Raku pigeons by Glo Coalson look down on me from a bookshelf in my library.
I’ve worked for the Texas Vital Statistics Section for about a year and a half now. Working in the office that houses all of the birth and death certificates issued by the State of Texas since 1903 introduced me to the existence of the Texas State Library & Archives Commission. We kind of work hand-in-hand with them, though they have other historical documents relating to Texas History. While our records are secure, private and confidential, from what I hear the records in the TSLAC are open to the public. I read online that there are rules that must be followed in order assist in the preservation of the documents. I’m certain that there are clean white gloves involved. (Thrilling!) But, all of this is just from what I’ve read, and a slightly overactive imagination.
The fact is I’ve never visited. There’s no particular reason I haven’t. I work M-F 8-5, but I do get days off. If I really wanted to visit (and I really, really do) then I could have made time for it. And, I shall. I have a rough plan in mind to visit this place, the LBJ Library and the new library in downtown Austin. That sounds like a delightful field trip.
A little over a week ago I was around the Capital at the Texas Book Festival. It was a headrush of an afternoon, but as we walked there we passed by the Texas Archives and Library Building. Alas, they were closed. We thought they might be open to host authors, but they were not. We peeked in the windows. I read the inscriptions in the granite on the buildings. I got my picture take outside, but I still have not been able to go inside. So close I could almost smell the old paper.
Some day I will go in and discover the histories that they keep of our great State of Texas. I will learn, and I might never leave. Some day.
I finished a book yesterday, Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, the Secret Life of Dictionaries. I listened to the audiobook because I enjoy hearing authors read their own books, and Ms. Stamper, in particular, has a good voice for audiobooks. She has a conversational tone that captures the nuances of her writing. I first noticed this in her short Ask the Editor videos for Merriam-Webster’s online presence. You may remember that I posted her ‘Plural of Octopus’ video here. She describes herself as shy, not caring for human contact, but she’s quite animated.
Talk of voices and reading aside, there is the problem that I regularly face when reading a book that I love. The morning after. You know what I’m talking about. One day you feel like you’re in love and everything in the world is right, and it’s because you’re reading a book that makes you happy. Sometimes you look forward to the end of the workday, not because you don’t like your job, but because you get to go read afterward.
Then it happens. You finish the book. At first you sit and savor the moment. When I finished reading The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, I couldn’t start another book for days. The writing stayed with me for a while, and I didn’t want to mess that up by starting a new book. But, it was almost as if I had nothing to come home to. I had become so fond of reading this story, that I was genuinely sad that I had finished. And, the task of finding another book that is as impactful is nearly impossible. It can take a while to work myself into another read, to reset my mental palate.
This morning was different than that, even. I woke up and lay in bed. My cats were happy with this, but that’s beside the point. It almost felt like I had broken up. Reading Word by Word, as well as listening to the podcast, FiatLex (a podcast about dictionaries by people who write them) and the occasional Ask the Editor video gives one the feeling that they have a group of friends. This is the dark underside of social media. We feel like we have all these friends, but really they are just people who are out there talking about things that interest them, who occasionally interact with you. It’s a harsh reality to wake up and remember that you don’t really know these people, they certainly don’t know you and the sense of camaraderie this time was possibly a little too strong.
When I first saw the book, it seemed fascinating and very personal. A book about how dictionaries are written by a real human being that works on them. How awesome is that?! Kory writes, not just about how definitions are made and updated, but about her personal story, about what led her to begin this career and what made her stay. “I didn’t choose the dictionary life. The dictionary life chose me.” What I wasn’t expecting was the drama in some of chapters and the emotion in the epilogue. I don’t want to give too much away, but I recommend you read this book for the sheer joy of it.
Also, I can’t help but have a greater appreciation for dictionaries and reference books. To a certain extent, Merriam-Webster strives to keep their dictionary as impersonal as possible. It’s a reference and people should be able to count on an objective definition, one without somebody’s preconceived notions, opinions or prejudices. That sort of perception leads us to take dictionaries for granted. It is nice to hear the voices of the humans behind them. I’ve learned an appreciation for the front matter in dictionaries. Hell, I’ve learned that the front matter exists. I’ve learned to read the definitions with more attention, and it thrills me to know that they base their definitions on documented usage. We’ve always taken it for granted that dictionaries are an authority, but to know that there is a ginormous collection of documentation that goes back years and decades is amazing.
It’s true that Kory, Peter Sokolowski, Steve Kleinedler, Emily Brewster and all the other people Kory talks about do not know me. Considering the way Kory describes them, they’d probably feel very uncomfortable knowing that I enjoy reading about them. That’s not to say that I won’t keep trying. I interact with them on Twitter (respectfully); I listen to the podcasts and make comments. I promote the podcast to my friends, acquaintances and followers. It’s possible that they might get used to seeing me in their feed. It’s also possible that I wouldn’t like them if I knew them personally. I suppose this is the new world: virtual relationships. I felt a little down this morning when I woke up. But, the Rather Earnest Painter is coming back after my first cup of coffee. Be careful world. I feel good.
Read with fresh eyes the Definition for built-out.
A quote from my journal this afternoon regarding my current job vs. my previous job. Kind of a benchmark for me still.
So, we can’t drink the water in Austin. The recent rains have more than filled our water supply. The Highland Lakes are filled and before the rains ended there were 4 floodgates open, with threats of opening four more. I believe that they did open at least 2 more, and I didn’t hear anything more about it. All of this led to silt in our water supply, which could, in turn, lead to bacteria, so on Monday they issued a boil water warning. I’ve not seen Austin go through anything like that.
It really makes you realize how extraordinarily spoiled we are. We use clean water and take it for granted in unimaginable ways. My friend that runs the cafeteria where I work struggled that first day. I mean, she’s still struggling, but she’s gotten her footing a little. She had to turn off the ice dispenser, couldn’t make coffee (horrors!) or ice tea. She couldn’t even wash the vegetables, so she couldn’t serve hamburgers because there was no lettuce or tomatoes. Plus, could you wash the dishes? Probably not. She began boiling water to get through the rest of the week.
Restaurants of all sorts had to adjust. For the most part they would not serve fountain drinks because there is no clean ice. Coffee shops couldn’t serve coffee, except the pre-bottled kind. They even warned us to use hand sanitizer after we washed our hands.
But, not being able to sit in a coffee shop and chill after work has been the biggest loss for me. I understand that there are millions of people who live on Earth who don’t have access to clean water, and I understand that I might be whining just a tiny bit. It’s just eye-opening, more than anything. And, I’ve become accustomed to stopping at a local coffee shop, opening my journal or my laptop and writing. It’s a way to transition from work to home. It’s some beautiful alone time in a crowded space, a way for me to relax. It’s a very precise way to relax and one little slip-up like not having clean water can really turn it on its side.
Today (Friday) it occurred to me after work that Round Rock has a Barnes & Noble, and that Round Rock has it's own water system. A quick call to them confirmed, by a rather puzzled clerk, that their cafe does, indeed, sell coffee. I told him that I was calling from Austin where coffee shops could not make coffee. God has forsaken this city – probably not for the first time. Damned liberal commies.
Also, I suddenly need a dictionary. I listen to FiatLex, a podcast by Kory Stamper and Steve Kleinedler, who are lexicographers and have begun sharing the joys of their trade with the world via books and this lovely podcast. I’m also reading (or listening to) Kory’s book, Word by Word, and plan to read Steve’s soon. So, after all this dictionary business, all it took was a gentle nudge from Steve on the podcast and I suddenly needed to buy a dictionary. I asked them which I should buy, if they had a recommendation. The FiatLex Twitter account responded (in all caps) that I should buy Steve’s new dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language, Fifth Edition: Fiftieth Anniversary Printing. (ISBN 9781328841698 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)
In B&N I looked at the tweet again, found the ISBN and made my way to the customer service desk. Because of the internet, I was aware that they did not have this book in stock. I was also aware that none of the B&N’s in the Austin area had it in stock. But, I let them do their work, look it up and then offer to order it for me. As they did I thanked them for having coffee, which, again, invoked a puzzled look until I, again, mentioned that I work in Austin. Nods all around and murmurs of amazement. (Honestly, during the rains a bridge over the Llano river was washed away. I know that sounds prosaic, but to see on video a large bridge that people regularly drive across being up to its asphalt in water, and then to watch it break apart and crumble was unbelievable. Huge chunks of broken bridge were rolling around in the current of the river.)
I also commented to the lovely people at the customer service desk that I was shocked that there wasn’t a line of people beating a path to the bookstore to order this dictionary. It was just released this month and it’s the fruit of years of work by dedicated, intelligent and highly quirky people. It was all rather tongue-in-cheek, except for the emotion I felt as they ordered the dictionary for me. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t walk out with it today. Okay, I was a lot disappointed. But, I felt so grown-up. I just bought furniture for the first time in my life, and now I’m going to buy my first dictionary. I’m becoming an adult, in spite of myself.