Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Horrible Wonderful Weight of Libraries

    What a wonderful legacy is a library.  What better collection to leave your children? 
    And yet, of all the books sold in the past fifty years, how many of them are worth passing down?  How many private libraries out there are worth heirs fighting over?  "Suzie can have the furniture and Marcus can have the cash, but I want the books." 
    I'm blessed, I suppose, in growing up with a library I'll fight for.  Almost all the books date from the 1930s or before.  Many of them are from the nineteenth century.  The complete works of Wilke Collins.  A six-volume history of The Great War.  The world's 100 best short stories in ten little volumes.  A similar edition of the world's best 1000 poems.  The complete works of Rudyard Kipling.  All hardcovers in multi-volume sets, and in good condition.  They were so rarely read.  It was my great grandfather who was the most recent reader in my mother's family.  She kept the books (and packed them and moved them time and time again) because they made such a lovely statement, interior-decorating wise. 
    Growing up around these books, I vowed that I would read them all.  But between school and piano practice and Dungeons & Dragons, I never really got through too many.  As I got older it started to feel kind of arbitrary, that I should read these particular books because an accident of birth left them close to me.  There was a brilliant used bookstore in my town, that sold science fiction paperbacks for half their 1970s cover price (75¢ minimum).  Then I moved away and figured those books could just wait for me.  They've waited this long already, after all.  Certainly they'll stick around until I have the leisure and patience for them.
    Is this situation unique?  Do any of you have an inheritance of books in your future?  Have you received one already?  And do you buy your volumes with an eye to the future, thinking, "This hardcover is expensive, but my grandson might enjoy it someday?"
    I don't, to be honest.  The life-cycle of a hardcover is, what, a couple of months, these days?  They cost a fortune, but have the shelf life of produce.  Many of them hit the bargain racks the same time the paperbacks editions come out, leaving me bitter about the brand new ones I indulged in. 
    Meanwhile, even the paperbacks are more expensive than they should be.  (Adjusted for inflation, about three times as expensive as they were in the 1950s.)  They're not as heavy as hardcovers, but they do pile up.  Accumulating books seems like a sucker's game, now that I've moved house every two years.  Just the thought of boxing all these books up again makes my back hurt. 
    In Boston, I rediscovered the joy of the public library.  You get to read the book for free and then they take it back from you.  Perfect!  You don't have to throw it away.  You can't give it away, or course, but if you know someone else who might like it, you can tell them where to find it.
    So for all of these reasons I haven't bought a lot of books lately.  There seemed to be more of them around every year, and more ways to get at them, purchase them, collect them.  Superstores, online retailers, craigslist, ebay, garage sales, used book dealers, library fund raisers.  Everyone wants to sell me a book. 
    But have you noticed lately that bookstores seem to be slashing their inventory in favor of e-books and e-readers, and toys?  For the past fifteen years we have had temples to books in every suburban mall.  Will these sanctuaries shrink around their gadget kiosks?  Will they become cafes with little bookstores inside, rather than the other way around?  Will they abandon their shelves entirely and install a print-on-demand bookbinding machine, where you can select your title and swipe your card, no cashier necessary? 
    This coming scarcity of real books makes me covetous again, like I want to hoard and warehouse these paper artifacts.  I suddenly want a copy of every book I've ever read - even those ones from the library - on my own shelves, where they can't be discarded because of last quarter's sales figures.  How many of these titles will be lost in the move to digital reading?  Who else will love them?  I'll pile them up among my manual typewriters and obsolete computers - other discarded and neglected artifacts.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Teenage Pregnancy, 16 Years Later

Overheard in a supermarket checkout line:

TEENAGE GIRL 1:  Yeah, so mom says to me, "You're going out again?  How come you get to have all this fun?  When do I get to have any fun?  What happened to my fun?"

TEENAGE GIRL 2:  * Snort *  Well, her motherly duties kind of get in the way of fun, don't they?

TEENAGE GIRL 1:  Yeah!  That's what I told her!  I said, "You had plenty of fun before.  That's how you ended up with me.  Teenage pregnancy's a bitch, isn't it, mom?"

There's something very strange and backwards about this, the product of misbehavior lecturing the miscreant about their mistakes.  I don't really think anyone comes out looking good.

Back when I was in high school, we had so many pregnant students that the home economics class on "childhood development" ran a day care service so the new mothers would have a place to park their babies while they earned their diploma. 

The "honors" kids didn't really talk about this much.  Diapers and feeding schedules were so alien to college applications and class rank worries that they might as well have existed in a separate universe.

But in retrospect, the program is a nice community gesture.  Cape Cod might have a teenage pregnancy problem (to go along with the heroin problem and the gang problems), but at least we try to take care of our babies' babies. 

It was a little strange to consider I could have gone to high school with this bitchy girl's mother, though.  I've officially hit that age where I can tell a teenager: "I'm old enough to be your father."

And I'm happy about it.  Don't think I'd go back under any circumstances.

So maybe I'll go to the mall and throw my weight around some.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Obama Puts All Our Eggs In Intellectual Property

This is why we are doomed:

Obama to 'Aggressively Protect' Intellectual Property

Key point from his speech:
"Our single greatest asset is the innovation and the ingenuity and creativity of the American people...It is essential to our prosperity and it will only become more so in this century. But it's only a competitive advantage if our companies know that someone else can't just steal that idea and duplicate it with cheaper inputs and labor."
Unfortunately for us and our children, he's got this backwards.  Creativity may be lovely, but ideas are cheap.   What's valuable is the execution of those ideas, turning them into products and services and an improved quality of life.  We've forgotten this.  We think we can draw a blueprint, send it over to China, give it to a bunch of kids in a factory and get them to put together our sneakers and electronics for pennies an hour.  Then we get pissed when one of those kids takes the blueprint over to a photocopy machine, makes a few copies, and heads out to start his own company. 

Does Obama really think he can make it harder for people to copy ideas in the future?

Obama goes on to talk about licensing, which always makes me shiver.  Yeah, you know all that fine print on credit card agreements and software packaging, all that drivel that you click through without reading before you set up your facebook account?  Thats our export, now.  That's what we have to offer the world.  We're betting our future on license agreements.
"There's nothing wrong with other people using our technologies, we welcome it," Obama said. "We just want to make sure that it's licensed and that American businesses are getting paid appropriately. That's why the (U.S. Trade Representative) is using the full arsenal of tools available to crack down on practices that blatantly harm our businesses, and that includes negotiating proper protections and enforcing our existing agreements, and moving forward on new agreements, including the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)."
That ACTA, by the way?  Turns out the European Union is not as happy about it as Obama hoped.  Their parliament just voted against it 633 to 13

Monday, March 8, 2010

Three Old Bikes

A lovely off yesterday. Three of us headed down to the canal on three bicycles which cost us a total of $40. Mine was the most recent roadside find, an old Schwinn The Wife spotted in a front yard with a "free" sign scrawled on cardboard, and insisted on stopping to take. It's chain could have used some lubrication. It rattled away like a pocket full of unhappy keys. But it ran fine with no more work than pumping air in the tires. It's a single-speed, old school machine, which you pedal backwords to apply the brakes and hope you've got lots of room to stop, but it doesn't really matter much because you're not going to go too fast on it. And it's got a kick-stand - something high performance bikes omit in the name of efficiency, but which I suspect is just another scam to defraud the consumer.

Another perfect machine for the bike trail along the canal, in other words, and I can even keep my pipe lit as I'm rolling along. We headed all the way to the mouth of the canal to sit on the jetty and watch the ducks taking off and the currents swirling the surface of the glassy water. No ships came through on this particular Sunday Morning, and the sky was clear and mild, so the foghorn on the other side of the water played to an empty house.

It felt liberating to park our three bicycles at the end of the sandy trail without chaining them up, worrying about them. They got some curious looks, certainly, though I couldn't tell whether people thought they were roadside trash or vintage treasure. Still, if someone was inclined to steal them, no big deal. Easy come, easy go. (This is part of what I was trying to get at with yesterday's sarcastically voiced post. Our economy does toss off some pretty good treasures as garbage. There's much pleasure to be had if we tear our eyes away from the advertisements and help ourselves to richer folks' hand-me-downs.)

Certainly the mild weather played a part, but there's nothing that makes one feel more expansive and generous than smoking a bowl of tobacco on the seat of a free bicycle.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Repeating Ourselves (With Tongue in Cheek)

Really it turns out that we're starting from scratch every single day. Continuity is illusory. This is why we settle into the same grooves, repeating ourselves. Our grandchildren, by the time we have grandchildren, think we're broken records (or maybe outdated, low-capacity mp3 players set on shuffle). Our children, if we're not careful, think the same thing. (But by the time we get to the grandchildren it's hopess.)

This is why a preacher, after a certain number of sermons, doesn't even have to prepare them any more.

This is why you can hand a salesman any product and he'll make it a success. The product is irrelevant, so long as it's better than yesterday's product. If people had memories that stored more than 24 hours of experience, they'd realize this. Maybe they'd wait a few more days, until the product grew into something really remarkable, or maybe they'd wait until the one they already had broke down.

But progress spins through town on shiny chrome wheels, those spinny ones tricked out with neon, and there's bass pounding out of the trunk to rattle the neighborhood's windopanes, and a custom paint-job sponsored by sponsors, and there's so much money wrapped up in all that kit that we didn't have enough left for the brakes. So we're not slowing down.

Which is just fine, because, you know, the economy. It needs us to keep forgetting, now that we've swapped the gold standard for credit and chrome.

* * *

Really we're starting from scratch every single day. Last semester, last fiscal year, last night at the bar: we've got grades and spreadsheets and regrettable text messages to show for them, but they're best left for the machines to analyze. What matters to US are the things we're going to do TODAY. Yesterday is in the can, tomorrow out of reach. Today is all we have.

There's a group of alcoholics out there (I'm sure they have a chapter near you) who have this serenity prayer what talks about knowing the difference between the things you can control and the things you can't. Once, I despaired when I saw this prayer tattooed across a beautiful young mother's shoulders, but that's just because I can't abide tattoos. They're too hard to forget. They stretch today out into too long.

This is the bit everyone knows, that fits on a tattoo:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
And then there's the rest, that you have to go to meetings (or use Google) to find:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
The prayer's got a good point. Life hands you garbage, might as well sit back and take it. Can't do much about that. See, what you can control is your wallet, so just throw out all that old garbage and go shopping. Join a support group, trade up to an eco-friendly car, call the cable company and add a few more channels to your plan. All you really got control of is THIS MOMENT RIGHT NOW, so by golly you better EARN and BUY and CHANNEL SURF like there's no this afternoon, because by now I think we can all agree that there isn't.

Some might argue that that serenity prayer's lowered the bar too far, that "accepting the things I cannot change" doesn't preclude us taking responsibility for our future or force us to forget our past. Well, maybe not. But when a nation lets a bunch of drunks and drug addicts dominate the national mood with bumper stickers, meetings in every town, tee-shirts, seminars, and tattoos on beautiful young mothers, it's gotten beyond arguing the finer points, and deserves whatever's coming to it.

So why worry? It's time better spent stocking up on canned goods and ammunition. Not because you want to use it tomorrow. Because it looks shiny in the closet, today! (And doesn't it just make you feel good, knowing it's there?)

* * *

We start from scratch every day. The brain boots up from whatever it's doing at night (Running stress-test simulations? Installing antivirus software?) and you see sun in the windows and maybe there's a woman next to you.

Hello, world!

You may feel the compulsion to take notes. It's better to resist it. Consider: if you spend this moment taking notes, you're missing your one chance to control the one thing you have control over, which is this moment right now. And you're condemning your future self to spend time down the line reviewing the notes about the woman and the window and the sun out there way back right now, if he's unfortunate enough to go through your notebook, which I think we can agree, at this point (and I'm not just flattering you here) he'll be clever enough to avoid. Wouldn't you rather switch on the TV, or go shopping? There are things TO DO, fer heavenssakes!

And as for sharing those notes, well, doesn't it seem like an awful imposition to expect anyone else to read them?

I mean, really, who the hell do you think you are?