things i heard at the library: an occasional series: # 38

I was covering the desk while staff was on break. A customer asked where he could find books on sex.

I asked whether this was for a young person or an adult. He said an adult.

I asked if was he looking for anything specific, such as safer sex, sexual health...?

He said he was looking for instructions and explanations. Basic information on what happens during sex.

I took his library card and put several books on hold. Most of the titles are aimed at young adults, but I think they will be appropriate for his needs.

The customer wasn't clear on the holds process, so I explained how he will be notified when the holds come in, where he'll find them, how he can check them out. 

He thanked me and was on his way.

I was impressed that this dude came to the library and was able to ask for help. Of course no one should be embarrassed about wanting books about sex, but many people would be, especially in a small community where anonymity is almost impossible.

I was also extremely glad I happened to be at the desk, rather than any of the frontline staff. I think they would have been all right, but I was able to give the customer privacy and to assess the titles quickly and likely more accurately. 

I don't do a lot of direct customer service anymore, but when I do, I get a great buzz.


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: # 37

I have an update on R, the customer who was the subject of the previous two TIHATL posts: #35, a customer who refuses to be helped, and #36, a customer who needs so much more than a library can provide. As a friend said on Facebook, librarians, like teachers, are left to deal with the results of failed social and economic policies.

Staff and I were all worried about R. The December holiday season was days away, which meant social services and health care would be more difficult to access. Many people living marginal existences die during that time of year. 

I visited an agency in town, one that serves as an umbrella organization for many services. They were very sympathetic and supportive, and directed me to the general mental health services for our region.

The mental health worker gave me two important suggestions. 

One, I learned that the local mental health centre has a two-hour drop-in time every day. They said the slots fill up quickly, so folks are advised to get there early. I confirmed the (unmarked) location and noted the times. 

Two, I learned that we can call the RCMP (i.e. the local police) and request an assessment. They will escort the person to the hospital, and speak to hospital staff to ensure that an appropriate assessment is done.

I don't know why I wasn't already aware of these options, but I was happy to add these new tools to my toolkit. My staff were so relieved, they were in tears. We agreed that one of us would walk R to mental health services (it's very nearby) and we would explain about the RCMP call.

I also learned that a doctor's prescription is required for the hospital or another agency to provide free adult diapers. One of our staff happened to have some that were purchased for a relative, but the wrong size, and they were happy to donate them. We put the package in a plain brown bag and determined that we would give it to R the next time we saw him.

Then we didn't see R again. 

Days and then weeks passed, and he didn't come in. We speculated that the workers in the Salvation Army, who runs the overnight shelter, connected R with help. But we couldn't know, and we couldn't ask (confidentiality). So we kept an eye out for him, and we worried.

Then, in mid-February, R appeared. He was clean, clean-shaven, and had gained some weight. He told us he had spent a month in the hospital in the neighbouring town. One of our staff discreetly gave him the brown bag containing the adult diapers and he was grateful and appreciative. 

Another customer brought in a warm winter jacket that he found in the thrift shop to give to R. 

R is still without housing. He still lacks a hearing aid. He is still frustrated and upset by technology. But he's alive. He's eating, he's bathing, he has medication. He says hello to us, and to other people he knows who are also in the library. I think he has hope.


what i'm reading: shuggie bain, brilliant and devastating fiction by douglas stuart

Any novel that wins the Booker Prize will be worth reading. Not all literary prizes reflect quality, but the Booker Prize carries a lot of weight. So when a debut novel wins a Booker, that is a singular achievement.

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart, was the recipient of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it is indeed a stunning debut. It's a devastating story of addiction and love, with characters and stories that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

Shuggie Bain is the story of a boy who is bullied for being prissy and effeminate, and his mother, who is an alcoholic. It's about what extreme addiction, and the poverty that comes with it, does to a family. Above all, it's about the fierce, protective love of a child for their parent, a child trying to keep his own world afloat, to somehow love but still survive.

While I was devouring this book -- I couldn't put it down -- I kept thinking: this is Roddy Doyle meets Irvine Welsh. I mean that in the best possible way.

Stuart shares Doyle's razor-sharp understanding of human motivation, and his unerring eye for the details that bring the reader right inside the characters. His writing is cinematic and richly detailed, but never bogged down. The language, the pacing, and the tone all remind me of Roddy Doyle, who (as longtime wmtc readers may remember) is one of my very favourite authors.

But Doyle has never been this dark. An honest, unflinching look at addiction in the depths of the Glasgow underclass must owe a debt to Irvine Welsh. Welsh brought you fully and utterly into the world of the heroin addict, and Stuart does the same for the world of an advanced alcoholic.

I'm grateful that Stuart didn't adopt Welsh's vernacular style. I understand why Welsh and his cohorts wrote in their own dialect, but it made for difficult reading. Stuart uses some Glaswegian working-class slang without explanation, but it's easy enough to pick up the meaning through context.

In 2022, Stuart published Young Mungo, which follows a gay teen coming of age on the tough streets of Glasgow. I will definitely read it.

When Shuggie Bain was published, Stuart gave many interviews in which he disavowed the autobiographical nature of these novels. Later on, he embraced the truth that they are largely based on his own young life. I'm grateful he survived to tell the story. This interview in The Guardian is particularly good.


new email list manager: apologies if you receive duplicates as i switch from mailchimp to zoho

Mailchimp recently announced that it is changing its free plan, reducing the number of contacts and sends that can be managed for free. Because of this, wmtc will no longer qualify for the free level.

As I said when I switched to Mailchimp two years ago:

I also don't want to pay for a service. I have many paid subscriptions; I don't expect to get everything for free. But since I do not (and never will) have ads on this blog, it doesn't generate income. I write for free and you read for free. All good. But I'm not going to pay so that people can read a free blog!

I did some research in my usual scattershot manner, and found Zoho. Zoho's free level can accommodate wmtc's subscriber list and has a good reputation for reliability.

It's possible that there may be some duplicate emails, as I end the Mailchimp sends and set up Zoho. Apologies in advance.

Pro tip: Forbes' listicles are proving to be very useful. I've used them for several things lately and they've been very good.


"you guys" revisited: further thoughts on the language police

If you know, you know.
In October 2020, I wrote a post about the expression you guys, and whether or not using guys as a gender-neutral term excludes transgender people:  "you guys": change language, do no harm, but can we please leave space for learning and growing?

In that post, I concluded that, although I didn't understand or agree with this language prohibition, being inclusive and sensitive to other people was more important than whether or not I agreed with the view. 

Now, more than two years later, I have a different take. I've returned to my first reaction: this is too much. This is not necessary. There is no need for this.

However, in some contexts, I continue to subsitute folks (which I hate) for guys. But not because I believe it's the right thing to do.

I see no uptake

In the time since I wrote that post, I've been listening carefully to language on series and movies I watch, in public settings, on social media -- everywhere that I can. I have observed that an overwhelming majority of people use you guys as gender-neutral and inclusive. 

In fact, everyone I've heard uses you guys this way -- except my work colleagues, who purposely do not use the word. This "everyone" most definitely includes LGBTQ+ people. People of all colours and from all communities use you guys to refer to groups of people of mixed genders.

The claim that you guys refers only to men just doesn't track. Of course the words guy or guys does refer to men in some contexts. But our understanding of language is always context dependent. We understand that we bake with flour and give a flower, even though to our ears, the words are identical. We know that we can book an appointment, read a book, or cook the books. That I can chair a meeting and sit on a chair. I could give hundreds of examples. We use identical and identical-sounding words with different meanings all the time. 

People also claim that you guys excludes transgender people, but I see no appreciable uptake of this concept, including from trans people that I know. Since you guys is gender neutral, there's no reason to assume it excludes people who are gender-queer, nonbinary, or expressing any manner of gender identity. Neutral is neutral. 

Some of my peers have said that they find the word age-inappropriate, for example, a server in a restaurant calling two older women you guys. I don't share this view, and I don't know why we would want more people to make judgements based on age. There's enough ageism in this world without asking for more. But the people who shared this preference with me do not hear you guys as sexist -- and most importantly, they are not asking others not to use the expression.

But here's the catch

However, in a work setting, I don't use you guys -- because it would be considered old and outdated language. Using you guys would signal that I am either ignorant, stubborn, or worse, transphobic. So I've taught myself not to use you guys. All this means is that I've capitulated to the language police. I haven't changed my view. I've merely conformed. 

I have found articles dating as far back as 2015 that argue for dropping you guys because it is sexist or excluding. These stories usually quote a transgender person saying they feel the expression excludes them. Since this idea hasn't gotten any appreciable uptake in eight years, I'm wondering how the writer got that quote -- how many people they went through before they found someone to confirm their view.

Someone somewhere is always offended by something. But who speaks for others? Whose point of view represents a population or a community? 

And is there no limit on the policing of language? Must we all follow every new rule with equal fervor, as if every language choice carries the same import? As if you guys is the N-word? Because here's the thing. If there is no limit, there is only blind adherence. There is no critical thinking. There is just this: a self-appointed arbiter of our language speaks, and everyone must follow. 

If there is no limit, there is only blind loyalty

In the past few months, I've had some in-depth conversations with two very close friends. We are all the same age (within two years), are all progressive, and all believe strongly in inclusion. We are all white, two of us are Jewish, and we are not all heterosexual. We have all, at times, been on the receiving end of sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and/or ageism. And we all recognize our privilege in all its forms.

We also recognize the importance of inclusive language, and of using the term for a group or a peoples that does not cause offense. We are not people who insist on using outdated and offensive terms. We are people who understand the importance of language.

All three of us are at times frustrated or horrified by the use of language policing as a weapon, and have the persistent sense that language policing can go too far. 

I'm a big fan of linguist John McWhorter and his views on language. I've enjoyed several of his books (reviews here and here), and read his New York Times column sporadically (the way I read all columnists that I like). I don't agree with all of McWhorter's politics, and that shouldn't contradict or undermine anything I'm writing here. Also, McWhorter is Black.

I always appreciate McWhorter's nuanced view. Here's an example: 'BIPOC' Is Jargon. That's OK, and Normal People Don't Have to Say It. He's not saying the expression BIPOC is silly, nor is he saying we shouldn't use it, if it fits within our context. He explains why the word also can be seen as problematic, and believes that using it should not be a requirement. He cites Latinx as a similar expression.

Punishments are supposed to fit crimes

Last year, McWhorter wrote an excellent column about the over-reaction of the language police: One Graceless Tweet Does Not Warrant Cancellation. He wrote about a (formerly distinguished) professor of psychiatry who tweeted something he meant as a compliment but in fact was a racist remark. The professor apologized without reservation, and demonstrated that he learned from the experience. Even so, his livelihood was destroyed and his career was ruined.

McWhorter writes:

But must Lieberman's career be destroyed because of a tweet that pretty clearly reflects an ignorance of that history but that was, also, clearly well intended? We're often told in such cases that what matters is not the intent of the perpetrator but the impact on the recipient of the message. But impact has degrees, and we have to consider whether some are claiming vaster impact in certain cases than plausibility would suggest. Because we've reached the point that there's no room left to respond to Lieberman with nuance and prudence. To say: "We know you meant it as a compliment, but you should know that there are offensive connotations to using that word in reference to Black women, and an apology is owed." And then — crucially — to accept a sincere and full-throated apology when it is given, as it was here.

For someone to instead, almost instantly, be suspended from one job, dismissed from another and resign from a third because of such a thing is a disproportion of punishment to crime. It is extreme and unnecessary and ultimately lacks reason. There's something amiss if we're now at the point that someone's career is to be permanently tarnished and perhaps ended based on a passing error, which started as a misguided attempt at praise and which has been profusely apologized for. We must assess what the actual purpose of this kind of language policing is. We must ask: What, in terms of combating racism, is accomplished? Will it result in better and more available psychiatric care — or medical care in general — for Black people? Will it make Columbia University, where I am a faculty member, a more open-minded place?

The question that I always get back to is: what purpose does this serve? Are we trying to educate? Are we trying to not cause offense? Or are we just trying to win? To assert power. To punish.

If the goal is education, I suggest that punitive education is never effective. Children who are punished for using "bad" language learn not to use it front of parents and teachers.

If we are seeking to punish, the punishment should fit the crime. 

Are we seeking redress for past crimes, perpetrated by a group to which this person belongs? Meaning: this professor is a white man, and white men have historically harmed Black women, so this white man must be severely punished for this ill-advised tweet? 

This is called scapegoating, and it is always wrong.

Too much policing tends to backfire

For many of us, there is cultural pressure to buy whatever the language police are selling. I will never forget the disgusted expressions directed at me when I mistakenly said "Bradley Manning," very shortly after the war resister changed their name to Chelsea. I had been saying "Bradley Manning" for years -- and although I knew Manning had come out as trans, my speech patterns hadn't fully caught up. 

When people are fired based on one remark, even after they have sincerely and profusely apologized, the right-wingers -- who howl about being cancelled (while broadcasting to an audience of millions), who claim to be persecuted (while stripping rights from those who disagree with them), who persecute a minority people simply for living their lives -- are strengthened. The unyielding and indiscriminate use of language policing only stregthens their cause.

It pains me when progressives mirror the right-wing. When we figurately kill everyone who doesn't speak the way we believe they should, we are behaving like the ignorant bigots do. It doesn't matter how pure our motives are.


rip russell banks: a belated tribute

I was very sorry to hear that Russell Banks, one of my favourite contemporary writers, died on January 7 of this year. 

There's a very short list of authors that are must-reads for me; I'll read anything they publish. Banks was on that list. 

Banks wrote about very ordinary people, always working-class, often marginalized and powerless. Although his egalitarian worldview was always obvious to me, he never used his characters as billboards or soapboxes. This excerpt from Banks' obituary in The New York Times is very apt.

In much of Mr. Banks’s writing, his concerns about race, class and power repeatedly surfaced, with particular attention given to the powerless and the overlooked, especially his outwardly unremarkable blue-collar characters.

“There’s an important tradition in American writing, going back to Mark Twain and forward to Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, whose work is generated by love of people who are scorned and derided,” Mr. Banks told The Guardian in 2000. “I have an almost simple-minded affection for them. My readers are not the same as my characters, as I’m very aware. So I’m glad when they feel that affection too.”

I was turned on to Russell Banks by one of my nephews, back in the 1990s: he told me about Rule of the Bone, Banks' take on the classic theme of a personal struggle between two father figures. I loved the authentic voice of the teenage narrator, and the pointed echoes to the ultimate alternative-father story, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read Rule of the Bone decades ago and can still recall scenes and images from it.

Banks' masterpiece is Cloudsplitter, his massive and powerful novel about the radical abolitionist John Brown. This book, along with the PBS "American Experience" documentary, in which Banks was featured, gave me an enduring fascination with Brown. (I was always sorry that I didn't know about the John Brown historic site, all the many times we drove upstate New York and to Vermont.) 

I also loved these books by Banks: Continental Drift (1985), Affliction (1989), and especially Lost Memory of Skin (2011). I haven't read all of Banks' novels, and haven't read any of his nonfiction, but I think I will eventually fill in the gaps. I'm sorry we won't have anything new from Banks. I hope he knew how much his readers loved him.