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Stephanie Brown
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I have a staff of thirty-seven people who work for me at a public library in Irvine, California and nearly half of them are immigrants to the United States. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the patrons are recent immigrants and their children. There are large Korean, Indian, Persian, Taiwanese and Chinese communities in Irvine, and smaller groups of people from eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Japan. Neighboring cities have other large identified neighborhoods, the most well-known being Little Saigon in the northern part of the county. I had lunch recently with some of the ten young women from Korea who volunteer to help us add Korean language books to the collection. Ten to fifteen years younger than I with the energy and commitment of young mothers everywhere, they described their many activities: the PTA, their churches, after school activities with their kids, their group which meets once a month at the library to help “new arrivals” (their words) acclimate to the culture. They talked about the mayor who is from Korea; he is the first Korean mayor of a major city in the U.S. We ate together at a Japanese restaurant. At one point they talked about the Japanese occupation of Korea. Another group of their friends volunteers at the library and conducts a weekly Korean language story time for kids. The daily experience at the reference desk is helping a child without an accent and a mother or father with one. When I walk from the check-out desk to my office in the back of the building, I walk past our tables of computers and on a daily basis I see that about half are occupied by women wearing hijab. All the local shopping center store names are in a variety of languages, small businesses owned by local residents, side by side with a Jamba Juice or Subway. On average, our library sees over 1,000 patrons come through our doors each day. In 2009, we checked out over one million items. Even on a Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, we are filled with people sitting and reading, working on a project with other people, bringing in their children to find books, using one of our computers or working on their laptops. We provide everything from the most diversionary reading to free WiFi to help finding information on how to start a business or find a job. We can provide a tutor to learn English. One tutor and learner used to use my office to work in, and a few times I worked at my desk while they worked at a table together, a twentysomething African-American woman teaching a fortysomething Arabic woman in hijab how to read English. I witnessed the day when their work together ended; the learner shed tears of gratitude as they hugged goodbye. On July 3, thinking about United States on the day before Independence Day, what I find best about the United States is that all these... Continue reading
Posted Jul 3, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
I wasn’t sure what to write about today, so I asked my boss, Trish, for a suggestion, and she replied, “Summer,” and enumerated all the things I could write about: the last day of school, long days, freedom, watermelon, slamming screen doors, fireflies. She paused. “Do people in California even know about fireflies?” she asked. “No, we didn’t have them and I didn’t have slamming screen doors,” I said, thinking of the mid-century cuboid I grew up in, all sliding doors and sun decks. It was a place for cocktails, white lace minidresses and adultery, and how my conservative Catholic parents ended up there is one of life’s mysteries, though they grew up in Southern California, so I guess it was nothing remarkable. Today the weather here is “June gloom,” so called because of the fog that envelops the coast, sometimes starting as early as mid-May and lasting into July, as it seems to be doing this year. This week we even had a windshield-wiper rain. It’s not summer rain as you get in a humid climate; it’s more like San Francisco in August, but not quite that cold. I am one of the few people I know who like June gloom, and I like it because it’s a brief respite from the coming warm (nice) and then hot (not always so nice) weather that can last well into January, bringing Santa Ana winds and fire, and which turns my skin into a dry mess: red, flaky, and crazy-itchy. June gloom was a terrible thing when I was a teenager, because my friends and I took vows at the end of each school year that we would go to the beach every day, and if we could not, because we had jobs or summer school or parents who made us do something else, we would “lay out” (we were objects to the sun) on my sundeck or theirs as hours allowed. There were strict rules for how one went to the beach, lest one look like a tourist: you could only bring a towel, baby oil, and some change in order to buy a Tab in the afternoon at one of the little markets, but no beach bag was allowed to carry this in, and I don't remember how we managed that on our bikes. No food allowed, no beach chairs, no umbrellas (really bad) and the dress code excluded hats which might have shielded us from the sun, but allowed two-piece bathing suits, white shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops or bare feet. A minimal time for laying out was three hours. Anything less, like on a June gloom day which might only yield a half hour or hour in the afternoon if at all, was a cause for anxiety. I once described this to a friend while living in another state and he said, “That doesn’t sound like any fun,” and that summed it up quite nicely. I don’t get much of a tan, but I was content with... Continue reading
Posted Jul 2, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
I admit to spending an afternoon perusing skateboarding and Roomba-riding cats and have also had a go or two with I Can Haz Cheezburger. My son likes Longcat, just about the tallest thing on the planet. I also love the dark humor in Grandma's Dead: Breaking Bad News with Baby Animals and Why is Daddy in a Dress? Asking Awkward Questions with Baby Animals by McCall and Schwarz. I'm not alone of course: someone's uploading the videos and the dog and cat profiles to Catbook and Dogbook. Zany and silly pets may be outnumbered by cute ones, as we seek the "Aw" factor. Why? Addicted to Cute by Jim Windolf in the December 2009 Vanity Fair sums up the phenomenon of "cute overload" in everything from cute animal videos to cupcakes to Snuggies, noting, "maybe the move toward cuteness has come about partly because the idea of 'edge' has gotten old." I'll buy that. I also think the silly idiocy of the cats on Cheezburger is a brief respite from spreadsheets and other things one does while seated in front of a computer screen. I love the Cheezburger cat because its facial expression of desire reminds me of one of my own meal-obsessed cats, and I imagine he'd react just this way to his own cheeseburger. It's dumb, sure, and has grown into a profitable phenomenon. People love their pets a hell of a lot, to the delight of some and the consternation of others--is it a an example of western decadence as one Islamic cleric believes? Do we love and seek to protect pets more than we do our children? All creatures great and small--what's not to love about devoted animal companions? In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Phillip K. Dick depicts a future where real animals are valuable and coveted because of their rarity, as one might want gold bullion today; it seems prescient and too believable in an post-eco-disaster future: as wildlife becomes rare, the real thing becomes truly a priceless treasure. One of the nicest parts of Whitman's Song of Myself is stanza 32, which begins, "I think I could turn and live with the animals" and praises their innate spirit in contrast to man-made religious hypocrisy, along with their calm fortitude; lilies of the field, as it were: "Not one is dissatisfied, / not one is demented with the mania of owning things." "St. Francis and the Sow" by Galway Kinnell and William Stafford's "Choosing a Dog" emphasize the love that humans have for animals, and are popular with readers because of this. One of the most well-known paens to a pet is Christopher Smart's lines from Jubilat Agno, about his cat, Jeoffry. "from the tribe of the tiger" who "purrs in thankfulness." Edward Hirsch's "Wild Gratitude" (about his cat, Zooey), builds from Smart's poem. He also loves his pet without apology, grateful for what she gives him. He concludes: And only then did I understand It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him— Who... Continue reading
Posted Jul 1, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
One of my favorite poems is Kenneth Koch's "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" which spoofs (mocks?) "This is Just to Say" by Williams, the famous poem about the juicy, ripe plums the speaker ate, which hinges on his phrase "Forgive me," and is likely directed to someone he lives with (a little too loving to be the kind of workplace refrigerator note one finds on Passive Aggressive Notes)--it finds beauty in a mundane domestic moment. Koch's variations are a funny four stanzas which grow more zany and preposterous, to wonderful comic effect. Here are Koch's stanzas one and four: I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer. I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do and its wooden beams were so inviting. Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg. Forgive me. I was clumsy and I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor! Koch’s poem is popular with many people and one can find numerous examples of folks following his example to write spoofs of Williams' poem and creating some clever and often hilarious variations. Koch’s own techniques for teaching kids to write poetry rely on this kind of imitation and improvisation and it’s delightful to find these done in the same spirit. Williams’ plums, along with his red wheelbarrow and chickens, have become nearly kitschified in the culture, to the point where I wouldn’t find it surprising to see a lacquered kitchen plaque with the a watercolor of plums and the poem written next to it for sale at Bed, Bath and Beyond. (As I write this I am thinking that such a thing probably already exists, if not at BBB then on Etsy, and then I wonder why that would be such a bad thing after all…if we hang posters of Edward Hopper paintings in our homes or offices, are we not sustained by their vision, even if we could never possibly own an oil painting of one?) [As an aside, I find it daunting to write about poetry on the Best American Poetry blog, though I have read poetry my whole life, know quite a bit about it, and have strong opinions. However, I can imagine the untrammeled vitriol to the above statement which might seem to endorse Beth, Bath and Beyond as well as replication of artistic images into cheap commodities, and admit that I fear it. I know there are undoubtedly people whose livelihoods are based on the disavowal of Koch, Williams, or both, as well as their champions, and also fear that it is not my place to take their place.] While I have not written a spoof of “This is Just to Say,” I have written variations and imitations of Williams’ poems in recent years. I went to them as instructors because I sought change in my approach to composition; they have taught me economy and simplicity in word choice, line... Continue reading
Posted Jun 30, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
In college I developed a crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne. I not only liked his books, I liked his looks, too, at least as he appeared in a painting at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. I used to take regular sojourns to see it. When people visited from California I was sure to take them to Salem so that I could tour the House of Seven Gables again and sit in its gardens--as I recall the docents' spiel mentioned him and his wife which was very romantic to me as well--and then we'd walk over to the Essex Institute to see the painting. (I don't think I told them why; it was a place to visit anyway.) When I saw his visage I felt full of happiness and all was right with the world. Is it strange to crush on a literary figure? I think I've known men who had a thing for Emily Dickinson. I asked my husband yesterday if he'd had a crush on Sarah Orne Jewett, but he said no, and thought it was an odd question indeed. When I was a girl, I fell in love with Jack London after visiting his house in Northern California with my parents when I was about eleven or twelve. He was dark, handsome, and sort of wild. The house was partly made of rocks, as I recall, and fire had damaged some of it, which lent it the air of the house in Jane Eyre that Joan Fontaine comes back to at the end of the black-and-white version, where she finds Mr. Rochester huddled in the ruins. I used to play that I was in that story, which seemed to me to be mostly about shadows and evil schools. I had seen the movie on TV with my sisters when I was about five or six, and since they were all reading the book one summer, I tried to join in, reading until I got to this line, "From my discourse with Mr. Lloyd," which I now look up and see was the first line in chapter four. I had no idea what it meant and gave up. I couldn't keep up and was always tagging along and lagging behind, which was a metaphor for my life in that family. Instead I wrote an imitation Jane Eyre story called "Anne Garnet" which was about owning only one dress and living in an attic. I learned not to show them what I wrote, because at least one of them was sure to eviscerate my prose as if I were a grad student. About a year after that my parents took me to a bookstore and I picked out Tom Sawyer, which intrigued me for some reason--I'd probably seen the movie. I loved the illustrations in the Illustrated Junior Library edition and looked at them endlessly. The book was too hard for me to concentrate on for very long but I think I read most of it during the next couple... Continue reading
Posted Jun 29, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
"Nothing human is foreign to me" and that's because I live in Orange County, California. I live behind the orange curtain, as it goes in an old local joke, home of The Virgin Connie Swayle and Gob Bluth instead of, say, Hester Prynne or Captain Ahab. Equidistant between Los Angeles and San Diego, we have beautiful beaches and mountains, an international population, mild weather, safe cities, noted bio-technology research (among much else) at our local University of California, and there is amazing shopping, but who needs any of that? It's our dubious distinctions that put us on the map and gives our local writers something to write about, such as: Disneyland: On one of our first dates, my husband and I discussed Baudrillard's Disneyland-as-noxious-myth while we rode the tram from the parking lot to the entrance. We still enjoyed the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and our Carnation ice cream sandwiches. Our Disneyland stands next to the 5 Freeway as a symbol for the best things in the world or as an abomination to all mankind, our gift to you. John Wayne Airport: That's the name of our Orange County airport, because John Wayne lived in Newport Beach and was a beloved local. An American icon, a handsome hunk, he too represents everything right or wrong with America. As you wait for your ride to pick you up, you wait beside a colossal Rooster Cogburn era statue of The Duke. Oh, those crazy politicians! B-2 Bob Dornan, former congressman John Schmitz (father of Mary Kay Letourneau!), Dana Rohrbacher, Costa Mesa mayor Larry Mansour, Robert Citron, Birther candidate Orly Taitz, and of course "Tricky Dick" Nixon. We are home to his Presidential Library in Yorba Linda and his Western White House in San Clemente. If you're not sure who the others are, google their names--you're in for an education. Beige stucco houses in master-planned communities: We are the home of the planned community; we live under the thumb of our homeowners' associations. Seen those photos of endless identical McMansions sloping down hillsides? That's us. Millionaires: A childhood friend's parents' house was recently put on the market and described by the realtor as "a place that 'Lovey and Thurston' [of Gilligan's Island] could have lived in." I love that the referent is to fake characters on a bad TV show, which kind of sums it all up--no Carnegie or Gatesian nobility is expected here. Maybe the realtor was getting all "meta" on us, since the show's opening scene, where the castaways' little vessel is seen leaving for the the three hour tour, was filmed in Newport Harbor. Fake Millionaires: Irvine in the OC has been cited as the birthplace for the bad loans that led to our current mortgage debacle; there were many victims but also many abusers and everyone who lives here probably knows a few of them. I'd never heard the term "HELOC abuse" until recently: HELOC abuse is maxing out on a home equity line of credit on one's... Continue reading
Posted Jun 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
In graduate school for library science my favorite class covered the history of printing and publishing. We read a book called The Coming of the Book by Febvre and Martin. "The coming of the book" is a phrase that has stayed with me: it acknowledges that the slow and steady impact books had on human beings was transformative. Replicated books and broadsides, the ability to pass along those ideas physically to another person, created the desire to read and encouraged the ability to do so, for both sacred and secular purposes. One could read just for the hell of it. Cities which were centers of printing in Europe were inclusive and open-minded places. A free press was considered essential in the creation of our Constitution by those who had lived in England, which did not have a free press. At the same time in our program we were adapting to the coming of the computer. New computer "card catalogs" sat on the sidelines in the two gigantic rooms full of card catalog furniture in the Doe Library at Berkeley. It was physically impossible for a university to keep creating room for card catalog furniture and the computer catalog was a step forward for storing this information. In another class we learned how to search expensive subscription databases, working out Boolean searches on paper before we even turned on the machine and logged in; it was possible to spend a hundred dollars in a matter of minutes when receiving citations and abstracts. The professor who taught us to program in Basic described a two way communication on computers where people talked to each other on bulletin boards, which I had a hard time envisioning. We fretted over the demise of whole libraries because of acidic paper; how would we save these books from destruction? A mere twenty-three years later so much has changed. Do we even need to catalog books and create databases with formal Library of Congress subject headings? In library science there are advocates for "tag clouds" and other "folksonomies" as reasonable ways to create search terms and tags. We used to show people the Library of Congress subject headings so they'd know how to search for books, because the headings were never intuitive and never used keywords. We never use Boolean searching anymore. In the 1980's we wanted to avoid getting irrelevant data because we had to pay for all the results. Now we may get thousands of irrelevant hits on any search, but it's no big deal to receive the results, move through them, ignore them. Google Books and its copying of old books may solve the problem of the crumbling library. In school we learned that we really were talking about information--its storage and its retrieval, its organization into schemas of human knowledge; we were not really talking about books at all: a book was merely a frame for information. Human language and record keeping have been held in many formats: the "word-hoard" and then on... Continue reading
Posted Jun 26, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Jun 25, 2010