This Deadly Simplicity

Ambiguity is tough for a lot of people.  They crave the bright lines that separate good and evil.  Wrestling with moral questions is frightening and hard and you’re never sure you’ve gotten it right.  Who’d want that?  Much more reassuring to have simple and unambiguous principles to determine your decisions.  Hence the moral rectitude of the anti-abortion activists.

It is only when we inject into the issue questions of subjectivity (like wantedness) or religions (like ensoulment), existential ones (like sentience), theological ones (like human dignity) or sociological ones (like quality of life), that we find ample room for uncertainty and disagreement. These are important, enduring questions. But they are not questions upon which the basic, inalienable right of an individual life should depend.

But why not?  This is from an NYT opinion piece celebrating the downfall of Roe v. Wade.  The writer (a research professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary),  believes “that abortion unjustly ends the life of a being that is fully human, a life that exists independently of the will of the mother, is self-organizing and unique, developing yet complete in itself...”  She comes to this belief by explicitly refusing to consider any of those subjective, religious, existential, theological, or sociological questions that she rightly says might cause uncertainty.  On what does this “basic, inalienable right of an individual life” depend?  She doesn’t feel the need to say.  For her, it is so clearly and comfortingly obvious that it completely eliminates any need to consider those challenging questions (important and enduring though they be).

What fascinates me even more than the incoherence is the blinding arrogance.  Having clarified that her belief is not subject to questions subjective, religious, existential, theological, or sociological, she is nonetheless so committed to the truth of it that she has no hesitation in calling on the full weight of the secular state to enforce the consequences of her belief upon the majority of people who do not share it.  What a comfort it must be to have such an unassailable moral core.  But how intellectually weird.

“If you believe as I do...” she says, the chain of consequent actions is clear.  But what if we don’t believe as you do?  On what basis does your belief carry greater moral weight than mine?  She doesn’t appear to grasp that this could even be an issue.  She’s been liberated from ambiguity.

Their opponents accuse the anti-abortion activists of hypocrisy.  “If your dedication to the sanctity of life were as fundamental as you say it is, you’d be objecting to capital punishment and war and advocating for more comprehensive gun control with just as much passion as you bring to marching back and forth in front of abortion clinics.”  They smugly think they’ve won a point.  But I understand why the activists won’t take those issues on.  They don’t provide the clear freedom from ambiguity that saving those innocent babies does.

The woman who chooses abortion also chooses to accept the moral responsibility for the consequences of ending the potential of that human life.  She accepts responsibility for weighing the difficult questions and making the best moral choice she can.  Does the anti-abortion crusader accept responsibility for the wrecked lives her successful campaign will result in?  More women will die.  More children will be born into poverty and misery.  More will spend their blighted childhoods in the over-burdened foster care pipeline.  More healthy, happy babies will not be born because an abortion that would have given a young woman a chance for a secure and successful life was denied her.  The crusader chooses not to live with any of those consequences.  She can lay the responsibility off on the poor choices the woman made in the first place, or the family that didn’t step up, or, if all else fails, the surety that “God has a plan”. 

She's absolved herself from considering those uncomfortable subjective, religious, existential, theological, and sociological questions.  She keeps her thought processes clear.  She keeps her focus narrow.  She’s saving babies.  That’s what matters.  God will sort the rest out.  It is all so unambiguously clear.


The Scholarly Publishing Roundtable

Of the various projects I've been involved with over the years, the one that perhaps I'm the proudest of is my participation in the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable.  The Roundtable's report, delivered to Congress and the White House in 2010, had a significant impact on the Holdren memo, which was the basis for the US government's policies for making peer reviewed articles resulting from federally funded research available without a subscription.  The story of the Roundtable, how it came to be and the impact it had, has now been detailed in an article in the journal Learned Publishing, written by myself and three other Roundtable members.

The article has just come out as early view, so it doesn't have a volume and issue yet (I'll try to remember to update this post when it does).  If you have access to the journal, you can get to it here.   If you don't, I've uploaded the final manuscript version which you can access here: Public Access Policy in the United States: Impact of the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable.

For those of you who've been involved in the OA wars, it'll be a fine trip down memory lane, with perhaps a few surprises.  For me, working on the article reminded me again what an amazing group of people were involved with the Roundtable and how lucky I was to be able to be a part of it.

 


"You're That Guy!"

May, 2000.  The French Quarter. Four of us staying at The Audubon Cottages, celebrating Lynn’s 50th.  Bloody Marys to start the day, martini lunch, dinner at Maximo’s, Ray Brown w/ Nicholas Payton at Snug Harbor.  Now it’s an hour after midnight and we’ve stopped at the corner of Royal and St. Peters, Rouses market, for snacks and bottles of water before heading back to the Cottages for a swim before bed.  My companions are inside, I’m leaning against the post, watching the Saturday scene.  I’m in my usual all black except for the oxblood cowboy boots.  Black sportcoat, stylish black Stetson, black sunglasses.  Two young women approach hesitantly.  They might be even more lit than I am.  One says to me, “You play guitar, don’t you?”  “I do,” I answer truthfully.  She turns excitedly to her friend, “I told you!  He’s that guy!”  Back to me, “Can we have your autograph?” “Sorry, no autographs.” This pisses them off.  “But why?” she wails.  “Sorry, I’m on vacation.”  This is a non sequitur, but it’s still a true statement.  I always try to stay truthful.  The girls wander off in disgust.  I imagine one of them tearing the poster of “that guy” off her bedroom wall.  Who do they think I am?

This had been happening to me for several years.  “You’re that guy” had become the tagline for a long unspooling of mistaken identity events.

Fifteen years earlier it certainly wouldn’t’ve happened.  There’s a picture of me in DC.  All my earlier edges had been smoothed.  Responsible guy.  Trim beard.  Sensible hair, just starting to thin on top.  No visible hint remaining of the long-haired teenager, his raggedy jeans (patches sewn by a sequence of girlfriends), his wispy beard and poet's shirts.  Just responsible guy in chinos and a red sweater.  I think I look lost.  Struggling to be what I believed I needed to be.  Guitar in its case under the bed.

In photos from the teenage years you can see my hair growing longer, by senior year longest of any of the boys.  John Lennon glasses.  At 15, I was living the counterculture.  Sex, drugs, rock and roll.  By 17, I looked it.  I wasn’t wild, though.  I wasn’t reckless.  I was an excellent student and I loved schoolwork.  Loved studying literature and philosophy and music.  I was teenage stupid, but managed just enough caution to avoid getting into serious trouble.  I embraced psychedelics, smoked marijuana every day, took some pills, but avoided needles and drugs that risked addiction.  I was promiscuous, but I was a romantic and craved the infatuation as much as the sex.  I cared very much what the girls I was involved with wanted or didn’t want.  I was terrified of offending and being rejected, so I’m sure I was less forward sometimes than my potential partner might have wanted me to be.

So I was responsible studious guy and pot-smoking poetry-writing guitar-playing hippie as well.  I didn’t feel conflicted about it.  But as I aged into adulthood it seemed I had to choose.  In my 20s, married, I had a serious job that required “making a good impression”.  There were so many subtle rules about what that involved.  I tried.  Figured the guitar and the poetry had just been the toys of adolescence, as they were for so many others.  I lasted ten years, and it nearly broke me.  But the pull of poetry was strong, and the marriage that I’d been making the responsible choices for imploded.  An ugly time, but it saved me.

There's a picture of me age four.  On my rocking horse, cowboy boots, vest, and hat, brandishing my six guns.  You can see that I took it very seriously.  So call it a return to style in the early 90s when I dusted off the guitar, bought the boots, started singing with Liquid Prairie every Saturday happy hour at the Venice Café.  When I went to Birmingham, fresh in love with Lynn, I bought the first black hat.  The band was post-punk country, so the boots, the hat.  And while the whim may have been to have props for the performance I found they suited me. They were comfortable.  I looked in mirrors and recognized myself and that hadn’t been the case for a very long time.  It’s around then that I started being mistaken for “that guy”.

Making the right impression still mattered though; I still had a serious job.  I remember Neil telling me how Lyders had advised him, “An academic medical center is a hierarchy.  You need to dress just a little better than the people you need to impress.”  So on campus it was bespoke suits, elegant ties.  Always appropriate to the setting.  But when I travelled, including to professional meetings, I would loosen it up.  The dark palette.  The boots and hat.  Still responsible guy, but the edges weren’t smooth.  I was learning the value of eccentricity.

By the late 90s I’d gotten used to it.  There was the time I’d gone to Asheville to sequester myself for a few days at a fine old inn (I stayed in the F. Scott Fitzgerald room) while I worked on a grant proposal.  I saw that Bruce Cockburn was in town.  The show’s sold out, but he’s a favorite of mine so I go anyway.  The venue’s on the 2nd story of an old building and the line of waiting ticket holders stretches down the narrow stairs to the street.  I walk up past the line to the guy who’s checking IDs and taking tickets.  I’m all in black, except for my boots and my Parisian red scarf.  The hat, the long black coat.  I see the familiar flicker in the guy’s eyes as he takes it in.  “I know you’re sold out,” I say, softly and very politely.  “But is there any chance you could squeeze me in?”  “Um, yeah,” he says, looking down the line of ticket holders and then back at me.  “If you don’t mind sitting at the bar?”  “That’d be great,” I tell him.  He takes me in, shows me a spot from where I can look across the room to the stage.  “Is this okay?” he’s still a touch uncertain.  I assure him that it’s perfect, thank him again.  He doesn’t ask for money.  I’m not surprised, although every time something like this happens I’m still puzzled.  Maybe they think it’s safer to do what I ask, just in case I really am that guy.

I used my eccentricities as deflection.  Not a disguise exactly; more like some shelter and shielding that I could hide within and behind.  As if the self I was calling attention to was actually standing a handful of inches to the side of the truer self I was unwilling to allow most people to see.  Someone asked me once, in the days when I was blogging a couple of times a week, “What is it like revealing so much of yourself so publicly?” I laughed.  “There is so much more that I don’t reveal.  You only see what I choose.  It’s hiding in plain sight.”

Eventually it became apparent that people were going to cling to their belief in that guy no matter what I might say.  I never claimed anything that wasn't true, but even my flat denials just slotted into what people wanted to believe. 

I'm sitting bar side at the Underground Wonderbar in Chicago, gently telling the guy I'm talking with that I am not a bass player and he is misremembering how great I was that day I sat in.  Yeah, sure, he seems to be saying, I know you're not mostly a bass player, but you can really go on that thing can't you?  No, I really can't, I laugh.  He thinks I'm just being modest.  'Cause, you know, I'm that guy.

Another town.  Another bar.  "You're in a band," she says.  "I am."  "Where would I have seen you play?" "Not likely."  "I'm sure I have." 

Maybe the eccentricities were a way for me to get some of the rush of being that guy without having to bear all the burdens of really being “that guy”.  Act like a Rockstar.  Feel like a Rockstar.  Get treated like one.

There’s a picture of me in Korea.  2007.  I’m at the Lake Hills Hotel on the edge of Songnisan National Park.  I’m here for a three day workshop where I’m the keynote speaker and the judge of a project competition among three teams of some of the sharpest young librarians Korea has produced – there was a national competition to get to attend this event.  At dinner the previous night, Mr. Choi had been regaling me with tales of the Korean love of drinking and singing.  “Mr. Scott sings,” says one of the young librarians.  “He’s in a rock band.” “You must sing for us!” says Mr. Choi.  I demur, “I’d need a guitar for that.” “But if we get a guitar you’ll sing?”  “Sure.”  We’re three and a half hours from Seoul in a little resort town.  Where are they going to get a guitar?  But by lunch the next day they've found one.  After dinner I have my translator tell them the story of the lonely old woman, unable to leave her dreams, pleading for transformation.  I sing Angel From Montgomery.  I tell them about the years I was in St. Louis and Lynn was in Birmingham and what it was like to drive the eight hours from my house to hers, powered by love and longing.  I sing Little Black Car.  We stand for a picture, the young librarians on either side, me in the middle with the guitar.  Boots, black jeans, black t-shirt, black hat.  The picture floats in the internet forever.  The next day they do their presentations and I declare the winner.  In the evaluations they call me inspiring. 

I rebelled at the obsession with work/life balance. All the pontificating self-help advice.  Absurd to imagine them separable.  I wanted an interwoven life, not one of “balance”.  I was a librarian full-time, a grandfather full-time, an amateur musician full-time, a husband full-time.  I wasn’t weighing these selves on a scale, trying to make sure no persona took more than its fair share of my time.  My "work", my responsibilities as Director LHL, required a 24/7 mindset, but that didn’t mean I was doing library work 24/7.  There was almost always time in any given day for me to shift from one facet of my life to another.  The technology made it possible for me to travel the world, and still be on the job whenever (wherever) I was needed.

The Doe Lecture, given annually at the Medical Library Association convention, is a big deal.  To be selected to give it is one of the Association’s highest honors.  I assumed I’d be chosen at some point.  I don’t think this was just ego.  The lecturer is expected to make a major statement about the history and/or philosophy of medical librarianship.  Wasn’t that my very brand?  My reputation was built around the editorials in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, the postings on my blog, the presentations I gave.  When I went out for my morning walks, I’d imagine the themes in the lecture I would give.  Over the years those themes shifted to suit the changing times, but when the call finally came, I was ready.  It’s a tradition among Doe Lecturers to comment on how intimidated they were by it.  Not me.  I’d been preparing for years.

By 2011, the year of my Doe, the annual migration of the Bearded Pigs had become a significant conference event. The band had gone from the few of us frolleagues getting together in an empty conference room to jam for an evening to a full-blown rock and roll event.  Every year the crowd was bigger.  There were posters, t-shirts, buttons. And the schedule being what it was the gig that year was the night before the lecture.  I was happy about that. 

I walked into the ballroom at eight in the morning for soundcheck.  Impeccably dressed.  Ostrich skin dress boots, black button fly Levi’s, tailored black shirt and sportcoat, the Nicole Miller magazine tie, the Stetson.  Carrying a guitar case.  Definitely that guy.  We’d finished playing around 11, took an hour to tear down, went back to the room for a couple hours of whiskey winddown.  I’d managed four hours of sleep, a refreshing shower.  I had a buzzy hangover and was feeling fueled by adrenalin.  I was excited.  I was eager.  I’d never been so prepared for a performance.

I like professional sound guys.  They’re easy to work with.  They looked askance at the guitar case, but I said, “I’m not going to play it – I’m just using it for a prop.”  We went through the cues so that we all knew what to expect. 

It was important to me that there be people who’d been to the gig the night before seeing me now delivering this lecture.  I wanted newer librarians in particular to see it.  That the music wasn’t some kind of side hustle that was a hobbyistic diversion from my more important life work.  That I could give myself completely to performing with my band one night and give a completely different and thoroughly committed solo performance the next day.  That one was not more important to my life than the other.  That we can all contain multitudes.

Ana (last year’s lecturer) did the introduction.  I walked out, put my hat on the podium. Signaled to Bruce, waiting in the wings.  He came out with my guitar and a stand, set it down next to me.  “I’m not going to play it,” I said to the giggles in the crowd.  “I’m just more comfortable when I’ve got it nearby.”  As if I could make it any clearer that this guy, about to give a lecture to a ballroom of a couple thousand people, was the exact same guy as that guy, who’d been playing guitar and singing to a couple hundred people just ten hours before.  It went off without a hitch.  I was very good.

Most people are flabbergasted when I tell them I’m very shy and extremely introverted.  “But...  but...  how do you...?”

It’s all just performance, I tell them.  As long as I have a role to play, and a persona to suit that role, as long as the constraints are just right, I can play the part.

“But how did you get over your stage fright?”

“Never did.”

It’s true.  Over the top anxiety before every performance, whether with the band, or doing a talk to a thousand people, or running a meeting of a dozen colleagues.  What I eventually learned was that I was good at it anyway.  It might feel as if the ground was going to open up before my feet and swallow me, but in fact that never happened and was almost certainly not going to happen this time.  Knowing that didn’t change the anxiety I felt about it.  But it enabled me to keep doing it.

My hands might tremble as I approached the mic, but once I uttered the first sentence of my talk, or brought my arm down for the first guitar chord, the anxiety shifted.  No longer driving fear, it was energy.  It was energy I could tap into and use.  I could be that guy.

I was good onstage, but informal situations were always rough.  Cocktail parties, lunches, receptions.  I did a lot of those during the years I was Director LHL, and I was very bad at it.  I knew how to do it – knew how to ask questions that would get someone talking about themselves in ways that made me seem like a great conversationalist, but I could rarely get myself to do it.  To ask questions like that of someone I didn’t know or barely knew felt intrusive, rude.  I knew that it wasn’t, under the circumstances; knew that most people would welcome it, knew that it showed I was taking an interest in them.  But it was still almost impossibly hard for me to manage.

For example, checking my calendar one evening I saw I was booked for a lunch reception at the alumni house.  There were events like this at least once a month, chances for people in the community to mingle with University leadership in hopes of attaining some mutual benefit.  I couldn’t remember the specifics of this one.  I looked up the invite/command from the President’s office inviting/instructing me to attend.  It was a gathering of local estate planners who were coming to get an update on some of the fantastic things we were doing at the University.

Okay, I get it.  My job, then, at lunch, will be to make sparkling conversation about what we’re doing, drawing out the interests of my tablemates, in hopes that when they’re discussing wills with their clients they’ll suggest including UAB as a beneficiary.  Like I said, I knew how to do this.  I was just uncomfortable with it.  Hated it, in fact.  But as I drove to the alumni house I decided that I would try pretending to be the kind of guy who enjoyed this sort of thing.  After all, I knew how that guy would act.  I even knew how they would feel about it.  The rush of pleasure they’d get from connecting with people, from getting to know new people, from representing their institution well.  I’d seen those men and women in action many times, envied their confidence and poise.  Maybe they were just acting as well?

I did a good job with that one, which is why it sticks in memory.  I even kinda enjoyed it, but that may just have been the feeling of relief that I’d pulled it off.  But it was exhausting.  It was by no means “fun”.  I couldn’t manage it very often.

And so I bumbled my way through the years of my career.  Not exactly faking it.  What does it mean to be one’s authentic self?  Frisse said that Lynn has whole cities inside her.  She told me once that she managed her relationships by just giving people those parts of herself she thought they could handle.  Always authentic, but (until me) never revealing too much.  She might be more intentional about it than most, but isn’t it what we all do?

People are complicated.  Bundles of contradictory selves, passions and promises pulling us in different directions.  It’s funny how we demand such consistency in the people that we’re judging, as if the self that caught our attention is the only self that person has, and how we feel about just a few of that self’s actions gives us leave to pronounce judgment on their entire life.  Never thinking how outraged we’d be if someone judged us with that same cruel simplicity.

Our complexities can frighten and confuse us.  Our desires can cause damage, regret.  I wanted to learn to live a life in which the best of me was upfront, where my strengths could compensate for my weaknesses, where I could do more good than harm.  Where I could find safety and boldness in equal measure.  Where there could be room for the best of all of the guys I might ever be.  Where I could hide my terrors in plain sight.

New Orleans again.  Different year.  A pretty fall afternoon.  Royal is blocked off and there’s a very good street band playing.  Pretty good crowd.  I’m standing off to the side, watching, listening.  The bass player notices me, gives a little nod.  I nod back.  I can tell he thinks I’m somebody he should know.  When they take a break I go up and drop a 20 in the tip bucket.  “Thanks!” says the singer as I start to turn away.  “Wait,” she says.  “You’re a guitar player!”

“I am,” I bow slightly in acknowledgment but keep turning. 

“I know you!” says someone in the crowd.

“Probably not,” I laugh and keep walking.  I wave without turning around.  Later, they’ll be sitting around the bar, talking with friends.  “And that guy – I just can’t place him – he dropped a twenty dollar bill in the bucket and just walked away!”  “Pretty cool,” says the friend, raising a glass.  “Here’s to that guy.”

Years ago I quit wearing the boots when they became too heavy for my crippled legs.  But the rest of the outfit remains.  We were out for dinner during our Door County vacation a few months ago.  We were nearing the end of the meal when our waiter handed me a note someone had given him for me.  “Sir, what instrument do you play? -- Dan”  I look around the room, baffled.  Lynn just laughs, “You’re that guy!”  Man at a nearby table fesses up that the note’s from him.  “Guitar and harmonica,” I tell him.  He’s a guitar fan, looks like a businessman.  He wants to know, “What’s your #1?”  I tell him it’s the ’52 Telecaster.  That’s not entirely true, but it impresses guitar nerds.  I tell him about the Telecasters all being gifts from Lynn, how when she looked askance as I kept shopping guitars after she gave me the engagement present Thinline I pointed at the ring on her finger and said, “you think that’s the last piece of jewelry I’m ever going to give you?” He laughs, thanks me, leaves.  Lynn is delighted.  I’m just amused.

Y’know that game, “if you could be anybody else...” “if you could be living at any other time...”? Never made sense to me.  I could never come up with anybody I’d rather be or any time I’d rather be living.  I’ve never wanted to be anybody that I’m not.  I’m still trying to work it out.  Being me.  I glance again at the mirror.  That guy.

 


There was a tree in the garden...

What are these people trying to protect their children from?

As Pratchett tells it, when the headmistress accused Susan Sto Helit of teaching her elementary school students about the occult, Susan calmly said, "Of course".  "But why?" the headmistress wails. "So they won't be shocked,"  Susan sensibly replies.  Reality is shocking enough without sending them into the world unprepared.

The latest idiocy is the school board in Tennessee that has banned Maus from the eighth grade curriculum.  Maus, one of the greatest of all novels, a singular work of art and compassion, recounting one of the most important stories of the 20th century.  The board members object to some foul language and nudity.  Yes, yes, they say, we know it’s important to teach about the state-sponsored murder of 10,000,000 – count the zeros – men, women, and children, but do we have to be so ugly about it?  Can’t we find books that our tender babes can learn from without being exposed to indecent language and naked bodies?  Holocaust-lite?

Can it be true that these ten fine upstanding citizens actually believe that these young teens have so far not been exposed to the ways that people actually talk?  That they haven’t already been searching for, and easily finding, naked bodies on the internet?  I could almost be sympathetic to their quest to preserve childhood innocence if it wasn’t such obvious evidence of how estranged from their children’s lives they already are.

Sometimes the bans are more blatantly ideological.  A pandering state senator in Oklahoma puts forth a bill banning books related to "the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or books that are of a sexual nature" from school libraries. He says, “our education system is not the place to teach moral lessons that should instead be left up to parents and families."  The fear seems to be that these books might lead the unsuspecting child to discover that some people believe that being gay is not evil.  How can a parent be expected to inculcate the appropriate revulsion in their children if there are school-sanctioned books emphasizing acceptance and love?

Most pathetic was the story that resurfaced during the recent gubernatorial campaign in Virginia about the mother outraged to find that her 17 year old was assigned Beloved in his AP English class.  The kid said the book was disgusting and gave him night terrors.  So he quit reading it.  His mother turned his discomfort into a crusade.  According to the 2013 WaPo article, the mother believed the content “could be too intense for teenage readers.”  What does this even mean?  Life can be too intense for teenagers!  Shouldn’t we be emulating Susan Sto Helit and helping them learn how to deal with it?  Pratchett’s character is riffing off G.K. Chesterton (a fine Christian gentleman, by the way).  Children learn early that there are monsters.  Stories teach them monstrosities can be overcome.

I was fortunate that I was nearly 50 when I entered into shared responsibility for the well-being and upbringing of JosieBug.  I had no illusions about what we could protect her from.  Better to put all of my effort into loving her and helping her learn to use her powers for good. 

The all-powerful god of the Abrahamic religions couldn’t keep his children from eating the apple.  We certainly can’t.  Can we at least help them make good choices now that they’ve tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil?


"all of them have something special"

When the news broke, 18 months back, that Rick Anderson had been named University Librarian at Brigham Young, his many friends and admirers cheered.  An excellent move for him as well as for BYU.  But some among us were also alarmed.  If his new responsibilities were going to require Rick to cut back on some of his many extracurriculars, what would be the fate of his most important contribution to the cultural zeitgeist, the CD HotList?

Rick's been compiling his monthly set of recommendations for many years.  Every time it shows up among my feeds I’ve turned to it eagerly, anticipating the familiar rush of astonishment, intrigue, fascination, excitement, and annoyance it'll bring.  Fortunately, he's keeping it going, although he claims he's cutting back on the number of reviews (January 2019 had 27 entries, this month's has 17).  

The astonishment comes from the breadth of coverage.  His ears are big, his embrace is vast.  His erudition is fascinating as he draws from an apparently bottomless well of context and background.  Here he is in December, describing a disc by Rob Garza, “Now breaking out as a solo artist, Garza has put together a wide-ranging album of club and dreampop tunes in collaboration with vocalists including Enemy Planes, Racquel Jones, and EMELINE. None of the music here will shock or startle a Thievery Corporation fan, but Garza is definitely charting his own territory here: you might expect a song titled “We Want Blood” to be somewhat aggro, but in fact it’s gently bumping dream-house...”  A few entries above that one, he’s championing a recording of tunes by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, a “little-known” student of the early 18th century “king of the viol”, Marin Marais.  “This program consists primarily of suites written for viol and continuo (the latter played by varying combinations of bass viol, theorbed lute, and harpsichord) plus one suite for traverso and continuo and several brief transcriptions for viol and for solo lute and guitar. This is gentle music, elegant in a rather self-effacing way, but quite inventive and beautifully played.”

Note that last sentence.  What's annoying is how damn good the writing is.  I so envy his ability to encapsulate the essence of a performance in just a sentence or two.  Reviewing a recording led by the jazz drummer Mareike Wiening, he writes “her progressions are intriguingly impressionistic, often following unusual paths that slip and slide and leave you unsure where she’ll go next. She and her sidemen play with such confident communication, though, that you’ll never be left feeling lost or confused...”

But what most has me excitedly pouring through his monthly selections is the knowledge that there will inevitably be intriguing discoveries new to me that’ll knock me out.  From last June there’s “Strata” by Skúli Sverrisson with Bill Frisell.  I'm a Frisell fan of many years, but hadn't come across this one.  Rick writes, “What happens here ... is that Frisell and Skerrisson play interlocking parts, melodies weaving in and around each other, defining chord progressions collaboratively as they go. The music is quiet and beautiful, but also complex. Skerrisson writes utterly unique bass parts, and Frisell’s tone, which at this point he could probably get a patent for, bathes everything in a golden light.”  A perfect description. 

This month, the jaw dropper is Eva Cassidy, a “hair-raisingly talented singer” who “glides, shouts, and croons her way through jazz standards (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Autumn Leaves,” “What a Wonderful World”), blues burners (“Stormy Monday”), R&B (“Take Me to the River”) and pop (jaw-dropping versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Fields of Gold”), leaving her personal stamp on every familiar tune.”  I can’t get enough of it.

Cassidy died of melanoma in 1996, just 33 years old.  Although lauded in her hometown of Washington DC, her work didn’t achieve wider renown until several years after her death.  Her resistance to being channeled into a single genre made it impossible to market her in the mid-90s.  It seems that she was okay with that – she loved too much music too much to give any of it up.

Rick’s CD Hotlist reflects that sensibility.  He categorizes his reviews by Classical, Jazz, Folk/Country, Rock/Pop, World/Ethnic for convenience, even though he knows many of the pieces sit somewhat uncomfortably in their box.  He treats them all with gratitude and respect.  Ellington would certainly approve.

It baffles me that most adults tend to age out of listening to new music, settling for whatever they loved as teenagers, proclaiming everything since then is junk and no way as good as the old stuff.  For those of us who know that the vast world of recorded music blossoms anew every single day with vibrant genius, life-affirming and -changing work, the CD Hotlist is a gift. 

Thank goodness Rick has that library gig to support him so he can keep on doing the very important work that he was meant for.


"I'm Not Dead Yet!" -- Monty Python

I was a little hesitant about putting up that last post, and I see that I had cause.  All of the hugs and messages of support have been wonderful, but I’m very sorry for causing distress to people who care about me.  That essay is as truthful as I could make it, but of course it’s not the whole truth about my life these days which, in general, continues to be very good.  I get grumpy sometimes (as do you, I’m sure!) but I’m never depressed.  I have a wonderful life. 

The essay came about because I’ve got these couple of non-TM related appointments coming up to see what might be done about what I referred to as these new, mundane pains.  I’d been thinking about how best to explain how my pain perception is scrambled to doctors I haven’t met before, who may not have much experience with people with similar conditions.  A few days ago, our unseasonable warm spell ended suddenly – temperatures dropped overnight from highs close to 80 to highs around 40.  Thinking about how my body responds to cold, I realized that it was very similar to how I was trying to understand the effects of the pain on my leg muscles.  When that realization bloomed, I knew I had the seed for a short essay.  I spent the next two days working on it and when it was done I felt it was truthful and well written (I particularly liked the bit where the signal messenger expires after valiantly making their way to the brain).  So I did what I do when I write something I like, and posted it.

I can certainly see how someone looking at my description and trying to imagine themselves in that situation would see it as a horrifying nightmare.  For many people struggling with this and other rare neuroimmune disorders it certainly is.  But I’ve always felt myself to be an incredibly lucky person, and I continue to feel that way.  I am fortunate to have a disposition that leans towards gratitude rather than depression.  I can’t take any credit for that.  Just as some people’s brain chemistry drags them into the dark of clinical depression, mine turns towards joy.  The delight in small things.  When I think about the long walks in strange cities that I’ll never take again, instead of feeling anguish at the loss, I feel deeply grateful for all of the fantastic experiences I’ve had.  The same with all of the other losses.  I wish, wish, wish that I knew how to help other people, with similar challenges, feel the same, but I don’t.  It’s just the way I’m wired.

And then there’s the amazing Lynn.  Anybody who knows anything about dealing with people with chronic conditions knows that the burden on the caregiver is at least as heavy as the burden on the patient, in some ways far worse.  It can break relationships.  But ours was strong to begin with and while we had some serious struggles in the earlier years of my diagnosis, we weathered them.  Sparks still fly, of course, but I’m willing to bet we squabble less than the majority of people in quarter century plus marriages.  She lets me push myself as hard as I can, even though I know it sometimes terrifies her.  The balance between doing for me and enabling me to do for myself is a delicate one and shifts a little day by day.  She is keenly attuned to it.  We continue to have wonderful times together.  There simply isn’t anyone I’d rather spend time with or who I find more interesting.  The fact that we find ourselves in this place at this time in our lives in astonishing.  How can I not be grateful?

Marian & Josie, of course.  Marian, the great unexpected joy of my life, 13 when her mother and I got together, who I bonded with quickly, grown into a marvelous, strong, generous, kind, and smart adult.  Her daughter, born when I was 49, giving me a taste of parenthood and making me a much better person than I would have been without her.  Grateful (again!) that on the cusp of 17, she still wants to spend some time with us and is as fascinating to me as she was when she was a toddler and we explored growing up together.

Yes, the pain and the frustrations of the physical challenges are my constant companions, but I know that so many people struggle with far worse.  And I can still do a lot.  I spent my usual five hours in the kitchen on Christmas Eve preparing the spaghetti and meatballs sauce that we ate on Christmas night after I fixed our traditional Christmas brunch of potato pancakes and champagne.  I make my own lunch everyday and fix our suppers three or four nights a week.  I do the kitchen cleanup every night (except for the wine glasses, which we agree aren't safe with me).  I pick up the guitar for 20 or 30 minutes most days, learning how to rearrange things to accommodate my limitations.  Because I have more loss to work with (to quote Jessica Lange) my singing has become more expressive than ever.  I play harmonica now, thanks to, and in honor of, the late, lamented Dan Boutchie.

I have time to write, which has forever been my passion.  The legend says that in Renoir’s old age, when his arthritis prevented him from holding a brush, his assistants strapped the brushes to his hands, and that accounts for the luminous, shimmery quality of the late paintings.  I’m not there yet.  I can still type.  I can still hold a pen.  What could I have to complain about?

Stipe sings, “Everybody hurts... so hold on... you are not alone...”

We all hurt.  We all suffer.  We all struggle.  And even so, every day brings countless stories of people doing such magnificent things that my heart swells with joy and wonder.  Gratitude.


It's so subjective

Cold doesn’t register properly.  I don’t feel it in the way that I used to.  Inching my slow walk from the car to the restaurant in the 40 degree evening, I don’t feel the chill.  But after a few steps I can tell that my leg muscles are tensing up.  My legs are cold, I know, but I don’t feel as if I’m cold.  At least not the way I did before the short circuit.  Still, if I don’t get into the warmth quickly, I fear the muscles’ll tense up completely and I won’t be able to move at all.  I try to hurry, but that just tightens the muscles more.  “Take your time,” people kindly tell the old guy tottering along behind his walker or leaning on his cane.  I thank them without trying to explain that it’s taking all the time I’ve got.

These new pains affect me like the cold does.  Marsh think that I’ve developed tendinitis in my gluteus medias – she’s sending me to McKeag, her sports medicine colleague, to see if he can confirm it.  It manifests as a two-inch circle of burning pain in the middle of my left butt cheek and a slightly smaller, but angrier disc of pain a few inches down the side of my leg.  They’re harsh and annoying, but I think I should be able to ignore them.  My leg muscles disagree, they tighten up, but refuse to accept the pressure that would let me stand.  But it’s not as if I’m thinking, oh, that hurts, don’t do that – the muscles are rebelling on their own.  What I’m thinking is, I know this leg is strong enough to hold me up.  Why won’t it cooperate?  I know it hurts, but... Damn.

For many years the pain was not a limiting factor.  I relied on the Lawrence of Arabia theory of pain management.  As a college student, Lawrence would dazzle and horrify his friends by holding his hand over a match flame.  Asked, “But what’s the trick?” he replied, “The trick is not minding.”

I’ve been good at that.  The pain resulting from my spinal cord damage is constant, but steady.  A white noise kind of pain.  I’d usually give it a 5 or 6 on the 10 point scale (“where 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst you can imagine”) when whatever healthcare person I was seeing asked if I was in any pain today.  If they asked where the pain was, and I was feeling puckish, I might say, accurately, “from the neck down.”  Depending on my mood, I might provide more detail, starting at my shoulders and describing the different pain sensations there and across my back, around my torso, down the arms and to the hands, down my legs, to my feet and toes.  Throbbing, burning, sharp, dull, cutting, tingling, vibrating, itching.  Something for everybody.  That was probably unkind of me, since the questioner was often just a triage nurse trying to do the pre-visit rundown, but I’d feel the need to let them know that their list of checkboxes was going to be inadequate to my situation.

I was always aware of the pain, but could usually push it to background.  What limited me was the fierce spasticity, the muscle weakness, and the extreme fatigue.  Not being able to walk without the cane or the rollator.  The sheer effort involved in taking each step, while my spastic muscles strained against each other.  Not being able to button a shirt, struggling to tie shoes, fighting to form a guitar chord.  Getting up every morning already weary, pushing myself through the day and feeling the muscles giving out long before dark. These were the barriers, the hurdles that I had to keep trying to surmount in order to accomplish my days.  The steadily thrumming pain I could manage to just about ignore enough.

Now, with the tendinitis on the left and the sciatica on the right “not minding” has stopped working so well.  I think I could still get past it if I could get my muscles to agree.  But because of the way my sensations are scrambled it’s been hard for me to understand just what’s going on where, and why the pain is making it so much more difficult to walk and to stand.  Why I can’t I just will my way through it? 

The first time I saw Bashir, the TM specialist, after I’d been released from the hospital and transferred to his care, he told me to imagine my spinal cord as a cable made up of many wires that extended throughout my body, sending the signals up to my brain.  The demyelination that the term “Transverse Myelitis” describes is equivalent to stripping the insulation off those wires, so that when a signal tries to get through, it jumps from one wire to another and gets disarranged.  Lynn calls it a short circuit.  I’ve referred to it as a signal processing error.  

The wildest example, and one which I probably wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t experienced it, happened with a bug bite on the top of my right foot a couple of years ago.  I knew the bite was there.  I could see the redness and the slight swelling in the center.  I’m one of those people bugs love and in the years before we screened in the Treehouse, I’d often come in from an evening out on the deck with multiple bites on my legs and feet and ankles that I wouldn’t be aware of until the itching and the redness showed up a day or two later.  I don’t spend much time outside anymore so bug bites are rare, but this bug got me and the visual was quite familiar.  So was the itch.  Except that the itch was on the top of the left foot.  Identical spot, wrong foot.  No sensation around the bite itself.  Bite and itch faded together over the next two days.  Imagine the signal messenger struggling through the tangle of neurons at my neck.  Finally arrives at brain level, breathless, barely conscious, whispers before expiring, “Bug bite... top of foot...”  Brain says, “What, where?  Which foot?”  Makes guess. Guesses wrong.

Phantom limbs.  The guy who’s toes itch like crazy even though his leg was amputated at the knee.  My CGI legs flicker in and out of existence.  When Lynn wonders if it’s numbness that’s bothering me I say, oh no, I have plenty of sensations.  I just can’t tell how they match up to what’s happening in the real world.

What I like about my new pains is how mundane they are, how very common.  Nearly half of adults will experience some sciatica pain during their lifetimes.  Millions of people suffer some bouts of gluteal tendinosis.  They may be difficult to treat, but at least there are hundreds of thousands of people in healthcare working on it.  Transverse myelitis?  Best estimate is 1400 new cases a year, a third of whom suffer few long term effects.  Altogether there may be 30,000 or so of us strugglers scattered around the country.  A handful of doctors specializing.  There’s a few drugs that help some people with the nerve pain, but it’s trial and error, lots of side effects, including cognitive impairment which I’m not willing to risk.  I’ll stick with Lawrence for the TM generated pain.

But these new, mundane pains, these more treatable pains, maybe we’ll be able to do something about them, even though my scrambled senses don’t respond to them in normal, mundane ways.  I’m hopeful, if not optimistic.

In philosophy school I was fascinated by the mind/body problem.  Where does the “me” reside?  Is there a soul separate from the body that would retain a sense of personal identity after my death?  I’ve never believed it.  I believe in soul, in spirit, in some animating life force that is more than body, but it’s inseparable from the body, at least as far as encompassing “me” goes.  How could I be “me” without the body, without aging, without these scars, the skin sloughing off and new skin cells growing? Without hunger and desire, physical pleasure and the fantastic mysteries and miseries of dreams?  More than corporeal I am, yes, but my sense of self is so entwined with my body that I can't conceive of a disembodied me.  If the animating force continues when the body succumbs, it wouldn’t be “me”.

Since the short circuit, though, my consciousness is at odds with my body in ways that it never was before.  I construct stories to try to describe what’s going on in my body that might explain my sensations.  In normal times, the body requires so little conscious intervention.  It just needs a smooth track from the brain to the rest of the nervous system.  Then it hums along nicely, adjusting temperature, pumping hormones, digesting, breathing, mindlessly managing the gazillion little muscular interactions that take place when you run downstairs (what an amazing feat that is!).  Then a burst of pain erupts – you touch the hot stove, the kitchen knife slips, the ankle twists.  The brain grabs consciousness – “You there!  Quick, pay attention!  Don’t do that thing that is causing pain.”  Suddenly the body has all your attention and you act accordingly. 

It doesn’t work that way for me anymore.  My brain can’t tell what’s going on.  I can’t use it to make the appropriate conscious decisions.  The body has to go it alone.  Muscles orphaned and doing the best they can.  And I’m left wondering how much of me is me.


Editor In Chief, JMLA

Recruiting is underway for a new Editor in Chief for the Journal of the Medical Library Association.  The call went up last week on mlanet.org.  We’ve listed, in the call, some of the elements that we’ll be considering, but we haven’t set any firm requirements.  I hope the list doesn’t scare potential candidates off.  The most important qualification is having a passion for it, a desire to make a difference, a willingness to make it a priority and to put in the time.  I hope people with an interest will contact me to find out more before deciding that they shouldn’t bother because they think they’re not qualified.  I certainly wasn’t when I became editor 20+ years ago.  It turned out alright.

I’m chairing the committee.  Again.  Last time (5 years ago), my co-chair was Mark Funk, and that was great.  We were doing a major re-think of the editor’s role and how the editorial team was structured.  We needed somebody to give it all a very fresh look.  We had good candidates, a tough decision, recommended Katherine Akers, and she’s done a superb job.  The editorial process and the editorial board are much stronger and more effective than before she dug into it.

It’s a big job, but there’s good support from the editorial team and MLA headquarters staff.  I asked Katherine about the time commitment and she said about 20 hours a week when she started, but then tapering to about 10 as she got things organized to her liking.  The initial ramp-up should be much easier for whoever takes it on this time.  Again, if somebody’s uncertain about the level of support they think they’d need, they should check in with me so we can discuss it.

The “what’s in it for me” question comes up.  That’s fair, but the biggest benefits are intangible.  Depending on how you view your career, it may be a useful resumé item, but I never thought about it that way.  I never thought about “career” that way.  Being editor gave me an opportunity to have impact, large and small.  It made me think about scholarly publishing and the role of professional societies in ways that were new for me.  It opened many doors, gave me a platform to explore ideas and make connections with people across the scholarly communication landscape.  It certainly advanced my “career” in more ways than I could have imagined.  I’m sure that’ll be the case for whoever steps into the role next.  Although it’d be terrible if that was somebody’s primary reason for doing it.

We’re looking for a successor a little sooner than expected.  Katherine just took a job outside of medical librarianship (one that looks like a great fit for her) and decided it made sense for her to step back and appoint an interim while we look for a new EIC.  She’s staying on as a Senior Editor, so we can continue to rely on her expertise through the transition.  The new EIC will, of course, put their own stamp on things, but they’ll have a very solid structure to work with.

So there we are.  It’s a very good committee, with some folks with non-MLA editing experience who’ve already contributed a great deal.  Despite the holiday season I’m hoping we can get some good applications by the end of the month and have a recommendation to the MLA Board of Directors by early February.  Wish us luck!


love is love not fade away

It makes the most beautiful cosmic sense that the World’s Most Dangerous Poet would be found moonlighting as the serene and unflappable doorman at the most unlikely of idiosyncratic cafés.  I say “moonlighting” because Bill’s real job, his every day and night job, his reason for existence job, was to be a poet.  Not just to write or declaim poetry – those are just the oracular effusions of his warrior spirit.  He was a living manifestation of the essential foolish brilliance of poetry – to live life in unmediated contact with the ineffable – that which, by definition, cannot be expressed in words.  And then to find ways to express it in words.  Stoopid and innocent, indeed.Five years, the early 90s, I was a Venice regular and Uncle Bill was the lodestar.  I spent a couple of years in the original instantiation of Liquid Prairie.  We’d play Saturday happy hour, then hustle our gear out while the evening’s band moved their stuff in.  But before that band played, it was Bill’s time. I loved watching the Venice virgins who’d passed him their cash to gain entry look askance when he came up to perform.  “Oh, just wait...” we’d tell ‘em.  Then they looked on, open mouthed.

He was sweet and kind, but suffering no fools.  Lynn was visiting from Birmingham one weekend and came with us to Happy Hour.  After we’d finished playing, she’d gone out to the car for something.  By the time she came back, Bill was on duty, taking the cover charge.  “It’s okay,” says Lynn, “I’m with the band.” You can imagine the look he gave her.  She hadn’t yet been introduced.  I think Ranger Dave rescued her.

We grieve because that’s what humans do, mourning the loss of touch and smile and voice.  The twinkle in the eye, the big laugh, the outrage at injustice, the everlasting belief and insistence on love. But then there’s gratitude, overwhelming gratitude that we got to share some of that mystical space for as many years as any of us did.  Yes, we feel loss.  But Bill’s not lost.  He’s right here.

Imagine you’re looking down from a great height, miles above.  There’s the Venice Café, a beautiful gleaming, glowing multi-colored dot, the brightest light in the landscape.  Swirling around it you see streamers of gossamer mist.  That’s poetry, being drawn in from all over the city, the county, beyond.  As a black hole uses its gravitational pull to draw in comets and planets and stars, the Venice draws in poetry of all forms, shapes, sizes, colors, and constructions.  Look into the center of that galaxy and there you’ll see him, arms outstretched, eyes closed, beard transcendent, words pouring forth, the Pope of Pestalozzi, the World’s Most Dangerous Poet, the unimaginable, unconquerable, incandescent, inextinguishable, everlastingly ecstatic Uncle Bill Green.

No photo description available.


Carbon

She was dazzled by the carbon paper.  "I don't understand how this works!" she said, running her finger down each side.  I showed her how to put it between two clean sheets of paper in order to make a copy.  She's fascinated.  Astonished.

It's the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school.  She had a month between commitments so I hired her to help me sort through old files.  We got into a cabinet that I haven't opened since moving it into the keep-out room 22 years ago.

There was a fat file labelled "poems in redundant drafts."  Many versions of poems I was working on in the mid-eighties.  (Why I felt compelled to keep all of the drafts is a question I don't feel qualified to answer.)  "I wrote on a typewriter," I told her.  "Typed out a poem, and then I made revisions in pen or pencil and then I typed it again."  Three or four versions in a day, according to the dates at the top of each sheet.  I used carbon paper to keep a copy of the one I mailed to the magazines.  She can't quite visualize it.  The unconnected world.

I tell her about traveling with a heavy portable (luggable) computer back in 1990.  About modems and phone lines and disk drives that had their own power supplies.  "You don't know what a floppy disc is, do you?"  She shakes her head, trying to peer through me into the distant past.  I tell her about taking the silver dip pen and a bottle of ink and a volume of Tom Jefferson's complete works into the class I was teaching about the internet and copyright.  That was in 2000 and the students were in their late teens. The kids passed the pen and bottle around and gingerly wrote their names. I held up the book, "Now imagine using that to write all of this." They were impressed, but they still had bits of memories of a pre-internet world.  But Josie was born in 2005.

Carbon paper.  Typewriters.  I didn't attempt to explain a mimeograph machine.  She'd had a similar reaction a year and a half ago when her Mom gave her a Crosley turntable and a vinyl record for Christmas.  She'd turn the record over.  "Why does it have two sides?  I don't understand how it works!"

In my study, with the amazing carbon sheet in hand she said it again, but then, "But my phone, the CDs, DVDs, I don't understand how any of it works!"  She's brilliant at using the devices in her world, of course.  But she has no comprehension of how they work.

I turned her age in 1971.   When my Dad told me about the world he lived in as a boy, thirty-five years earlier, I could understand how it worked.  We lived in the same electro-mechanical world, principles established during the industrial revolution.  Television wasn't around yet, but you could imagine it as an extension of the radio.  When it arrived, he knew how to tinker with it.  Jet engines were built from the same underlying dynamics as automobile engines.  Things got faster and more efficient from his boyhood to mine, but the technologies were fundamentally the same.  He understood how the things in my boyhood worked, and I knew the same about his.

The half century following the invention of the moveable type press is the incunabula period, European civilization being reshaped by the impact of inexpensive, uniformly replicable books, and the technological and cultural transformations they set in motion.  Our Gutenberg moment, analogous to the days those first printed books went on sale, occurred in the fall of 1994 when Netscape was released -- the first widely available graphic internet browser. 

By 1500, printed books were no longer curiosities, game attempts at emulating the handmade books of previous centuries.  They were the standard means of knowledge transmission, with dozens of printers and publishers across Europe vying to tap into the new markets.  Among the crucial innovations was the widespread adoption of the size called octavo – a book that could easily fit into a saddlebag.  New knowledge spanning the continent as fast as a rider could take it.

Our incunabula period ended when the iPhone launched, barely a dozen years after Netscape.  Now Josie carries the internet in her hip pocket.  That feels natural.  A world of carbon paper and typewriters is nearly inconceivable.   I straddle the two worlds, writing in my leather-bound journal with a good fountain pen, then shifting to my laptop to write things I can easily share.  I'm not nostalgic for the world we're leaving behind.  I feel lucky that I get to taste them both and that I can tell Josie tall tales about the ways of the world before.