Monday, July 27, 2009

Heat Wave

This has been the strangest year or so of weather here in the Pacific Northwest. After being snowed in for over a week in December, the earth now decided to throw a week of 100+ degree weather our way. I think that the earth really must have meant to send all of that to my family in New York, since they seem to have a lot of chill nights and rain. If someone could set this straight for me, that would be excellent.

Of course the week of unending heat would be the week that AK returns home from his camps out East. He's off this week, so instead of running around with small children in AC'd glory, he'll be at home cleaning and fixing up his class equipment. I am sure that he is more than excited at the prospect of spray painting in the sun.

Though I'm now slothfully draped on the couch with a fan focused directly on my back, I've actually been rather productive in the past few weeks. I've knitted more than I expected (on the third scarf of the summer, since I seem to have sworn off sweaters). I'm in the middle of several excellent books, though I simply cannot bring myself to finish To the Lighthouse. I'm not entirely sure what's cause this blockage. Maybe I'm not in the right mindset for Woolf at the moment or maybe I screwed myself by devouring Orlando before I tackled this novel. Either way, it's staring reproachfully from the top of my active bookpile and I'm starting to feel just a tinge of guilt about it. The book directly to hand is Zamyatin's We, which I ordered on Summit after finishing 1984. It's beautifully written and thus far the plot is fairly compelling. I'll write up a Goodreads review when I'm finished. I think I might re-read The Dispossessed after that, to finish out the dystopia trilogy. That is, if I can put aside Woolf for just a little bit longer.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Challenges of Composing

Though I only officially spend two days a week in Circulation, I tend to be assigned anything that has to do with developing documentation on all of our policies and processes. This is probably because I once volunteered to re-write some portion of the Circ Manual and soon became the victim of my own success. Not that I really mind the writing assignments. Truth be told, they tend to be my favorite part of the job. Despite this affinity, it took me some time to realize that writing documentation for a department is vastly different from the sort of writing I specialized in previously. For example, think about both a piece on creating and checking patron records compared to an essay on Robert Browning and Florentine Portraiture of Women. The underlying purpose of both works is identical - the writer is attempting to convey some idea or concept to the reader in as clear and concise a manner as possible. However, when the execution of both works are examined, the differences are rather pronounced.

In my experience, documentation requires a tighter hand and a terser voice than an academic essay, at least more so than the essays I created. This is perhaps due to the lack of persuasion needed in documentation. In documentation it is not really necessary to get the reader to agree with an argument because it's not necessary to really argue anything. Documentation reflects an established consensus. In my work, documentation is composed and then approved in meetings, so everyone is on the same page. There are also procedural constraints - essentially, this is how we create patron records because of how the system works so it doesn't matter how much anyone hates having to remember to type all the zeros into an ID number.

Because rhetoric isn't necessary in documentation, the piece is more to the point. This tendency to concision an unbelievable challenge for me as I have always been a wordy writer, as this sentence amply demonstrates. Put simply, I babble. I brazenly defy Strunk and White's call to "Omit needless words", relishing melodic though not necessarily pertinent turns of phrase. Even worse, a brief survey of essay titles from my first two degrees demonstrates a shocking affection for alliterative titles. When writing academic essays on history or novels - where story is paramount - this wordiness can be easily integrated and can even be a boon. But when the purpose of a piece is to help a new and harassed Circ Supervisor figure out how to create an alumni record on a weekend when the alumni office is closed and when the impatient patron at the desk, who forgot their alumni card, really wants to leave with their books, this predilection will only earn the author their co-worker's ire.

So what does a useful piece of documentation look like? This will certainly vary between different organizations and their particular information needs and styles. Below is what I do to make documentation better for me and my coworkers.

1) Keep it Visually Simple: By this I mean no dense blocks of text. Think of the difference between a reference book and a monograph.* A piece of documentation should be easy to browse. The reader should be able to pick out the portion of the process or information they need. Formatting is key here - setting out important details in bold or providing numbers for long sequences of steps. I often begin an entry for the Circ Manual with a short preamble that details the purpose of the documentation and/or the process or policy it describes. For longer processes, such as consortia borrowing, I might also include a paragraph that is a general overview of the entire process. From there I'll get into the step by step way to carry out the desired task. I make sure that the steps are numbered and well spaced so that the reader can follow along easily on the screen or via a printout.

2) Know Your Audience: Departmental documentation is used by both full-time and student supervisors. This means that as I writer I need to consider the reader's learning style, job responsibilities, and comfort level with technology.

In terms of job responsibilities, I mean what sort of procedures the reader can be expected to carry out. For example, a full-time Supervisor can and should be comfortable looking up the status of an alumni in Banner before creating a record. However, Student Supervisors do not have Banner access and cannot verify patrons this way. If the documentation leaves the reader lost or at a dead-end, it's ineffective and needs to be changed. The documentation should provide work-arounds or alternatives. For example, is this a dinner break and can they ask the patron to wait or is it during normal business hours and is there someone else on campus they can contact?

In addressing comfort levels with technology, I tend to err on the side of overly explaining. While it's not the point of "Place your dominant hand on the mouse and move it laterally to the Start button...", I do try to break a process down thoroughly. Those who are more experienced can easily skim and pull out the basics and those who need the full click-by-click can follow along. If writing documentation on a process that involved technology of any sort, I like to provide screen-caps. I've never thought of myself as a very visual person, but I have found that seeing that my screen matches the documentation can be comforting and can help when things get a little complicated. By this I mean I can sometimes condense steps by saying "Make sure your screen matches that below" instead of trying to verbally describe how a menu should be formatted. But I also try not to go overboard. My rule is that if there's a significant change in the menu or something else pops up, you make a new screen-cap. Otherwise, a short sentence will suffice.

Variations in learning styles can be difficult to address. But learning styles I mean realizing that people learn differently and thus expect different things from their learning materials. I don't think it's necessary to follow something like 4mat slavishly to ensure that your two page summary on shelving is absolutely inclusive (though I recommend giving it a read to get a better sense of the cognitive differences out there in your readers). Instead, keep a critical eye on your work and ask if the readers will find your work easy to understand. Is your vocabulary and terminology at the right pitch? Are you including enough visual cues (or too many)? Are you giving enough examples to help reader's apply the procedure? Additionally, I've found that giving a rationale for a process will often mean that it will stick with people more. By explaining that all of the zeros in a patron's ID number are necessary to allow uploads from Banner to overlay properly and prevent duplicate records, that bit of information might stay more firmly lodged in one's brain (and make record clean up all the more easier for me).

3)Date Your Footer or Indicate Edits: This is a pet peeve of my boss and one that I've come to take on myself. In order to make sure that the most recent, and thus most accurate, version of a piece is being used, note the footer with a "Last Updated" section. Do NOT use the auto dating function in Word. That will change the footer every time you open the document. Make it a habit when editing to change the footer and add initials if necessary. If using a wiki, this is an unnecessary step (which is one of the reason's why I'm longing to move our documentation to one!). If your department is a fan of track-change in Word feel free to use that (I am not and since I am often the only person editing the documents, it's not really necessary).

This is all I can think of for now, but I hope to add to this in the future!

*Bates, Marcia J. "What Is a Reference Book: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis." RQ 26 (Fall 1986): 37-57. I have read this article at least twice in my program already and it's still pertient.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A slight trim...

When I was small, my mother would let mine and my sister's hair grow out during the summer. We'd go running around outside with white blond ponytails that never seemed to stay up or free of twigs and tangles. Before school started in the fall, my mother would take us in to get the three months growth trimmed into easily manageable bobs. The first woman who cut our hair, a friend of the family, would sweep up our fine blond scraps and tease us by saying that they should be used to make Barbie dolls. For the next fifteen or so years, my hair followed the same pattern: start with a bob, grow it out until the knots or length becomes intolerable, chop back into a bob. There was a brief dalliance with "not quite a boy" cut towards the end of high school, but after that initial cut I could never seem articulate what I wanted. Thus the bob reigned.

This pattern remained unbroken until a November Sunday in London four years ago. Frustrated by the lack of water pressure in a fifth floor bathroom and the state of my greasy hair, I walked into a salon near Paddington Station and asked the taciturn Russian stylist to chop it all off. She gave me hair that was short, spiky, and slightly terrifying. But it's also exactly what I needed during a new grad program in a new country. I couldn't hide behind hair that was only half an inch long. I was out there, for better or for worse.

Back in the States, my hair returned to its former pattern, primarily at the behest of my husband and his preference for "girl hair". I've moved between bob, angled bob, nearly shoulder-length, and back to bob over the past four years. Recently I felt the need to chop it all off again. My current emotional state flows between relaxed with a novel to neurotic and up all night with a laptop wondering why I cannot seem to channel this continual creative urge. I started falling back into old habits of avoidance (my primary procrastination manifestation). I started to hide from people and emails. I needed to change something and, honestly, a haircut is the fastest solution. It sounds trite as hell - the image of a girl with a tear stained face slipping into a salon while simultaneously erasing a boy's phone number from her phone comes to mind - but it works. My hair is shorter and I feel more ready to take on world.

It's funny how a new haircut can bring about that sort of change, that the simple application of scissors can suddenly increase ones confidence and internal sense of badassitude. This past Sunday I walked back to the bus with funky cropped, chopped hair. The stylist spent a good fifteen minutes inspecting my hairline, my face, the texture and fall of my hair. She worked to "open up" my face, broadened the bangs, and essentially razored off the rest. I missed the tug of the razor, the sudden exposure of the back of my neck. I love the feeling when, washing newly short hair, my hands go too far back, searching for all of the hair I left on the salon floor (and, as my stylist complained to her coworker, in her shoes and her shirt).

Since I'm blind as anything, the process of the haircut itself was a complete mystery. In a way, I've grown used to this and rather prefer it. Instead of staring at myself in the mirror, a hated activity to start with, I close my eyes and try to see if I can feel how the haircut is going. I notice the weight of my hair start to subtly shift while watching handfuls of the stuff fall to the ground. After all these years I've developed a pretty good sense of what the final product will be before I can see it properly. However when I put on my glasses this time, I admit to being shocked. It's been so long since I've gone this short. It was strange to see my face in the center of that hair, all the trendy angles and my bright red face staring back.

I'm out there again and I think it's exactly what I need.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


During the summer between seventh and eight grade I went to what I fondly refer to as nerd camp. Imagine a college campus filled to the brim with overachievers from all over the country, all eager and energetic despite the moist heat of July in Pennsylvania. This was bliss. Since my math scores on the SAT weren't high enough to qualify me for any science classes, I signed up for a class on writing. For you see, when I was younger I wanted to be a writer.* This is perhaps the natural inclination of any bookish child. I believe the severely bookish wind up wanting to either create the works that bring them joy or want to surround themselves with the works that bring them joy. This does not necessarily mean that every writer or every librarian was once a severely bookish child, but it's probably more likely than you think.

The woman who taught my course is now a full English professor in her own right, information provided through the divine intervention of Google. My TA, however, seems to have disappeared as all I can remember is that her name was Eliza. Just Eliza. She was barely taller than me, with a slight frame, short brown hair and glasses. I want to add in a bandanna and cargo shorts, but I have a feeling that they've been added to my memory after the fact. Really the only distinguishing feature that my thirteen year-old mind has retained is that she was the first woman I ever met who didn't shave her legs. I remember workshopping an essay with her out in the stairwell during a nightly study hall. Perched on the wide windowsill against the black panes, she pointed out phrases on my looseleaf essay. I have no idea what I wrote or what she said, because it took all my effort not to stare at the long dark hairs on her thin pale legs. I sat across from her on the cool stone steps, nodding where appropriate, marvelling at how she must be either incredibly brave or incredibly crazy. Or so it seemed to my thirteen year-old self.

The only other distinguishing feature of Eliza (though, again, not one that's helpful in tracking her down) that I can recall is her favorite word: sluice. Our teacher asked us all to come up with our favorite word and I can still recall the slight smile on her face as Eliza drew out the sound of the world: "Slluuuuuiicceee". She had to define it for the class and I scribbled it down in the corner of my ever-present notebook. I still haven't forgotten it.

I hadn't really thought of Eliza, her legs, or sluices in years until today, when I came across this article. Here poets were asked their least favorite words. I have to say that I'm not a fan of "pulchritude" (also because I'm fairly certain I would butcher the pronunciation), but am guilty of using "chillax". The words listed in the comments are variously heinous and innocuous. Spatula? Really? I laughed at the continued hatred of moist. A friend of mine cringes terribly at the phrase "moist oyster", which is unfortunate as she lives in New England and cannot conceivably avoid either word.

The word I shared as my favorite all those years ago is, like Eliza's last name, forgotten. Today I am leaning towards inscrutable, but that's apt to change as nothing can have the same staying power as sluice.

*I also wanted to be a nun (wore suits and played guitar as far as I could tell). My father suggested lawyer since "you like arguing with me so much you might as well get paid for it".

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Summer Loving

The longer, brighter nights seem to get away from me faster than their shorter, darker friends. I come home from work brimming with excellent intentions and suddenly it's eleven at night and I'm still dancing around the house to my iPod instead of focusing on Virginia Woolf, my knitting project, or this blog. This, dear readers, is the true devilry of rock and roll - its procrastinatory powers.

I've been torn about what to put in this online space - the daily ramblings of The El-Jay are effortless, but this should be more of a thoughtful space. So I present something rambling and thoughtful: a play-by-play review of the new Tori Amos album.

While I love this album, it's more erratic in sound. Maybe I don't mean erratic, but rather eclectic. She's all over the place with sounds both old and new, in tone and mood. This could be an extension of the Doll Posse personae as well. I suppose that there's also the thematic linkage, though I tend not to dwell much on the lyrics during the first few times in an album. I am the sort of person who can spend years listening to a song, content with fuzzy lyrics or meaning (think early R.E.M.), and then will become utterly shocked when I actually figure out what's going on in the song. Suffice to say, my reactions here are more about the gut, the initial sound and flow of the tracks and the snippets of lyrics that I catch. The over analyzing of the lyrics are definitely more of an El-Jay pursuit.

Tori Amos -Abnormally Attracted to Sin

1. "Give": Dark from the start, feeling bits of Choirgirl here. She's stripped her sound back down again. It's focused without feeling too sparse, which leads to a greater sense of richness. Not rocking head bobbing, but a sort of swaying is provoked here.

2. "Welcome to England" : I completely understand why this is her first single. The more electronic stuff of late, but the lyrical flow and pulse of Venus/Scarlett (the two albums that I play the most). I am always a sucker for a gentle application of acoustic guitar with her strong piano rhythm. You can actually hear her piano here, which I want to say has been missing before ADP, but cannot be bothered at this point to go and research that. Call me on it if you can. This track is my favorite thus far. Also, "You've gotta bring your own sun...." See, the catchy lyric!

3. "Strong Black Vine" : Hi, Metallica circa S&M called and would like their sound back. I am too busy waiting for James to start singing to focus properly on this song.

4. "Flavor" : Bonus points for avoiding pretentious British spelling. There's the same atmosphere here as in "Give". A rolling, pulsing that could easily be monotonous but which she seems to make work. Atmospheric without making me fall asleep.

5. "Not Dying Today" : Okay, and now I'm waiting for... TMBG? Paul Simon? But it's working.... Okay, with the talking sing-song, I am totally heading to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, TN. It's the underlying, continual throbbing that puts it in the Simon category for me. Bonus Gaiman reference? I still like this though. Playfully funky, if we're looking for the soundbite.

6. "Maybe California" : Just Tori and the piano/strings, as basic as it gets. I am somewhat underwhelmed by this track. Ridiculous after praising so much of the "OMG, piano!" of earlier tracks. I am writing this after listening to this track for the third or fourth time and my initial prediction of "I will probably grow to love this song" is so far pretty dead on.

7. "Curtain Call" : Loving the piano rhythm from the start. Good energy, good build. The darker songs have these ostinatos that just carry them through. Solid song. Strangely

8. "Fire to Your Plain" : My gut flipped when I heard the opening as I flashed back to the "... the power of orange knickers..." Slightly bizarre, but enjoyable. Could this be a perky Tori song that doesn't involve zebras?

9. "Police Me" : Getting back to the "noise", but this is an effective application of it. Interesting switch up to that, what at least feels to my mind, 60s syncopation. I'll keep listening to it, but it's not a favorite by any stretch.

10. "That Guy" : Somehow the sort of quirky that works for me. Nice swing. Gorgeous orchestration with just enough of a slant into the minor to give it some character. Third favorite song on the album after "Dying" and "England".

11. "Abnormally Attracted to Sin" : I never seem to care for the title tracks on her album, so my lack of amazement here shouldn't come as a surprise. I do like "impeccable peccadillo". Musically, I think she's trying to do too much here and it makes me want to skip on to the next song. On this listening, I sorta feel this would make a good James Bond theme. Or am I just insane?

12. "500 Miles" : So the Pretenders immediately come to mind, which really isn't the fault of the music, but rather the title. This song is... adorable. And I mean that in the best possible sense. It's about as twee as Tori gets, which I appreciate. She's helped away from the edge by the strong drum/rhythm line. "In the land of the midnight sun, I lost myself..." Am I still too hung up on the idea of sun (or the complete lack of it today in Oregon)? In the running for favorite song of the album.

13. "Mary Jane" : The evil step-sister of "Mr. Zebra". I sort of wish Horowitz was alive to cover this. I am trying to ignore the forced cadence on the lyrics. Otherwise, quite excellent.

14. "Starling" : Ummmm, oookaaaayyyyyyy. Well, it's growing on me. Still growing. Check back in a few weeks.

15. "Fast Horse" : Yes to guitar and piano joined in such a manner from the off. "Girl, you got to find you the man who something something Dark Side". No, that's not it. I am sorry, I am too busy dancing around to this to type properly.

16. "Ophelia" : I am a bit wary of anything purposefully directed this tragic heroine, but Tori seems determined to prove me wrong (also, see the above note about not really paying attention to the lyrics until much further along). Gorgeous, intricate piano work. Rich vocals. A win for me.

17. "Lady in Blue" : Slow and soulful start. An uncomfortable atmosphere - meaning that I'm feeling slightly unsettled here, instead of pulled into the swaying bliss of some of the songs above. Ah, and now she kicks up the energy and the piano and I am fully invested in the song again. I guess this album neatly illustrates my limitations as a listener. There's also a sort of cadence here, a sense of wrapping up. But I have been listening to too many musicals of late, so that could certainly be a side effect.

To sum: a solid album with moments of excellent and only one song that I can't be bothered to listen to. Well played.