Fizz-Boom: “The Only Boy in the Library: A Memoir”

July 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Kira, one of our interns, puts us all to shame. How cool is this.

Kira, one of our interns, puts us all to shame. How cool is this. It’s hard to see, but the atomic abbreviations all stand for book titles. The atomic numbers -thus, the order of the “elements”- are dictated by the book circulation (i.e. popularity).

Week 2 with no distinction between days

Whoa now! First day to register for the Summer Reading Program!

Only a desk stands between me and the frothing multitudes

Only a desk stands between me and the frothing multitudes

//

Did you know that libraries throw out books? Like, a lot of books. If a book goes several months without being checked out, it gets withdrawn from the system. Then we’ll try to sell it for a buck. And if that doesn’t happen, then it’s off to recycling!

Another path in the lifecycle of the book is through donation. Lots of people donate their used books to the library. Fun fact: you can actually get a tax-break for doing this. Just ask! However, the sad fact is, if you donate your books to the library, there’s a good chance that most of what you give us is headed straight for the trash. But often, this is for good reason. Countless times I’ve witnessed people carting in these old, water-stained cardboard boxes full of moldy, yellowing, tattered books from their attics and basements. Why do these people think that’s okay?!?! People, we don’t want your crap! So I smile, thank the patron, and haul the junk into the back office, where my boss picks through for something nice enough to sell. But mostly he says, “Check to see when they’re gone, and then take these around back to the dumpster.”

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Fare ye well, books. Soon ye shall be pulverized, pulped, and processed back into…you know… $5 romance novels, if you’re lucky.

//

Oh man, talk about a downpour today. The parking lot nearly flooded again. This wouldn’t be nearly so bad, but the AC in our building doesn’t work very well in our Picture Book room. So take an already warm room, add in 100% humidity, and the Picture Book room starts feeling like a jungle. Add in some little toddler walking around obliviously with a loaded diaper to notch up the temperature an extra degree. Something is rotten in the Picture Book Room.

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Hey, we have a lizard now! Hanny the Library Lizard is back with us for the summer. Normally he’s housed in a classroom at a nearby elementary school. But somehow we have an arrangement to watch him for the summer while school’s out.

Watch the throne

Watch the throne

The kid’s seem to get a real kick out of this guy, even though there are days when blinking is about as much as Hanny’s willing to move. In fact, he sits so still that an amazing number of kids seriously question whether or not he’s alive. (Some people walk right by his tank and don’t even notice there’s a freaking lizard sitting in the center of the kid’s section.) Lazy as Hanny is, should you drop a cricket into his domain, he kinda perks up and his beady little eyes dart around. The poor crickets don’t realize their lousy odds upon being dropped into a lizard tank, and most waltz right up to Hanny before they realize that, you know, he’s alive. Which is probably the last thing they think before he lunges at them and gobbles them up whole with his little pink tongue. Hunger Games indeed. At this point, some of the other crickets might get wind that one of them has been served for lunch at the other end of the tank, and they do seem to change their behavior. (Or maybe I’m just rooting for them.) Hiding behind Hanny’s water bowl seems to be a popular place of refuge. And the craftiest of crickets, if they hang around long enough to figure it out, hide in the crevices of the wooden log that Hanny enjoys basking on. Or they’ll sneak under the skull and lie low for as long as fate permits. I know that a cricket has found some temporary refuge in hiding because the children’s section is treated with a pulsing chirp. And, sitting at my desk, as long as I hear those organic notes ring out from the tank, I know that there’s at least one measured struggle for life in the sandy pit of Hanny’s lair. Crickets of PetCo, we salute you!

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Heather (other children’s librarian) comes in on her day off. With her is Megan, her four year old daughter.  Megan sometimes forgets my name, and only knows me as, quote, “the only boy in the library.” (This is mostly true, our staff is overwhelming female. As for our patrons: children accompanied with their dads are a rarer sight up in the children’s section.) Everyone seems to like this name, and I’ve decided to make it the title of my future memoir that I have no plans of writing.

//

Kori (children’s librarian, my boss) keeps saying something weird to me. We just finish installing Hanny’s tank, and I’m deciding where to place his daytime and nighttime heating lamps. So I’m standing over the tank, placing the main lamp over his favorite log, then changing my mind and putting it over the skull. Kori walks up to me, saying, “Maybe let’s not put it over the skull. Last summer he got a little burned because he sat on top of it and was too close to the lamp.”

“Oh, okay, no problem!” I say

“Haha, sorry Jake, I’m just being my usual anal self!”

She walks away, and I kinda just sit there for a second, head cocked to the side. Later, I’m sitting at the desk, stuffing folders (aahhrrgg!) and Kori comes up and asks,

“Hey, who folded these recommended-reading pamphlets? They’re all misaligned!”

“Uh. I dunno, one of the high school volunteers?”

“Well they’ve got to learn how to fold!”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Ha, you know how anal I can be!”

*shudder*

//

Book recommendation: Rules of Summer! I’ve never seen surrealism in a children’s picture book before, but this was fantastic. (But I don’t see how any kid would “get it,” if that’s even the point.) Shaun Tan is the man.

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“I’m ignoring you, Rachel. I’m ignoring you. I am ignoring you!” a glitzy mom blares for the whole section to overhear.

 A mother (clearly one of those “cool moms” who still dresses young) and her sassy tween daughter are having a tiff about something near the desk. They proceed up to the desk where I’m sitting and ask to register  for the summer reading program. They’re hunched over the desk together as they fill out their personal information on a registration card. The mom is not happy with her daughter’s attitude (pouty), but I can’t figure out why. The daughter is trying to fill out her registration card, but the mom keeps yanking it out of her hands, proceeding to erase whatever the daughter wrote, and correct it. I sit back and watch the spectacle.

“Rachel, I swear to god, I am going to stab you with this pencil. I am going to stab you with this pencil.” 

“We just sharpened them, too!” (It’s true, I had literally just finished sharpening them five minutes ago!)

“There, see, Rachel? Nice and sharp.” 

Fizz-Boom: For God, Children, and Bronies

June 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Week One:

Monday

Huh. Well. Back again. Back behind the desk. Here once again to provide my services to the Manlius Library. To throw myself upon the alter and give all I can give to this great public institution until -ay- I can give no more.

What ho! Someone desires to find the fable The Tortoise and the Hare?!

Seek in juvenile non-fiction, call number 398, and ye shall find!

Hark! My son desires to read The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series! Who be the author?

Ay, that would be Kinney in the Ks! Filed in fiction, second shelf from the window, lower right corner! 

Pray mercy, good sir, but my wee child has shat his pantaloons before I could whisk him to the changing station!

Seven hells, woman! 

Yes indeed it is good to be back at the Manlius Library! What’s that, you say? There’s an entitled brat shrieking in the Story Time Room? Some googly-eyed toddler is munching on the corners of a picture book? An enraptured little tyke is drooling over the keyboard at one of the public computers? The children’s bathroom is out of toilet paper….and now it’s flooding? Some liberal suburban mom is breastfeeding quite conspicuously? A senile old man is lost and has wandered in from the Senior Centre down the hall? A pack of one-year-olds are frothing at the mouth and banging on the glass of the fish-tank?

Ease your fears, we’ve handled it all! Just give me a gallon of Purell and my trusty scanner gun, and all shall be restored!

So, yeah. It’s good to be back. Not the ideal place to be, one year out of college. But I happen to really love my job (this will be my…7th year here, I believe), and I work with some fabulous and fantastically quirky people. I had nothing else going on, and they had a position to fill, so why the heck not?

So here’s the deal. I’m the….ahem…”Youth Services Circulation Clerk.” It’s the technical way of saying that I check out books to little kids. And I’ve done this job every summer for several years now, so I’m pretty good with a scanner gun, if I may say so myself. I have two superiors, Kori and Heather. Two children’s librarians who are incredibly down-to-earth, fun, easy-going bosses. I adore them both. We also have a few interns this summer. More on them later.

As far as libraries in Onondaga County go, the Manlius Library is one of the largest. Physically in size, and in circulation numbers. We also have a massive children’s summer reading program. I expect we’ll register around 1200 kids this year, as we did last year. Each year our program grows, causing me to speculate on the incredible amount of breeding that must go on in this small town. The program has a different theme each year. This is not actually decided by us, but by some official board of librarians at the county level. Or something. Anyway, last year it was “Dig into Reading,” sort of an archeology/nature theme. This year it’s “Fizz Boom Read!,” adopting a science/chemistry-set motif. Hence the name of this blog series.

Every library has control over how they wish to run their program, and the success and size of any program can vary greatly depending on things like budget allowance, local population size, number of staff available, and the competency and enthusiasm of the staff themselves. We have been blessed in each of these categories. Other libraries not so much, sadly. Which is a shame, because while I don’t have the statistics on hand, summer reading programs are important. No, really!  Kids need to maintain their reading levels while they’re off from school in the summer. Kids that spend those few extra months in the summer reading see huge advantages in reading competency and other skills. Reading in the early years is critical, and the sooner a child begins reading, the more it pays off in spades later in life. Children who are behind in reading at an early age often spend the rest of their educational years behind the curve, and it puts them at huge disadvantages. So that’s why summer reading programs are critical: they maintain reading rates during the “lost” months over summer, and just as importantly, they get kids to love reading! (Which is a beautiful thing to witness: A kid rushes up to my desk balancing a stack of books up to their chin before heaving it down in front of me, and they’re sporting a huge, toothy grin, literally bouncing with excitement and gushing about their favorite stories and characters as I scan the barcodes and place them in a bag for them to take home. It warms the heart.) So, to reaffirm: the second a child exits the birth canal, it should have its face crammed into a book. Trust me, folks, I have a degree.

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Look, some kid actually made the basic design of the children’s section! There’s our desk in the front, then the computer cluster, and finally the fiction and non-fiction shelves! Obviously everything is squished down to scale and much has been left out, but this is pretty darn cool!

And finally, to explain how exactly a summer reading program works: well, tis quite simple. Each week, a child comes to the library to show how much reading they’ve accomplished during that week. As a reward for reading, they receive little prizes, which vary each week. Often, the prizes consist of coupons for free treats/snacks at businesses in the area. (Free slice of pizza at the local pizza shop, or a free small ice-cream cone at the…uh…ice-cream shop. Etcetera, etcetera.) We also have raffles, book clubs for the kids, and free book giveaways. Our biggest draw, though, are our programs, which are structured arts & crafts events, science experiments, and history lessons (way cooler than it sounds). We also bring in animals from the local zoo to show the kids, which is always a big hit. So far we’ve never had an animal escape, and no parent has ever offered to give up their child to the zoo. I’m still waiting, though, for the day when some lizard gets loose and territorializes the children’s biography section, preying upon youngin’s who wander back into that area alone. (It wouldn’t be the first time a reptile took up residence uninvited in the Manlius Library. Some years ago we found a large snake in the toilet of the men’s room. We called the police down to deal with it, and even the officer was too jittery to go near it.)  Finally, we also show movies from time to time. Yours truly has the privilege of proctoring The Lego Movie this summer…twice. It’s gonna be awesome! I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

I’ve always wanted to write about my experience running a summer reading program. Behind my desk and amidst the stacks I have always taken mental notes about parenting, child behavior and interaction, literacy and literature, and the evolving role of the public library. I hope to convey some of my opinions about these themes throughout these entries.

 

Tuesday

Day off! I don’t work on Tuesdays. (Librarians often have atypical work schedules. At our library, 35 hours a week is considered full time. Without going into excruciating details, this often translates to working four days a week, and with rotating weekends. It also often means having a schedule of working days and nights. My own schedule is a bit mixed. Monday and Wednesday I work 2-9. Tuesday I have off. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday I work 10-5. Libraries are often closed on Sunday in the summer (well, at least in our county).

I spent today wandering around Wal-Mart and Wegmans. Then watching PBS documentaries. I’ll write about Wal-Mart at another time, because Wal-Mart seriously fascinates me.

 

Wednesday 

Every kid who signs up for the summer reading program gets a folder. Contained in this folder are all the different papers that he or she will need to help keep track of their reading, as well as all the information on our programs and events over the next several weeks. We have to prepare about 1200 folders (at least), and somebody has to put the various sheets of paper into each and every folder, which usually falls on me and our lowly interns. Whenever I’m approached with “collating materials” (a nice euphemism there!), I know I’ll have a mountain of papers to sort.

So I’m stuffing folders until the end of time when this 5th grader approaches me. He looks a little bashful. He’s rocking two big buck teeth with a nice healthy gap between them, which reminds me of myself in early middle school. There’s also something stuck in his left ear, and it takes me a minute to figure out that it’s a hearing aid. He has a pretty thick lisp, and I can’t determine if it’s from his teeth, or his hearing disability, or, you know, just typical speech development issues. Anyway, not important. He’s holding a My Little Pony book.

“So, I know thith ith kinda thstupid, but my friend and I were reading thith ath a joke…but I really enjoyed it. Do you guyths have any more of thethe?”

Sweet jesus, this is awesome! I can’t believe I’m finally in the presence of a young brony in the making! 

I check the system for any more copies in the series, but all our copies are out. So I place several books in the series on hold for him (“Friendship is Magic” volumes 2-4, “Pony Tales” volumes 1 and 2) and send my little brony on his merry way.

If you’re not familiar with “bronies,” it’s a really bizarre and intriguing subculture comprised of adult males who are fans of the My Little Pony franchise. You can read about it here. Feel free to psychoanalyze.

My Little BRONY, am I right?!

Later that day I was walking back into the children’s section, and I was walking behind this one young girl (probably a 7th grader) and her mother when I noticed the text on the back of the girl’s hoodie. It said CREATION MUSEUM, and underneath a tagline, “Prepare to Believe.”

For those not aware, the Creation Museum is a, uh, “museum” located in -where else?- Kentucky that promotes a young earth creationist view of the world. (Summary: a literal interpretation of Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament. For some hard-line Christians, this has become a platform that asserts 1) the Earth is 6000 years old; 2) a skeptical or rejectionist view of evolution; and, famously here at the museum, that 3) humans and dinosaurs depicted as having coexisted at the same time.)

It’s run by a Christian apologist group called Answers in Genesis, founded and led by a guy named Ken Ham, who you might recognize as having recently debated Bill Nye about evolution versus creationism. 

I don’t have the energy to write about all aspects of this pseudo-museum (website here), but check out the link above to its Wikipedia page. Incredibly fascinating.

And it’s not to say I was judging this young, impressionable girl…but I was absolutely judging her. Sad, I know. Actually, I would say that the girl’s mother was worthy of much more criticism. Congratulations, m’am, your daughter’s perceptions of the scientific world is grounded in The Flintstones. 

Yes, yes this actually from the museum.

Yes, yes this actually from the museum.

(Side note: if you’re interested in religious skepticism, might I recommend one of my favorite podcasts, Reasonable Doubts. This is their website, but you can more easily download their podcasts directly from iTunes. A great group of guys, with lots of humor and hard-hitting facts. They also take Ken Ham and his museum to task in episodes 122 (“A Deluge of Stupidity”) and episode 125 (“Nye Smokes Ham”). I’ve been listening to these guys since I was in high-school. So check them out if you’re interested in atheism, religious (mostly Christian) criticism, and critical thinking. Enjoy!)

 

Much later that day, as I was stuffing folders (ahhrrggh!), Margot, one of our longtime clerks, comes up to the children’s section with a clipboard and a set of papers. Alongside me at the desk is Kira (one of our interns), Kori, and Heather. Margot is reviewing our library policy on child safety and parental responsibilities. By “review,” she means to say that we don’t have any policy, and so we better put our heads together and make some up. I don’t really know what to contribute, so I stick to listening and, of course, stuffing folders. This policy is actually pretty important, because having informal policies doesn’t cut it- you need rules to be officially written down. In the children’s section of a public library, much of this concerns how responsible parents are toward their own children. We frequently gripe that parents often mistake children’s librarians as babysitters with master’s degrees.

There are all sorts of aggravating scenarios. You have the Preoccupied Parent, who stays with the child up in the children’s section, but has their nose buried in their phone or a magazine, and so is totally oblivious to their child yanking books off the shelf for fun or trying to stick their fingers into the fish-tank. You have the Defeated Parent, who has become so exhausted and worn down after years of raising a hyperactive and/or rebellious child that they seem to walk around in a tired stupor while their little monster screams with joy as they turn the fiction shelves into a playground. And then you have the Non-Existant Parent, who isn’t even there. There are some cheap apartments near the library, and packs of kids will just show up sometimes and spend all day at the library. These are kids who clearly lack an adult presence in their lives, and you can tell that they come to the library just something else to do. They roam around town all day in the summer, and our library is one of the few public spaces with AC, computers, and bathrooms. Unfortunatelythese kids tend also to be the troublemakers who yap too loud and swear and loiter and try to hack the computers and leave trash everywhere. So in between my visions of beating them with a beefy pop-up book, I genuinely feel bad for them, because I know that some of them simply won’t make it to even their own high school graduation. The tragic thing about kids is that they can fall behind at such an early age and never recover. Did you ever go to high school with kids that dreaded the classroom, got into fights, skipped class, got heavy into drugs, and -at least one or two of them- would wind up involved with a pregnancy? I get to observe the little-kid version of those teens from behind a desk. And I’m witnessing them grow up, and grow up fast.

And then there’s safety. Because, as I’ve said, some parents just aren’t attentive, and we have to ask ourselves at what point do we have to step in and -yes- be the babysitters for the parents. Some 1 year-old is scooting awfully close to the small set of stairs leading down into the Story Time Room, and there parent is checking their email on their iPhone; a toddler is climbing on the railings of the stairs; a little boy is leaning back dangerously far in his chair at the computer; two kids are fighting over a toy with no adult around. Most of these common instances resolve themselves without issue. But what’s really infuriating is when we have a kid that’s out of control -screaming, running around, getting angry- and we have to tell them to stop/be quiet…and then the parent will show up and reprimand us for stepping in, usually giving us some crap like “you should have referred to me since it was concerning my child.” Well, okay, except you were over in the other room gossiping with the other moms or checking your phone or off in a totally other part of the library while Junior decided to lose his shit and go Hulk on everything. You’d be amazed how often this happens. We’re either librarians or babysitters depending on when it’s convenient for the parents. So should an emergency ever happen (i.e. a child gets hurt- yes it happens now and then), the last thing we need is Mrs. Milf threatening to sic her lawyer husband on us, all because of her negligence. We’re a public libary…we don’t have an army of lawyers! We might have, like, one. Somewhere. I don’t even know where. 

Kori, Kira, Margot and Heather toss out a flurry of hypothetical concerns. Heather chimes in:

“What about the footstool in the children’s bathroom? Some kid slipped off it last week and hurt himself. Can we get in trouble for that?”

“Oh yeah, that. Yeah I’m not sure about that. They need the footstool to reach the sink! The kids aren’t tall enough!”

“Remember when that kid flooded the bathroom?” Kori buries her face into her hands and shakes her head like a Vietnam flashback.

“So are we going to require that all children be accompanied by an adult? What should the sign on the door say?”

“That all children ‘should ‘ be accompanied by an adult?”

” ‘Must‘ be accompanied?”

“By any adult?”

“How about ‘by a mature adult‘ ?”

“Okay, ‘by a mature adult’. But what about the age. Children that are how old must be accompanied by someone?”

“What age do we say? Eight? Younger than eight? Seven?”

Kori: “Children begin to develop a sense of morals and consciousness around the age of seven.”

“Okay, so they need an adult if they’re younger than seven? Or eight?”

“The ‘age of reason’ is around seven years old. Well, later for boys.” They all turn and look at me, grinning.

Hmph!” I say.

So we have a good laugh and eventually decide on the language of our policy.

If you’re curious about what Kori said about the “age of reason,” well, I was, too. Later I poked around on the internet to see what she meant. You can read this article about it, if you like.  Give or take a year, children apparently begin to actually develop a sense of morals around age seven. Things like pride, shame, existential fears, achievement, self-esteem, and a general mental maturity also begin to take shape at that age. (Read the article, it’s really fascinating!) Again, I don’t know the established literature on this, or the neuropsychology of it. Certainly worth keeping in mind, though.

 

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Not our final policy, unfortunately.

Thursday

We stumble upon weird new items all the time. Today, Heather showed me Dconstructed, an official Disney album comprised of techno remixes inspired by Disney theme songs. Now, you’re probably thinking that this is gonna be super lame. BUT IT’S NOT. I mean, Daft Punk and Kaskade contributed to this album. Check it out on Spotify or Youtube. The Dumbo-inspired track by Kaskade is probably my favorite, but I’d also recommend The Circle of Life and You’ve Got a Friend in Me remixes.

No, but really, this is a pretty cool album.

No, but really, this is a pretty cool album.

 

Friday:

Children’s literature is an amazingly creative (and competitive) area of publishing. A perk of my job is that I get to keep somewhat up to date on all the cool books that come out. Here are some books that I seriously can’t wait to read to my kids some day!

 

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Saturday:

The front doors, five minutes before opening on a Saturday morning:

But luckily the rush never hit me up in the children’s section. In fact, it was a pretty slow day! I was the only one of the desk for the day, which basically means I got to catch up on all my favorite websites and articles all day. Funny, though, one of my old political science professors from SU came in with his son, looking for books. There’s a fair number of SU professors who live in the Fayetteville-Manlius area, so I see them (and their kids) on occasion. Today it was my Political Analysis professor, who was born and raised in South Dakota. So we chatted about the PSC department and whatnot. I also asked him if he had ever heard of “The Dakota Effect.”  Click that link if you’re nerdy and curious. The political science professors basically set out to understand why the Dakotas are so incredibly over-represented in Congress. By that, I mean:

If you count a state’s congressional delegation not as the number of senators and House members currently representing that state but rather as the number of members of Congress who grew up there, you immediately encounter a striking fact: Easily the two best represented states, in terms of the number of native members of Congress per capita, are North and South Dakota

Because, remember, for example: not every member of Congress in Texas was born in Texas. But every representative in the Dakotas is invariably born in the Dakotas…and then you have a disproportionally large number of congress-members in other states who are native Dakotans. The authors seek to figure out what about the culture/demographics of North/South Dakota might cause this (hint: there’s not much to do there!), and what are the real-world consequences of it (hint: the amount of money sent back to the Dakotas!)

Finally, for less stuffy academic political science material, I read a nice article on The Atlantic’s site. Titled The Left Right Political Spectrum is Bogus , it’s a nice introduction as to why the liberal/conservative dichotomy in political discourse is too narrow to be of any use. And how true this is! Just look at how, for example, libertarians, Christian social conservatives, and neocons are all labeled broadly as “conservatives.” Likewise, there are liberals who are extremely distrustful of government action, and those who still put great faith in it. There are wealthy business elite liberals and those who find that lifestyle quite distasteful. And then consider the overlap between the two camps! Like how many progressive liberals and conservative libertarians actually share common values about privacy, drug policy, foreign policy, and corporate capitalism!

This article proposes looking less across the spectrum of left/right, and more at structures of power in society, which are usually framed as vertical/horizontal (that is, when power is concentrated for a few at the top, versus when it is more democratically dispersed across the population.) So, for example, instead of conservatives yelling “Big government is bad!” and liberals shouting “corporate capitalism is bad!” they should both try to notice the terrible reality that points out how both have grown together over the past many decades (by no accident, too), and what we are left with is a kind of revolving door collusion between the corporate and governmental elite who work to keep each other protected, rich, and in power, while leaving the vast majority of the population left behind with stagnant wages, gutted public services, and a sense of political apathy. This is a portion of what Marxist Theory is all about, so if you’re even still reading at this point and you find this interesting, go check out Introduction to Marx and Engels or Cultural Hegemony in the United States or just anything about wealth inequality, such as The Price of Inequality.

 

 

A West Coast Fling: Days 8, 9, and 10: Urban Observations (ft. Beavers!)

March 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

On my 9th day in Oregon, I remember checking in to our hotel near the airport and promptly collapsing on the bed. Exhausted, sore, sunburned, dehydrated. Our flight Sunday morning (day 10) was at 6:50 in the morning, so we had to say goodbye to our hotel in downtown Portland and stay the night closer to the airport. I had just spent two days walking endlessly around East Portland. The sun had finally come out, it was warm, and the cherry trees were in full bloom. A proper spring! (Poor Syracuse, I had gotten word that it was still snowing over there.) Here’s just a sample of photos:

 

Shout-out to beavers for being my favorite animal.

Shout-out to beavers for being my favorite animal. (Also that stone fountain is supposed to be filled with water.)

The famous Saturday market of Portland! Super fun.

The famous Saturday market of Portland! Super fun. This photo doesn’t do justice to how many booths there are to browse.

In a second-hand store. Sam tries to make a friend.

In a second-hand store. Sam tries to make a friend.

 

That guy in the photo above is Sam, one of my closest friends from home. Except in high school his family moved to California, and he’s been on the West Coast ever since. He lived in Portland for a time, and now lives in Eugene (a really exciting mid-sized city in Oregon). We met up, grabbed some food and drinks, and he showed me some shops in East Portland, including this second-hand stores that made me feel like I was in an episode of Hoarders. 

I think what I’ll do is talk briefly about East Portland, and then try to reflect more broadly about Seattle and Portland.

Okay, so West Portland is where the downtown retail and restaurants are, along with Chinatown, some swanky boutique shopping strips, and Portland State University. Across the river is East Portland, which I would describe as much more suburban and residential. In the northern part of East Portland, I found a warehouse district, some bland apartment buildings, and a shopping mall that felt very much out of place (apparently the vision of a wealthy Californian developer decades ago). But mom and I kept walking north, and eventually came upon some really picturesque houses. Quaint, idyllic, harmonious. Pick an adjective, it all works. For some of these houses, I would describe them as thus: for those of you familiar with the housing in the SU student neighborhoods, imagine if these houses were given proper love and care, and perhaps a little bit more money. You know, on the smaller side, not gaudy, diverse in style. It was an almost meditative experience to meander through these tightly-knit streets, complete with sidewalks, trees, cats lounging in the sun, and people mowing their lawns. And as I eventually made my way to southeast Portland, I discovered that much of the east side is like this. Just a whole gridwork of pleasant streets and homes.

As charming as this was, I was also a bit puzzled, because I’ve heard time and time again that southeast Portland is now the cool place to be. (It’s very possible I didn’t go east or south enough.) Because while there are some main drags lined with cafes and restaurants that cut across southeast Portland, it didn’t strike me as very exciting. I didn’t see too much retail or cultural venues. Also, unlike West Portland, East Portland is much more suited for car and bike travel, not foot.

So, I walked and walked, all day, until my feet were blistered and sore. In conclusion: East Portland would make for a great place to raise a family. Personally, I prefer west-side, but apparently the reason everyone flocks to the east side of the river is because this is where the affordable housing is. It’s a shame I didn’t see where the cool kids liked to hang.

//

A few last things about Portland:

1) A great introduction by Portlandia to the stereotypes about Portland (certainly some truth, though, and certainly worth watching.)

In regards to some of the things mentioned in the video:

-Yes, I did see a lot of guys skateboarding

-Yes, there is a shop that only sells vinyl.

-The hot girls DO wear glasses.

-Flannel is acceptable (I wasn’t aware that flannel wasn’t cool anymore, though!?)

-I was told that -it is true- “everyone’s an artist or in a band.”

Unrelated to the video:

-There are very progressive free-speech laws here, so Portland has a ton of strip clubs and sex shops. Like, there are shops in the main downtown area that have really busty mannequins in the windows sporting kinky outfits and whips and all that stuff.

-Like Seattle, Portland has a sizable and visible homeless population. They didn’t seem as aggressive as those in Seattle, but it’s hard to make such a generalization.

-Lots of coffee shops here. If you like coffee (or beer!), you will not be disappointed.

-Also, can I say one thing about West Coast food vs. East Coast food? The West knows how to do good donuts. I had some amazing donuts in both cities. However, East Coast knows bagels and pizza. I had a hard time finding pizza or bagel places out here, and I’m sure they wouldn’t compare to the awesome stuff we got east-side.

-Finally, as someone that has now seen a few more cities, I can say with some confidence how unique NYC is. Seriously, that is a city that doesn’t sleep. Especially when it comes to eating. I guess I never really appreciated the perks of the crazy NYC life until I visited some smaller cities. Things do seem to close down and get pretty quiet at night in Seattle and Portland (at least the sections I saw), and I found it hard to find that cheap, grab-n-go food that NYC is so famous for. All I want is a $1 slice of pizza after 9pm!

2) For those interested in urban planning, I highly recommend the blog “The Urbanophile.” Here are two articles about Portland from a more academic perspective:

The first article 

And the second 

If you don’t feel like reading them, here’s a summary of points:

-Portland started investing in bikes and public transportation back when most American cities weren’t, and it’s really paid off. There’s a huge bike culture here, and the trolly system here is extensive.

-The city is generally considered a top example of smart urban planning. (If you visit, you’ll notice that there are like 3 buildings in the downtown that are tall office buildings. There’s an ordinance in the city that keeps building height levels low. Makes for a very pretty city.)

-The main issue with Portland is that it’s such a high-quality city without an economy to show for it. The quality of life is so good, and the culture and brand of the city are now so famous, that everyone wants to move here just to live here and experience it. But Portland’s economy is not good, and it’s unemployment rate is worse than the national average. A lot of people are without a job, or are underemployed.

-The city is having trouble attracting talent, apparently. Lots of musicians and artists willing to (or forced to) take entry-level service jobs, but Portland has not yet become a destination for high-paying jobs (like in tech) that cities like Seattle and San Francisco have well established.

-Portland has more micobreweries per capita than just about any city in the country.

-Statistically, Portland is an incredibly white for a city. Definitely lacking in diversity.

 

Another thing to add:

I know I gush about Portland, but some critiques worth noting, particularly those echoed by Sam and his girlfriend. I’ll paraphrase some of their critiques of Portland: for one, Portland traps you in a different kind of cycle of poverty. People move here and can’t find work, so when they finally piece together some part time gigs or a shitty, low-paying service job, they can’t actually enjoy the city, because they don’t have any money…because of the shitty job they’re stuck with.

Also, we discussed the possibility that the brand of Portland is at risk of becoming a caricature of itself. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but one thing that Sam, his girlfriend, and I discussed was how perspectives of Portland change depend on whether you’re from the West Coast or the East Coast. From the East Coast angle, I would say Portland is a funky, eccentric, cool place to move to. But Portland invokes more of an eye-roll for West Coast folks. As Sam said: “When someone tells us that they’ve just graduated college and are moving to Portland, we think ‘Yea, you and everyone else around here.’ ”  It’s possible that Sam’s view isn’t commonly held, I’m not sure. (I do trust his judgements, though!)

I wouldn’t say that it’s a bad thing that a city has a great reputation that makes everyone want to move there. But like any city right now that’s desirable (NYC, Boston, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle), it only becomes a problem when the city can’t handle the population influx. Rents rise, good jobs become scarce, young creatives are forced out, and the gentrification process fulfills itself.

 

Alright I’m tired. More later.

 

A West Coast Fling: East to Eden: shots of idyllic East Portland

March 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

Heading to the water. West Portland.

Heading to the water. West Portland.

 

ALSO I DON’T KNOW WHY THESE PICS AREN’T IN ORDER OH WELL

 

Ending the night walking around Northwest Portland.

Ending the night walking around Northwest Portland.

Crossing a bridge to head back into West Portland. SO MANY BRIDGES HERE.

Crossing a bridge to head back into West Portland. SO MANY BRIDGES HERE.

The street we found the LittleFreeLibrary on.

The street we found the LittleFreeLibrary on.

A "FreeLittleLibrary" outside someone's home!!! Yes, they exist across America. Small treasures.

A “FreeLittleLibrary” outside someone’s home!!! Yes, they exist across America. Small treasures.

Southeast Portland suburbs.

Southeast Portland suburbs.

These people in Southeast Portland have got it good.

These people in Southeast Portland have got it good.

Another quaint street in Northeast Portland

Another quaint street in Northeast Portland

On a bridge looking down on the memorial park.

On a bridge looking down on the memorial park.

At the bridge

At the bridge

Cherry trees in bloom at the Japanese-American Memorial Park along the river

Cherry trees in bloom at the Japanese-American Memorial Park along the river

A West Coast Fling: But wait, there’s more! shots of west-side Portland

March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Inside Powell's Books. So overwhelming.

Inside Powell’s Books. So overwhelming.

Pioneer Square! (Yes, there's a Pioneer Square in Portland as well.)

Pioneer Square! (Yes, there’s a Pioneer Square in Portland as well.)

A small park outside the courthouse.

A small park outside the courthouse.

Some green space within Portland State University's campus. It was actually a great area!

Some green space within Portland State University’s campus. It was actually a great area!

In the Nob Hill neighborhood.

In the Nob Hill neighborhood.

Nob Hill. Super nice. A little more quiet, but cozy all the same.

Nob Hill. Super nice. A little more quiet, but cozy all the same.

YEA I FEEL DA SAME WAY SOMETIMES GURL

YEA I FEEL DA SAME WAY SOMETIMES GURL

West Portland

West Portland

YEA RIDE YO FIXIE MAN

YEA RIDE YO FIXIE MAN

A West Coast Fling: PBRUKidding me this place is awesome: shots of Portland

March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

KEEP IT WEIRD

KEEP IT WEIRD

Some crazy treats at Voodoo Doughnuts

Some crazy treats at Voodoo Doughnuts

Public transportation is extensive in Portland

Public transportation is extensive in Portland

The Portlandia statue.

The Portlandia statue.

Right under Portlandia

Right under Portlandia

STAG STATUE

STAG STATUE

The city of roses

The city of roses

One of Portland's many bridges in the evening

One of Portland’s many bridges in the evening

Kangaroos, please

Kangaroos, please.

No joke, this is literally one of the first things I saw in the city as I was walking from the train station to my hotel

No joke, this is literally one of the first things I saw in the city as I was walking from the train station to my hotel

A West Coast Fling: 50 Shades of Gray: a few last shots of Seattle

March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

A shot of the water in the South Lake Union area. I forget the name of this body of water.

A shot of the water in the South Lake Union area. I forget the name of this body of water.

Top Pot! Best doughnuts around.
Top Pot! Best doughnuts around.

I call this shot "In Bloom"...because Seattle...and because Nirvana. SO CLEVER.

I call this shot “In Bloom”…because Seattle…and because Nirvana. SO CLEVER.

The famous "Gum Wall" of Seattle! Yes, that's all gum, and that's only a partial shot of the wall!

The famous “Gum Wall” of Seattle! Yes, that’s all gum, and that’s only a partial shot of the wall!

Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square

Great area of Pioneer Square. Some cool art galleries and restaurants here.

Great area of Pioneer Square. Some cool art galleries and restaurants here.

 

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