hats

The shop was closed when we passed by after dinner, but the Goorin guys were still there, rearranging the hats on the shelves, mixing & matching the colors & forms just so, getting the visuals ready for tomorrow's opening. 

The King Street store is long and narrow, with the slightly old-fashioned, but comfortably hip feel that Goorin Bros. cultivates.  The hats are stacked atop one another on shelves to the ceiling, fedoras & cloches & bowlers & gatsbys, browns & greens & soft purples & reds arranged as if haphazard; but watching them now, through the glass, we could see that it was anything but random. 

When we'd been there in the afternoon I'd begun to suspect, watching Chris scamper up the shelves, that they might be slightly other than human, these slender young men, with fine features, and wisps of facial hair.  The way that they, and their female colleague, moved through the store, tending to customers and phone as if it were an effortless dance, as if it were all just great fun. Now, watching their quick, slick movments and the way they balanced their arrangements I thought of the old tale, The Elves and the Shoemaker...

Tapping on the glass didn't get their attention, so I pulled out my phone.  Chris answered and I said, "I'm just outside.  We were passing by..."

Instantly one of them was at the door, "Please, come in, come in...  You have a hat to pick up...?"

"Well, it's my Stetson, actually.  I left it here this afternoon to be cleaned.  I don't know if you've had a chance..."

"Just finishing it up..." another one said, he of the twirled mustaches, coming out from the back, giving it a few more flourishes.  "Chris did a fabulous job.  He's the master."

My hat looked better than it has in very many months.  I'd come in that afternoon, tipped off to the place by Mr TomCat, who'd bought a dandy flat cap a day or two before.  My Royal Flush Stetson had gotten quite bedraggled and I was looking for a replacement.  Chris tried many options, skittering among the shelves and the styles, knowing my size without asking, coming close but, we agreed, not quite finding the one that was right.  He was crestfallen, but optimistic that the next time I came in, just the perfect hat for me would be there.  In the meantime he offered to keep my hat and get it cleaned and reshaped.  "This is very good felt," he said, fingering the brim. "Beaver...  maybe some rabbit..."  He might've been a young Olivander, fingering a wand.

Now, with my finely refreshed hat in hand, I looked at the three, all smiling, bright eyed albeit weary from the busy day. I fumbled, "And what can I owe you..."  "Oh no, nothing at all."  "Happy to do it."  "A free service."

"Well, I'll certainly be in the next time I come through Charleston.  In the meantime, I'll send everyone here that I can."

I know that I will buy a hat from them one day.  The perfect hat will arrive.  I wonder which one it will be.

 

 


Settling In At The Edge of Chaos

I left the MRI clinic about 11:00 Monday morning.  A little after 6:00 I got an email that there was a message for me in the patient portal.  It was Dr. Bashir, with the results:

Your MRI of the cervical spine shows almost complete resolution of the abnormal signal within the cervical spinal cord. There are no areas of enhancement. Previously noted transverse myelitis seems to have resolved completely without any loss of spinal cord volume (spinal cord atrophy). This is a very good result from cyclophosphamide therapy.

Based on the July MRI, this is what we were expecting and hoping for, but you never know, so I was a little distracted during the day waiting to hear.  Despite all the positive signs, there's always the worry of things regressing.

But at least for now, my overeager immune system has quit chewing up my spinal cord.  How much function I'll eventually regain remains unknown.  We'll see where the combination of physical therapy and neuroplasticity gets me.  Things have been slowly improving for several months, so I'm optimistic (while trying to stay realistic).  And I am quite relieved that I can stop the monthly cyclophosphamide infusions.

We were in Denver last week for the Quintessential MLA chapters meeting.   When we went out for lunch to the Cool River Cafe about half a mile away, Lynn pushed me in the lightweight wheelchair we call Lightning McQueen.  But at the hotel/conference center, I was able to get around pretty well with Roadrunner (my walking stick) and Guido, the 3-wheeled rollator.  (My wheeled assistive devices are all named for Cars characters).

I mentioned to several people that since I have labwork done every two weeks I know that I'm in excellent health -- blood pressure, kidneys, liver, cholesterol, etc., are all in great shape.  I can't walk and can't use my hands, but I'm in excellent health!

I use it as a laugh line, but I am certainly grateful that it's true and that I'm not trying to wrestle with a bunch of other health complications as well.

I'm writing this late in the day from my new office at the Edge of Chaos.  I mentioned to somebody that it has often felt the last few years that I've been swimming in the middle of chaos.  Now that I've moved to the Edge, things are looking quite mellow.

 


The New Job

"Effective September 8, I'll be Director of Digital Data Curation Strategies reporting to the office of the Provost."  I've started sending this announcement around to the discussion lists, alerting the far-flung professional network to my change in circumstance.

There's been a nice assortment of congratulations and well-wishes.  But what has surprised me have been the comments from people who assume that this means they won't see me at the usual library conferences anymore.  What?  I'm still a medical librarian.  I'm still a member of MLA & SCMLA & MCMLA & ALHeLA.  I won't be representing UAB at the AAHSL meetings anymore, it's true, but I'll continue to go to the other conferences.  And given the increasing importance of data curation at research institutions I expect to be more involved with the work of some of my librarian colleagues rather than less.

Lynn reminds me that she went through a similar thing 25 years ago when she left UAB to work for EBSCO.  She had to work very hard to get people to understand that she was no less of a librarian just because she was no longer working in a traditional library job.  I guess I'll have to do the same thing.

John Meador, most recently Dean of Libraries at SUNY-Binghamton, picked up the reins as UAB Dean of Libraries August 5.  The challenge he has accepted is to merge the two existing library organizations -- Lister Hill and Mervyn H. Sterne -- into a single organization serving the entire university community.  Unlike some recent reorganizations (UNC & Florida come to mind), UAB's roots as a primarily biomedical research institution offers some unique opportunities.  The two libraries are similar in size of staff and budget, are located just a few blocks from each other on a compact urban campus, and serve an increasingly multidisciplinary institution.  So while services will continue to be delivered from both buildings, we anticipate that, over time, a single, seamless organization will be formed to provide those services.

It's a bit of a conceptual leap because even though most of the important work that librarians do now takes place outside of the building, we still think of the library organization and the library building as occupying the same space.  As I was trying to explain the goals of the merger to a faculty member he said, "But the biomedical literature will still be based at Lister Hill, won't it?"  I had to tell him, gently, "Actually, since we spend less than 1% of our content budget on print, that hasn't been the case for five years now."  The reference librarians do far more of their work by chat, email, phone, webinar, office hours in classroom buildings, or meetings & workshops around campus than they do in person in the building.  The building is still very important, of course, but basing the organization on the physical limitations of the building is an anachronism.

One consequence of the merger is that the two Director positions go away.  The Director, Lister Hill and Director, Mervyn Sterne functioned as deans, although we didn't have that title.  But we met as part of the Deans Council and had the same level of budgetary and personnel authority as the deans.  Now that there is a single individual with the title, as well as the authority, of Dean, those two director positions are superfluous.

So what has opened up for me turns out to be quite marvelous.  Every research institution in the country is trying to figure out how to effectively manage research data.  What services should the institution provide?  How do you effectively manage security?  How do you establish policies and monitor compliance with the full range of increasingly complex federal requirements?  How do you make data available for reuse in clean and well-structured contextualized environments?

A number of institutions have made some headway in sorting this out, but part of the challenge is that there isn't really a single entity within the modern research university that is the logical home for the full range of issues that need to be addressed and coordinated.  It requires true collaboration among the libraries, IT, the research office and the various pockets of excellence and expertise that exist across the campus -- often unknown to each other.

My task, for the next several months, will be to map what exists at UAB, to figure out who is doing what, to identify where there are significant gaps, and then to work with all of the various players to help develop strategies for pulling all of the pieces together into a coordinated whole.  From this vantage point it looks ridiculously complex.  

I plan to have a lot of fun with it.