On things I’ve been meaning to write about

Some things I’ve been thinking about lately:

– Summer ending – I like being back in school / summers are hard for me, because I can’t stay focused;

– All of my favorite sentences. (A pointless project, maybe, but I’m envisioning a never-ending post that contains sentences from A Heartbreaking Work and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and So Long, See You Tomorrow, and everything Alice Munro has ever written – particularly, though, any sentence from her short story “Miles City, Montana,” a copy of which I have under my bed, in an plastic tub, from my Junior year at Iowa – and quite a few Kurt Vonnegut sentences because of how they feel – but not sound – when you read them, and a few from Beloved, and one from a classmate, even.

Here are a few, for now, from Heartbreaking Work:

Only up here does the earth look round, only up here does the horizon dip at its ends, only up here can you see the bend of the planet at the edges of your peripheries. Only here are you almost sure that you are careening on top of a big shiny globe, blurrily spinning – you are never aware of these things in Chicago, it being so flat, so straight – and, and, and we have been chosen you see, chosen, and have been given this, it being owed to us, earned by us, all of this – the sky is blue for us, the sun makes passing cars twinkle like toys for us, the ocean undulates and churns for us, murmurs and coos to us.

… At night, the whole fucking area is a thousand airstrips, Alcatraz blinking, the flood of halogen down the Bay Bridge, oozing to and fro, a string of Christmas lights being pulled slowly, steadily, and of course the blimps – so many blimps this summer – and stars, not too many visible, with the cities and all, but still some, a hundred maybe, enough, how many do you need, after all? 

… We run back across the highway, back into the red Civic and keep driving. Past the surfers, through the eucalyptus forest before Half Moon Bay, birds swooping up and over then back, circling around us – they too, for us! – then the cliffs before Seaside – then flat for a little while, then a few more bends and can you see this motherfucking sky? I mean, have you fucking been to California?

– “And stars, not too many visible, with the cities and all, but still some, a hundred maybe, enough, how many do you need, after all?” I mean;

– Anyway;

– Federal, legal records, and access. I requested a copy of my father’s death certificate from Maryland about two months ago. I included an application, a check for $24.00, and a self addressed stamped envelope. About a week after sending the original application, a letter came back to me, which said something to the effect of We couldn’t find a death certificate for this person, and here’s why. It was because I had not used his full name. First name, last name, yes. But no middle name, which brought the process to a halt. So, I repeated the process: I filled out a new application, and I sent it in alongside a check for $24.00 and a self addressed stamped envelope. The check was cashed – at least according to my bank account – three weeks ago. I have yet to receive the requested copy in the mail.

It’s interesting (to me) that the search which yielded nothing – Sorry, please use your father’s middle name – moved quicker than a search which – I assume – yielded a death certificate. I imagine there’s something bureaucratic at work, which complicates the process. But what specifically is happening, I don’t know. My guess: a search wasn’t carried out the first time around – the application must have been looked at and rejected (for lack of a better word) immediately because it was incomplete. The original $24.00 check was never cashed, which – again, I assume – is the fee associated with actually locating a certificate, completing some sort of documentation which indicates that I requested and received – fingers crossed – a certificate, and mailing it. The money goes – I assume, for the third time – to the labor associated with the upkeep of, protection of, copying of, and access to the record. But maybe not. And while I’m happy I wasn’t charged for a fruitless search, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the original check had been cashed;

– And, hey, on that topic: what happens if an individual forgets to send a self-addressed stamped envelope in with their request? The instruction to do so is more of a side note, at the very bottom of the application. If I had forgotten, would I have received notification that a certificate wasn’t found? Would I have waited and waited for news? Would they have cashed my check? So many questions;

– Web archiving, because I went to quite a few Web archiving sessions in Cleveland, and I’ve been thinking about our approach to the process. Mainly: duplicate work, which we’re doing a lot of (if, say, you’re crawling your institution’s Flickr site, but all of those pictures already exist on servers internally, are you collecting the pictures for a second time, or are you attempting to preserve the experience of Flickr – comments, tags –, and the Internet, and is the latter necessary?) , and collection policies – which, at least in my observation, seem to go out the window when a crawl is initiated, especially when a third-party is paid to crawl a domain for an individual / institution, and the individual / institution never does quality assurance on the crawl – either because they can’t, due to limited resources, or because they don’t think about it.

I’ve gone back and forth on Web archiving where I work. We – well, I – collect non-current records (the Web, typically, is very current) that relate to the history of the corporation for which I work (which, on the other hand, does fit our collecting scope). But: our Website is, if you break it down piece-by-piece, a collection of photos, restaurant locations, job ads, menu items, and on. And every last one of these things, seen as an individual Thing To Collect, exists elsewhere, and will be – or already is – part of our archive. So, at that point, what I’m archiving is not the content of the Website, but the look and feel of website itself, I think: here’s what our Website looked like in 2000, and here’s what it looked like in 2010, and here’s what it looks like now. And this is something the Internet Archive has already done, and will continue to do. (And I know: the Internet Archive is a private company, with interests that in no way relate to the interests of the organization for which I work, that owes me nothing – especially not preservation or longevity. So, Well, the Internet Archive has already done this for me is not meant to be an excuse, but an observation.)

Here’s where I struggle, I guess: is it necessary for my organization to remember what our website looked like at any given time? It’s not an organization which exists primarily on the Internet for the Internet– like Facebook, where the look and feel of the product matters and has evolved tremendously over the years –, and I’d argue that our Website has very little to do with the day-to-day operations of the organization, or its interaction with customers (you can’t buy things on the site, for instance), so is it necessary? (And the Devil’s Advocate says: crawl it once a year, put the files somewhere, and stop thinking about it.) But, at this organization, I work alone, and I work (very) part-time, and I have a big project ahead of me. And, in that case, even work that takes next to no time to complete costs something.

(A caveat: my organization is thinking of allowing customers to place orders online, and to order ahead online. And, recently, sweepstakes in the form of interactive games – win yourself a gift card by leading this cheeseburger through the maze into someone’s mouth! – have popped up on the site. That, for me, ventures far more into marketing than the current site does and represents something that does not exist in a physical format. If this becomes normal – and marketing becomes primarily interactive, and delivered online – I’ll have to adjust my thinking, probably);

– And sleep, because I should go to bed.


On art, on access, on the reason why

Image credits below.

Tangential thoughts, from the past few days –

First, museums: I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum – and, housed in the same building, the National Portrait Gallery – today. (It was quite cool, actually, how the two were intertwined: I suppose its easy – easier? – to pull off when the museums all make up the same institution, but the presentation was delightful. There are sings which indicate which museum you’re in – art versus portraiture, I suppose – but often, I couldn’t tell the difference. Maybe that was the point. Maybe I don’t know enough about art.)

I’ve internalized – subconsciously – this idea that there’s a right way to view art, I think. A right way to peruse a museum. I tend to rush through museums: I’m not interested in – and my brain can’t handle – seeing everything. I wander too quickly through rooms, and I skip entire exhibits, and I catch a lot of things peripherally. (At the Holocaust Museum, a guide told me that average visitors spend about three hours within the exhibit, though the Museum houses twelve hours of material. I was in and out in an hour and a half.) And here, I was going to pen an apology for my quick pace – how embarrassing, for an archivist, to be so blasé about hours of material, right in front of her nose. But, instead, here’s a defense:

I spent most of my time at the Smithsonian looking at art that interested me at first glance – the four paintings above were my favorite, and I spent about ten minutes with each. (The second painting, in particular, reminds me of this piece by Picasso, which is why I liked it. It’s the feeling, more than anything. When my grandparents – my dad’s parents – lived in Skokie, there was a print of the Picasso painting in their living room. It’s what I remember most about their house: even more than the plastic covers on the furniture, the out-of-tune piano, the pink bathroom, the blue bathroom, the tiled basement. That painting, more than anything.)

But when I wasn’t admiring the art, I was watching people: people looking at art, people ignoring art, people taking pictures of art. I watched a middle-aged man, at the museum solo, stand in front of a bust of Emerson for about twenty minutes. (I didn’t watch him the whole time: I left the room, looked elsewhere, and wandered back, seeing that he hadn’t moved.) I saw someone taking a nap on a couch in front of a painting that spanned the entire wall. I saw a group of teenagers taking pictures of the Bill and Melinda gates portrait. And on, and on. Months ago, a picture surfaced of a bunch of teenagers paying attention to their phone – and not the art – at a museum in Amsterdam. People all over the internet were enraged – I mean, it is the Internet – but why?

It comes – I think, think – from the Kindle versus The Physical Book argument which – I think, think – is old and worn, and so tired. And we must put our tired, old feet down: there is a proper way to read a book, there is a proper way to interact with art. Except that there isn’t. (Or, shouldn’t be.)

I’m going to defend all viewers of art (all readers of literature, all seekers of information): interact with it on your own terms. That’s the point, right? I took thirty-four pictures at the Smithsonian: I uploaded three to Instagram, I sent five via text, I saved the rest and so I could Google artists when I got home. I took the museum home with me, really. (I’m not saying that this wasn’t possible before the iPhone, before film, before whatever technological innovation you insert here, because it certainly was. Pencil, paper, notes.) I am not envious of those I saw today who were lost in the art – well, a little, because I’d like to have the ability to be that immersed in anything – nor was I annoyed with the teenager taking a nap, or the kid running from one room to the next. Really, I want the museum – the archive, the library – to cater to us all. (You see where I’m going with this.) It’s not my job, as an archivist, to dictate how one interacts with the record, and I don’t want it to be. It is my job to make sure that the record is there to exist and be interacted with. And it’s a dangerous line to walk, I think, to start policing the record, to keep it for our own, to confine it, to say to someone, “I’m sorry, but you’re looking at this all wrong.” There’s no proper way, friends.

I like this, from Brian Doyle, on literature: “Your book ceases to be yours the moment it enters a single reader’s head, and what you thought, dreamed, intuited, discovered, and were rattled by, in the making of it, becomes mere opinion, however informed your opinion might be.”

The same holds true for the record.


Second: records.

I’ll keep this short – I want to obtain a copy of my father’s death certificate for a project I’m working on, but I can’t because I’m not a funeral director. As per Howard County’s instructionDeath Certificates may be obtained by Funeral Directors only. 

Odd, no? Look, being honest: I’m sure there’s a legal way to obtain a copy. I can visit the Maryland State Archives*, for one, and I have documents to prove that I am a direct relative of the deceased. But: it’s that immediate limit – that immediate rule – that frustrates me. That a funeral director has immediate access to a record that helps explain my own life. It speaks a lot to the issue of access, I think: of authority in the archive, of records and how they classify them. For one: I’m glad, of course, that there are restrictions on certain records – my medical records are not your business, for instance. On the other hand, though: who decided that I can’t get my hands on this record? Who decided that the funeral director has a greater need – and more of a right – than I do?

I have no answers to this point. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about.


Finally: on the reason why.

It was pouring when I left the Portrait Gallery and so I stood, under my orange umbrella, and hailed a cab. I learned a lot about the individual who picked me up: he came to the United States through Seattle, for one, and he likes Frank Kaminsky, and he lives in Northern Virginia. I told him a little about me: that I’m from Wisconsin, that I once lived in Baltimore, that I’m interning at the Library of Congress. He asked me what I did there, and I told him I am an intern, helping preserve the Web. He said, What’s that mean? And I explained, as best I could, that we’re preserving the Web just like we preserve more traditional documents: newspapers, photographs, film, and on. He laughed and said, People do that? Why do people do that? And I said, you know, that it’s just like anything else: we need to remember the Web, what it told us, who it was created by, who used it. And he said Why? again, and I said something about how the Internet impacts all of our lives, entirely, and he said – I swear he did –, Why save anything?

I laughed and I told him that I’d been thinking a lot about that this week, and that I wasn’t sure I had a good answer. He laughed and said, This is your job, you must have an answer, and I said – and this is the honest truth – that, no, I don’t have an answer, not yet, but I’m working on it.

(1) Johnson, William H. Café. 1939–1940. Oil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
(2) Johnson, William H. Flowers. 1939–1940. Oil on plywood. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
(3) Wonner, Paul. Model Drinking Coffee. 1964. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC.
(4) Johnson, William H. Art Class. 1939-1940. Oil on plywood. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Guess I really liked William Johnson today.


* Interestingly, I think: the Maryland State Archives houses state death records up through 2001. My father died in 2002. So, I’m out of luck there.

On poetry (again, again)

Another poem (by Mary Oliver, as always), while it’s still Monday:

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

(Let this poem serve as a placeholder. I’ve got a lot to tell you.)

On poetry (again)

Here’s a poem for you on this – still – Tuesday night. Mary Oliver’s The Ponds.

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding,
the black
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them –

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided –
and that one wears an orange blight –
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away –
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled –
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are
nothing –
that the light is everything – that it is more
than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading.
And I do.

(And, do you want to know my problem with reading poetry?

I learned – it was engrained in me, I think – a long time ago, that poetry – the reading of it, the writing of it, the way we reflect upon it – should be a solitary act. That we read poetry and we internalize it, we keep it to ourselves.

I was eighteen – a freshman in college, I remember – when I realized I was wrong. It was an introductory creative writing course: there were eight of us, and we’d gather around tables, assembled in a circle. She – the teacher – wanted us to improve our public speaking skills, and had us lead class – once, for thirty minutes – at some point during the semester. It was a simple enough task: pick a poem from a preselected anthology, have your peers read it the night before, and discuss.

I picked Leadbelly vs. Lomax at the Modern Language Association Conference, 1934*, and requested that none of my peers read it – or listen to it, because there was a recording – before class. We read it together, instead. And that – in that moment, and in that room – was when I realized that poetry didn’t have to be solitary, or internalized. That I could hold it [and give it away, if I wanted to].

Which is all to say: I’ve been reading a poem before bed since I moved to Washington, and this one – like all of Oliver’s poetry – is one I wanted to share, and give away.)

(* If you have five minutes to spare – and you do – you should listen to this poem by Tyehimba Jess. Read the poem first – however you think it should be read, [you’ll see] – and then listen to the audio. It’s a remarkable look at the way we take things – words – in, and how we treat them first when we read them, and second, when we hear them.)

On sentences

I have – and, you know, maybe this comes as no surprise – been thinking a lot about literature since I moved to Washington. (Last night, because I couldn’t sleep, I bought Mary Oliver’s House of Light, which is – as you already know – a mesmerizing, short book of poetry. I mean: I reached / my hands in that most human of gestures – / to find, to see, to hold / whatever it is that’s there and Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled – to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world and:

I would like to bring you here.)

But, the point:

I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum today which – even hours later – is an experience I’m still attempting to process. It is – it was – an intense, humbling, and incomprehensible exhibit, one that, perhaps, should only be met with silent reflection and nothing more.

That said. That said. I was introduced to Nathan Englander (his work first, then him) while living in Iowa: we – us students – read his story The Tumblers over and over again. (I encountered it, I think, in at least four classes.) And it’s a great – one of his best, I think – but it’s a different story that I consistently revisit: The Twenty-Seventh Man. (And I’ve thought about it, and I’m ready to commit: of every short story I’ve ever read, the Twenty-Seventh Man is my favorite.) It’s a story based on the Night of the Murdered Poets, in which thirteen Jews and writers were murdered in Moscow during the war. Englander’s story describes an accident, really: in it, Stalin orders for the capture (and eventual murder) of twenty-six Yiddish writers. A clerical error leads to the arrest of a man – the twenty seventh man – named Pinchas – not a writer at all, but a fan of literature. And that’s all I’ll tell you.

Here’s the whole point, though: as I walked through the exhibit, I kept thinking of Englander, and Englander’s words. And when I got back to my apartment, I downloaded For the Relief of Unbearable Urges on my phone (because the physical book is back in Madison, somewhere), and read The Twenty-Seventh Man twice. Literature reconnects me, and helps me make sense of – and digest, and comprehend – things.

I want you to read the whole story. But, for now, my favorite passage:

It was not yet dawn and Zunser was already dressed, sitting with a cup of tea. The agents begged him to stand up on his own, one of them trying the name Zunser and the other pleading with Melman.

He refused.

“I will neither resist nor help. The responsibility must rest fully upon your conscience.”

“We have orders,” they said.

“I did not say you were without orders. I said that you have to bear the responsibility.” 

They first tried lifting him by his arms, but Zunser was too delicate for the maneuver. Then one grabbed his ankles while the other clasped his chest. Zunser’s head lolled back. The agents were afraid of killing him, an option they had been warned against. They put him on the floor and the larger of the two scooped him up, cradling the old man like a child. 

Zunser begged a moment’s pause as they passed a portrait of his deceased wife. He fancied the picture had a new moroseness to it, as if the sepia-toned eyes might well up and shed a tear. “No matter, Katya. Life ended for me on the day of your death; everything since has been but nostalgia.” The agent shifted the weight of the romantic in his arms and headed out the door.

(One last thing: if I were to gather and list and share all of my favorite sentences, those last two – “‘Life ended for me on the day of your death; everything since has been but nostalgia.’ The agent shifted the weight of the romantic in his arms and headed out the door.” – would be at the top of said list.

So would this, for the record, from You Shall Know Our Velocity!, by Dave Eggers: So he’d slept with too many people, including the bride’s sister Sheila, soft-shouldered and romantic – and it hadn’t ended well, and Hand, being Hand, had forgotten it all, the connection between Sheila and the bride and it was so awkward, that wedding, so clumsy and wrong.

Soft-shouldered and romantic. Soft-shouldered and romantic.

I mean.)