Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Library Beyond All Libraries

My brother Gregory claims that libraries make him ill, and thus he does his best to avoid them. I think, however, that I found one that he might just like.

While out visiting Jeff's family for Thanksgiving, Jeff and I ventured into Seattle on Saturday and spent the day checking out sites, both new and familiar. One of the sites that was new to both of us was the Central Library of the Seattle Public Library system. The library, designed by architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus, opened in 2004 to much acclaim and a couple of dissenting voices. It's hip, modern, and nothing like how you expect a library to appear.

Credit: Seattle Public Library Web site. (It was cold outside and we didn't think to stop and take a photo.)

Inside, the building teems with cool features. The first thing we noticed was a overhead book handling system that was completely high-tech, taking returned books and automatically sorting them based on where in the library they belong. Then we noticed the interesting art installation on the floor--556 lines of raised text in 11 languages found in the library's collection. The text is reversed "to reference both how books are produced and how we learn to read from symbols that are at first unknown to us." Also on Level 1 and rising upward all the way to Level 3 (Level 2 is a staff only floor) is a huge auditorium used for readings, performances, etc.

After peeking around Level 1, we hopped on the escalators, which are a crazy neon green color. Impossible to miss.

Though not a great picture, you can get an idea of the escalator's striking color.

Level 3 houses popular books and two things which seem pretty unique to me, at least as far as libraries go. One is a coffee/sandwich cart. My entire life eating in a library has been a big no-no, but here it's actually encouraged. Although, to be fair, you can't take the food out of this little area. Additionally, there was a gift shop that didn't sell used books but instead featured an eclectic array of items for the book lover that was, for the most part, not at all stuffy or intellectual, but in fact rather lighthearted and humourous.

Now Level 4 is the location of meeting rooms, but we're not talking your typical library meeting room. You know, the dark, dank, and dull meeting rooms common to most libraries and all too often tucked away in the basement. No, this Level's circular corridors are painted bright, bright red. It was very funky and space-agey.

Don't worry. The meeting rooms are painted in neutral colors.

Level 5, for reasons I'm not sure of, is referred to as the mixing chamber. It's really more of a multi-media floor with hundreds and hundreds of computers available for public use. A large librarian's desk is also on this floor and overhead is an electronic installation that shows what's being checked out...kind of a tally of what's being read in Seattle.

The bulk of the library's collection can be found on Levels 6-9. These levels actually spiral upward with each row a tiny bit higher than the row before it. The slope is really gentle, so much so that you don't actually realize you're walking up a ramp, but if you browsed the collection from the beginning of the Dewey Decimal System to the end, you'd actually rise three floors. How cool is that? Also, unlike in other libraries where you have to get up close to each row to see what Dewey Decimal numbered books can be found down it, in this library you can tell from fairly far away thanks to big floor mats at the end of each row with the relevant numbers on them.

The top floor, Level 10, is a reading room with study tables and comfy lounging chairs. It's also the place to go for the best views. Through the glass, you can peer out at the city.

You can also go out on a small landing and peer down at the library below you. It was intensely dizzying (I don't think you'll ever catch me bungee jumping) but really cool.

You could also get a view of the video projection by artist Gary Hill, which is installed on the white atrium wall. Although we were more intrigued by the cool patterns the ceiling projected as the sun played peek-a-boo through the clouds.

In this second image, you can see the video projection, although not very well.

Art-wise, I was much more intrigued by the video sculptures by Tony Oursler, which are in the wall of the escalator between Levels 3 and 5. I was too busy checking it out to take a picture, but here's one I co-opted from the Web.

I didn't realize the library would be so interesting and something I'd want to write about on my blog, so I didn't take as many pictures as I wish I had. (Plus inside photography is hard.) I encourage you to go the Seattle Public Library website to check out their slideshow of images. And if you're ever in Seattle, be sure to check it out. I can pretty much guarantee that you've never seen a library like this before.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I'll Take the Day After

Thanksgiving. It's never been my favorite holiday.

When I was young, I didn't care much for turkey, stuffing, cranberries, or any of the other traditional food associated with the holiday. I wasn't even much of a mashed potato fan at that point in my life. And what is Thanksgiving about if not eating? It doesn't have the presents and festive decorations of Christmas. It doesn't have the candy and egg hunts of Easter. It was just food and family get togethers, a holiday for grown-ups in my childish eyes.

Then, was I was 16 years old and finally coming around to appreciating the holiday, my grandpa passed away during Thanksgiving week. We spent Thanksgiving at the funeral home in deep mourning of a man I loved dearly. My dislike of the holiday only deepened.

When I went away to college, I quit going home for Thanksgiving and became somewhat of a Turkey Day orphan. I had the usual feasts in Baton Rouge and Galveston. I made do with chicken in Freiburg and Athens. And when Jeff and I got married, I began spending Thanksgiving in Seattle. While I'd be loathe to give up Christmas with my family, I can handle Thanksgiving just about any way you give it to me.

But there is one thing that I especially miss about Thanksgiving at home, but it doesn't actually have anything to do with Thanksgiving day. It's all about the day after: Black Friday.

When I was little, I'd wake up on Black Friday to find my mom gone. I never quite knew where she was, but she'd be gone a good part of the day, "running errands" according to my dad. The year I discovered that Santa Claus wasn't quite who I thought he was, I found out that the "errands" weren't quite of the toilet paper buying type, but instead she was out in search of our Christmas gifts. That year my mom invited me to go along with her.

We were up early. It was still dark outside, the air crisp and clear except for the little clouds of heat made by your breath. My mom had a list and a big stack of ads, a plan for hitting the stores in the right order so as to maximize deals and hit as many stores as we could right after they opened. (And while this was early, back in the day, it wasn't the ridiculous 3 a.m. - 5 a.m. openings that are so common now. We weren't that crazy.) Strategically we'd go after the hot items first, the toys that every other person in town wanted too, and most of the time we'd succeed in nabbing that most wanted item, the number one on one of my brothers' Christmas lists, the toy that they were counting on Santa to bring, the reason they'd shape up right away as soon as they were reminded that Santa was watching. I thought it was great fun, a scavenger hunt of sorts complete with the thrill of victory when you found just what it was you were looking for.

After we'd hit all the openings of the big box stores, we'd head to the mall and go straight for the Cinnabon store for a gooey breakfast treat. Then it was more shopping until our stomachs started grumbling again and we'd sit down for lunch. Not too long after that, we'd head home, our feet tired, the trunk of the car full.

I don't know whether it was the secret nature of the shopping trip or just the fact that I got to spend the whole day with my mom (and not share her with any of my brothers or my dad) that made it such a fun day, but it was. And every year, when I eat my turkey or whatever stand in is at hand wherever I am, I recall those days with a sense of happiness and a tad bit of magical feeling. So you keep your memories of turkey and stuffing, I'll enjoy my memories of shopping and Cinnabon.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

To-Do: Nothing

Jeff and I had nothing to do this weekend. It was awesome. It has been forever since both of us were at home with no obligations. I took full advantage and gave myself permission to relax. I didn't get out my planner at all and look at the huge list of things to do that I always seem to have over my head.

I have to admit that the last few weeks I've been a bit overwhelmed. Jeff's been out of town or extra busy working long hours in the lab, so I feel like I've had to handle a bit more of the household things than usual, and on top of that, we've had a bit more household excitement than usual with the installation of new windows and window coverings. I've been taking a class at the Writer's Center, which eats up my Thursday nights (7:30 to 10 p.m.) and involves outside assignments. I've been querying and writing, which although fun has become a bit stressful recently in that I feel like I'm always working, either at the full-time job or at home on the freelance stuff. I've been planning our big trip and working on our blog (new site coming soon...maybe tonight). I've been running and trying to work out. I've been pushing away thoughts of Christmas and all the related gift shopping and listmaking and card writing and cookie baking. I've been attending conferences and weddings. And I've been working that regular, everyday 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. job.

I must say that this past week all that activity started to get to me, and I found myself a little grumpy. (I don't think the cold and dark are helping either.) As I walked to the Metro one morning, the children's book "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" popped into my head. That pretty much summed up my mood.

I have a tendency to be hard on myself. I always feel like I should be doing something productive. Just the other night, I was actually thinking to myself that I should find somewhere to volunteer. (Did I mention in my to do list that I also already do volunteer editing for the Holocaust Museum?) Obviously, at this point, that's not a good idea, and I recognize that, but I still can't help thinking it.

And you know what doesn't help? Things like the Smithsonian Magazine Young Innovator's Issue featuring 37 people under age 36 making big noise in the arts and sciences. Or the National Book Foundations "5 Under 35" fiction awards. Reading about these people only makes me feel like I should be doing more, achieving more. It leaves me thinking, why isn't that me? Is it because I'm not talented enough or smart enough or work hard enough? It's stupid, I know. I don't need you to tell me that. And I'm not fishing for compliments here. I'm just revealing how I think, as messed up as it is.

But this weekend, I gave myself permission to relax...without guilt, which is the key. There are plenty of times I've sat down to watch a TV program but not enjoyed one minute of it because the whole time I was thinking that I should be doing something else. Seriously, relaxing is not my forte. But I succeeded this weekend. On Friday, I read, from start to finish, "A Thousand Splendid Suns." (Highly recommended. I didn't intend to read it all in one day but I could not stop. And just as an aside, Khaled Hosseini's first book wasn't published until he was 38, so take that all you Under 35s.) On Saturday, Jeff and I played Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii (I admit I was skeptical, but it was very enjoyable, and Jeff had a great time laughing at me), and we also played a couple of rounds of Hoopla. Today, I made some spiced nuts, caught up on Grey's Anatomy, watched some football, and went out with Jeff for sushi. It was fun.

(But, okay, I admit it, I couldn't just do fun things. I also dusted and ran the vacuum, did 5 loads of laundry, picked up needed items from Target, and went to the stores to check out a few items for our Christmas list. Oh well, it's as close as I think I'll ever get to a purely relaxing weekend. It's just the way I am.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Different Strokes

At the end of October, Jeff attended a conference for grad students in Stockholm. One of the sessions he attended was about career development, and he came home to tell me that one of the tips from the presenter was to marry another scientist.

Well, guess what, too late. We're already married. I'm not a scientist and I don't plan to convert to being one.

The presenter's reasoning was that only another scientist could truly understand you and the demands of your work. I call bullshit. Sure, I don't always understand the intricacies of what Jeff does. I know he works with proteins and his current focus is Parkinson's disease. I can't tell you all the little details. But I can understand hard work. I can understand the need to put in long hours to get where you want to be. I can maybe not like it so much when he has to go in to the lab on the weekends (he's there right now), but I can understand that it's what he needs to do.

I think Mr. Presenter maybe had a bit of a ego problem, a feeling that science is more important than other fields, bigger, better, more demanding. Does he think it's easy to be a baseball player, a novelist, or an architect? The truth is, in my opinion, that if you want to be good at what you do, if you want to be one of the best at what you do, regardless of what that is, you have to work long and hard. You don't have to be in the science field to understand that. You just have to be someone with passion, someone who also wants to be succeed, someone who understands hard work, commitment, and dedication.

Can you imagine what the world would be like if scientists only married scientists, engineers only engineers, writers only writers, accountants only accountants? Eek, I quiver thinking about what those dinner conversations must be like.

"Oh, honey, you should have seen me at work today. Nobody handles a pipette like I do."
"That's what I love about you, you know. There's nothing hotter than a man in a lab coat and goggles."
"Well you're not half-bad yourself. I wish I could transfer cells as well as you do. Now how do you keep your medium so healthy?"

(Yes, trust me, that is what two scientists sound like when they are together.)

So, anyhow, Jeff and I have very different careers. He couldn't do mine, and I couldn't do his. But we have many common interests, which carry the conversation through dinner. We have other things to talk about besides DJ1 or Color Field painting. But you know what, we also can talk about those things. Because while I'm no expert on science, and he's no expert on writing, editing, or art, we are interested in each other and what each other does.

And because of our differences, I think that we might just actually be more knowledgeable people. If it weren't for me, Jeff wouldn't be reading the New Yorker or going to see plays or attending art openings. And if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have the first clue about cell culture, I'd be much less likely to stay up late watching baseball, and I'd definitely never have been to a party celebrating PINK1.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Watch Out Rudolph

We all know that on Christmas, Santa and his helpers travel by reindeer-pulled sleigh. But have you ever wondered how the North Pole crew gets around the rest of the year? I hadn't thought much about it, but this past Wednesday, as I flew to Louisville, I got the answer. They use Southwest. I had no idea the North Pole was part of the Southwest route, but here's your proof.

When the plane we were to take to Louisville landed, off filed about 25 elves. They were tiny and dressed in green and red velvet. You should have seen all the gaping mouths and stares. Soon enough the elves were swarming the seating area, handing out candy canes, posters, luggage tags, and other goodies, all advertising the movie Fred Claus. Apparently Southwest is the official airline of the Fred Claus Elves Tour.

So the lesson here is that you really better watch out, since you never know where or when you might run into Santa's helpers. You wouldn't want them to catch you being naughty.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Next Year I'm Not Changing My Clock

I do not like the fact that we are no longer saving daylight. I've been a lazy bum tonight, and I am unabashedly blaming it on the fact that it was 100% dark by the time I left work tonight.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Run, Run as Fast as You Can

You know those people who run easily and naturally, the ones who go out for a run intending to just run something like 5 miles but before they've known it they've run 10? Yeah, I don't like those people. That's not me. I don't think I've ever run a distance and estimated it to be less than it was. If anything, I overestimate.

Really, that was only 2 miles; it felt like 10. That's more my experience.

But running is good for you, and it's easy to do in the sense that it doesn't require any special equipment. You don't have to belong to a gym or drive to a specific place in order to do it. Lace up your tennis shoes and walk out your front door, and you're ready to go. So in an effort to be healthy and in shape, I've been running since June.

Actually I've been running for years, but it's always been sporadic. I'd run every day for a week, then quit for two weeks. I'd never get into any kind of rhythm, and I'd never see any type of improvement in either time, distance, or ease. I often made excuses--it's too hot, too cold; I'm too busy, too tired. You know how it goes. I'm a goal-oriented person, but I didn't have any goals for running.

So this summer, I decided to do the Couch to 5K program. Now, I'm not a couch potato. I didn't need to start at zero. But I did anyhow. I followed the program step by step because it gave me a precise goal for each week. And while starting in the summer might not have been the most brilliant idea--heat for one, lots of travel for two--that's what I did. And I managed to make it all the way through the program, 100+ degree days, oppressive humidity, and all. If there's anything I dislike more than things I'm not good at, it's quitting.

As the weeks passed, and I ran farther with each session, I found that running did come a bit easier (mind you, still not easy). But I could feel my legs getting stronger and my breathing becoming less labored. So, when I completed the program, I didn't stop running. Instead I got Jeff in on the act and now we get up 3 days a week and go running. For years, I have sworn that I cannot run in the morning, but I think I may have been wrong. Perhaps running before your brain is fully awake and can realize the ridiculousness of what you're doing is a good idea. I'm only hoping we can keep it up through the cold and the dark of winter. I might not run that fast or that far, but I am, in some sense, a runner. And I like the sense of accomplishment that comes with pacing off a few miles first thing in the morning.