At Home He's a Tourist

He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.

Friday, January 17, 2003

I spent the morning trying to clear up some problems. Apparently, since August an expensive set of the JPS Commentary on the Torah has been sitting around technical services without getting catalogued. As it turns out, we already have a copy on the shelves. It took me a long time to track down the original invoice--after an hour of searching around a file cabinet, I discovered that for some reason we place invoices from Midwest in their own folder. Now I just hope Midwest will bend their 90-day return rule. I also tried looking for a cheap recording of Handel's Messiah and Beethoven's complete string quartets, because the music club we use for CD purchases no longer stocks them.

Church shopping update: I received a letter from the Presby minister thanking me for my visit and informing me that the church has lots of great folk and plenty of activities. Later, the church organist at the Episcopal parish called to tell me about a big potluck being held next Sunday. But I've already made plans to attend the Methodist church as I slowly work farther down the list. Although the Prebyterian minister in A River Runs Through It dismissed Methodists as "Baptists that can read," from what I've heard the Methodist church here has a lot more moneyed professionals than the Presbyterian.

I wish I could make my blog as entertaining as another, greater, account of life at a new job: Ignatius Reilly's "The Journal of a Working Boy, or, Up From Sloth," from Toole's Confederacy of Dunces. A representative excerpt:

"If only the Smithsonian Institution, that grab-bag of our nation's refuse, could somehow vacuum-seal the Levy Pants factory and transport it to the capital of the United States of America, each worker frozen in an attitude of labor, the visitors to that questionable museum would defecate into their garish tourist outfits."

Then again, considering how quickly Ignatius got fired, I might not want to take him for a role model.

I've never been that interested in history, but with a giant bottle of Tanqueray sitting in the freezer right now, I might find this book a good read. (Review from Atlantic Monthly)

by Patrick Dillon
Justin, Charles & Co.

This harrowing chronicle of England's early-eighteenth-century "gin craze" portrays a society in the grip of an epidemic. Cheap, highly addictive, and deadly, "Madame Geneva," as the drink was called, offered comfort and oblivion to London's slum dwellers ("kill grief" was another of its many nicknames), but the middle and upper classes also succumbed to it. The results were catastrophic—the number of cases of fetal alcohol syndrome alone had to have been appalling. This is the second book in the past year on the subject, and it just edges out Jessica Warner's Craze. Dillon's overheated prose suits this tale of mania, particularly in his depiction of the chaotic London underworld, which is more absorbing than his well-researched and involved account of the often venal (no surprise) efforts to control, regulate, or prohibit the drink. Far less successful is his epilogue, in which he draws facile and anachronistic parallels between those efforts on the one hand, and American Prohibition and the war on drugs on the other. Will historians please stop tacking on superficial and "relevant"—and, inevitably, "progressive"—public-policy lessons that mar their careful reconstructions of the past, a notoriously foreign country?

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Spent all day finishing up that issue of Choice, and am pretty sick of it by now. My technique has been this: if a book is especially appropriate or highly rated, I go to our catalog to make sure we don't already have it, and then to our acquisitions spreadsheet to make sure it's not on order. Then I try to retrieve other reviews, mostly using amazon (they helpfully excerpt reviews from library and publishing periodicals) and Academic Search Premier (a convenient one-stop shopping source for both citations and full-text articles in all disciplines). Two opposite problems can arise: too few or too many reviews. One cause of the former problem is that Choice reviews books quickly, whereas reviews in academic journals can be printed over a year later. If there's no rush, perhaps in these cases I should put off a decision to buy a book until more reviews become available. When there is a glut of reviews, a simple solution is to read only reviews from more serious periodicals (ignoring newspapers, general interest magazines, etc.)

I can't imagine there is a bigger sky anywhere on the planet than on the Llano Estacado. Drive outside of town and there are no trees, buildings, or hills to block the view; just table-flat horizon stretching to the limits of human vision. The sunsets can be impressive.

I'm liking the Netflix experience very much. As a hermit in his cell might wait eagerly for his meal to be slid under the door after a long fast, I'm already anticipating the next batch of DVD's to be dropped through my mail slot to satiate my starved pop culture appetite. Tonight I saw "Italian for Beginners," which was filmed in an extreme cinema-verite style with unsteady hand held video cameras and no soundtrack. But despite the experimental cinematography, the storyline was a conventional tale of lonely people finding love. As is usual in movies, the actresses in these roles are implausibly good-looking, c.f. Michelle Pfeiffer as a mousy wall-flower in Batman Returns, Sandra Bullock as a computer geek in The Net...

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

My night shift is almost over, and as I had suspected I didn't get any reference questions, just a couple of requests for computer passwords. So I spent the evening reading more Choice reviews. I reckon that with experience I'll learn to take individual reviewers' idiosyncracies into account. For instance, a certain I. Spalatin of Texas A&M University-Commerce judged, not one, but two books to be "most highly recommended," extremely strong language for Choice. Seems like Spalatin could be too easy to please; I'll keep an eye out for future reviews.

Today is the first day of classes, and also my first night working the reference desk. (Actually, I manned it once before, but it was after classes were over so the library was deserted.) It should be a change of pace, at least--that is, assuming I get any reference questions. Otherwise I'll be doing the same work I always do, just in another location.

Although I complained earlier that faculty do all the book selection here, I overstated the case a little. My supervisor says she wants us to take more initiative in selection, and has given me permission to buy books without consulting the respective academic departments (as long as I don't spend too much money). This morning, then, I started working through the latest issue of Choice, and found an interesting book on the Reformation which made the "Outstanding Academic Titles" list. I then read a number of other positive reviews on EBSCO and amazon, so I decided we should get it.

Collection development sounds easy, you say? But I was lucky this time to get those reviews. The problem I've often found is that since we carry a small number of journals, many reviews cited in a database might be unavailable. The worry is then about sample size: is the handful of reviews I can get a hold of reasonably representative of critical opinion as a whole? I need to think about alternate selection criteria, or about ways of getting the other reviews in a timely manner through ILL.

Another forced realization of the growing age gap between myself and undergrads: Two student workers in the library were gossiping about a classmate of theirs. "Yeah," one said, "she's dating this really old guy." I automatically pictured a divorced 40-something in a mid-life crisis. "He's, like, twenty-six."

West Texas gives one a lot to complain about, but I figure it's more reasonable to make the best of the situation and focus on what is available, or even unique. And believe it or not, there is a frame of reference in which the South Plains are the center of the universe. This is from a storm-chasing site:

The best rural road network across "Chase Alley" exists in west central Texas in the agricultural areas around Lubbock. This area is the ultimate in "chaser nirvana" with grid of paved section line roads just about every mile. Texas has the best rural road network in the plains. Roads which are gravel in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado would be paved if they were in Texas.

Even before I came out here I liked watching "torn porn" and other weather documentaries, so I decided that since I'm out here I might as well sample the best of what the region has to offer and go try to rustle up some twisters. But I don't know anything about meteorology, and I don't want to get killed, so I was hoping to find an experienced chaser and tag along. Luckily, I found out that there's a student in the earth sciences department here who has been at it a while, and in fact was hired by a Lubbock TV station to chase storms after he sent in famous footage of the tornado that decimated Happy, Texas last year. If he's amenable then I might have a new hobby come May.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Spent the first half of today evaluating our philosophy and religion collection, looking for any lacunae in core authors. But I didn't find too many gaps. Strangely, although we have most of Wittgenstein's books, we don't have his most famous work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, so I might try to correct that lapse. Admittedly, I doubt any of the faculty, let alone the students, will read it (in fact I haven't and I have a Ph.D. in philosophy), so I would be violating the principle I learned in library school that use should determine the extent of the collection, rather than an abstract ideal of completeness. But on this issue my boss is on the old-fashioned side, for she said, apropos of some German magazine gathering dust on our shelves, "There are some things you just need to have, even if no one uses them." Although she was exagerrating to make a point, I agree that an important but lesser used item has a place in a collection.

I'm starting to feel...not so young, with my 34th birthday just a week away. Maybe it's the fact that I will have outlived Jesus. In any case, it didn't help that today one of my coworkers said that his 19-year old son was wondering if I had any attractive daughters he could date! This is especially sobering considering that I wouldn't mind finding an attractive undergrad myself. But I think that opportunity has passed me by.

Perhaps my new PlayStation2 makes me young at heart? Or maybe just immature. I played "Kingdom Hearts" for a couple of hours this evening and enjoyed it.

Lately I have been adding invocations to saints to my prayers, on the Pascalian grounds that there's a lot to gain if such prayers are answered and nothing much to lose if they aren't. To increase the self-interested character of my decision, I only invoke the saints generically, i.e. "Saints pray for me," rather than calling on individuals, because the former is more efficient! (I can't think of any good reason for supposing that personalized petitions are the only ones heard, or that they are more powerful.)

Monday, January 13, 2003

I finished going through the latest batch of book donations today. Usually I reject a donation if we already have a copy, and in furtherance of this policy I've learned to check the copyright information, preface, title page, etc. for any indication of a previous printing under a different name. This happened surprisingly often.

The most unusual item in the bunch was a religious booklet published in the 40's called Only a Servant: The Glorious Conversion of an Aged Jew, by a Slovak author named Kristina Roy. I decided we should keep it. For one thing, it's pretty rare--only eight libraries were listed in FirstSearch as holding a copy, and it was fetching around $15 at bibliofind. And a Google search showed me that newer editions of Roy's works are still being printed, so apparently they have some enduring value, to some people.

I'm still trying to think of ways to tolerate small town life. A wise friend who moved from the Dallas area to a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan pointed out that nowadays many amenities formerly confined to the big city are now available through the internet. Following that advice, I joined NetFlix, the online DVD rental service, to git furrin movies I can't find here. I just finished watching the "Venus Beauty Institute." Audrey Tautou, of Amelie fame, looked charming with her big black eyes and pigtails, but her role was minor and did little to make the film more than mildly interesting. Then again, it seemed to be the French equivalent of a chick flick, so I might not be among the intended audience. The premise, in which a lonely middle-aged beautician inspires reckless love in a handsome young artist, felt like a wish fulfillment scenario in the Harlequin tradition. Tonie Marshall, the writer-director, is a middle aged woman.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Around here, at least, you're hot property if you're church shopping. My first Sunday in town I went to the Episcopal parish, a "missionary" congregation too small to support a full-time priest. The large sanctuary was empty except for a handful of mostly gray-haired worshippers. At coffee time after the service everyone was friendly to an almost desperate extent, dropping unsubtle hints about my coming back the next week. For lunch I was taken out to one of the more expensive restaurants in town, a Japanese steakhouse, by a taciturn doctor and his voluble wife. Later that week, I received separate visits at work from both the church organist and one of the supply priests from the university town down the highway.

My ecclesiastical preferences are ranked as a function of "high" churchmanship (excluding Roman Catholic and Orthodox, which impose too many doctrinal innovations de fide), and so the next week I visited my second choice, the Lutheran church. The flock was larger, but only a little younger, than the Episcopal. I again received a sales call, this time from a layman who dropped by my place one evening to entice me back to the church with a promise of potlucks prepared by German farmers' wives. He also gave me a coffee mug with the parish logo printed on the front and "Jesus Loves Me" on the back. Finally, I received a friendly letter from the pastor describing the various opportunities at the parish.

The next step down the liturgical/sacramental scale is Presbyterianism, so this morning I went PCUSA. There was a definite drop in solemnity (or stuffiness, if you like), with fewer prayers and readings, a longer sermon, and no Eucharist. I also attended Sunday School, and while the topic and format were interesting, one of the more outspoken members was saying things hardly Christian about our bodies being part of God, Australian aborigines having the power of telepathy, and the chronological priority of Goddess worship. My supervisor and her husband, members of the church, were kind enough to buy me lunch at one of this town's many Mexican restaurants.

I've enjoyed the attention I've received during this time, but I haven't been very thrilled with the churches themselves. I miss the Episcopal churches I used to attend, where the liturgies were well-done and young adults were well-represented. I think most of the students at our college who are church-goers are either Baptist or Catholic, both of which are unappealing, for different reasons. I have considered some sort of typically American pragmatic solution--say, alternating from week to week between the Episcopal church (for the sacrament) and a larger church (for the socializing). Such is the challenge posed by the modern fragmentation of Christianity.

This was a ho-hum, though not unpleasant, weekend. On Friday I went to an all-you-can-eat fish fry with one of my coworkers. Yesterday I gave my place a long overdue cleaning, and then hopped in the car and zipped down the highway through the cotton fields to the Big City, a forty-five minute drive at legal speeds. At the mall I bought a shirt and got a trim at MasterCuts. The middle aged Hispanic man who cut my hair was an unusual character. He told long, hard to understand, possibly false, but definitely entertaining stories about helping the police uncover various scams. In one episode, he went to work for a storage company for six months until he could prove that the owner was stealing customers' property; in another, he plied a couple with drinks until their tongues were loosened and they admitted to defrauding the Texas State Lottery. He asked if I was married, and said "You won't stay single for long if you hang around this town long enough. Lots more women than men here." I couldn't tell that was true from the demographics of the mall-walkers, but we'll see.

I picked up some code from the web which supposedly allows readers to submit comments, so let's put that beneath this sentence and see if it works. Not that I'm assuming I actually have any readers, mind you. With a million blogs on blogspot alone, and no search function, I can't imagine anyone coming across this page. The information age has made it easy for anyone to get published, but getting read remains difficult.