Thursday, March 24, 2016

I Heart My Public Library

By: Susan

I got an email last night that I had a hold available at the Cedar Park Library.  So after work and my run with my friend Andrea, I made sure I stopped by to pick up Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed Music.  It's a picture book with only some thirty pages but it is filled with lush illustrations done by Rafael L√≥pez and thanks to Margarita Engle, I learned about a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who wanted to play the drums at a time when girls were told that only boys were allowed.  I got on the Internet and looked up the band she played with and listened to their music and in a matter of an hour, my world grew a little more.  That's why I love libraries, this most democratic of institutions where anyone can enter a community of knowledge and learning.  So here is a piece I wrote over ten years ago about one special woman who tried to create such an environment in a place where free thinking and young minds were (and unfortunately, still are) considered a dangerous combination:

My current books on loan from the Cedar Park Library

The Woman Who Took Away the Locks

In 1976, I was an eighth grader living in Tehran, Iran.  The previous year, the Shah, the King of Iran, had put in place a universal mid-morning snack program, where milk, juice and cake or cookies were given out to children at 10:00 a.m. every morning in every school in the country.  My affluent classmates, however, having had a full breakfast, sometimes found other uses for the snack items. Once when a policeman was hit by a milk carton thrown from a second story window, our new assistant principal, Mrs. Momeni came in to give our class a lecture.  She was new to our school and we had not quite figured her out yet.  She didn't shout or insult.  She just told us about the school where she had come from.  It was one in the south side of the city, the poor side, where if a child was absent, his mother would come to collect his snack because that was his only meal for the day.  She suggested that if we did not need the milk or the cake, she would gladly collect them and take them to those children.  I don't know how her message affected the other kids, but for me it was my first encounter with social consciousness.

I guess the school's administration found those remarks too inflammatory.  Next year, Mrs. Momeni got a demotion; she became the librarian.  You have to know about our library to understand why being the librarian was a step down.  The library was on the top floor of the school, where only the upperclassmen had occasion to pass by it.  It was no larger than a medium-sized classroom with bookcases all around and tables and chairs in the middle.The bookcases held old textbooks, some classical books of poetry and used English books, discarded at the end of each year by students who never really learned to read them.  The most notable part of the library was the locks on the glass doors of each bookcase.  The library was where you went if the teacher was absent.  It was where you were sent if you misbehaved.  Sort of a detention hall.  So you see, being the librarian was more like being a monitor, a baby sitter.  I think the administrators were fooled by Mrs. Momeni's small stature and quiet demeanor.  As soon as she got the job, she took off the locks, boxed away the old textbooks and put up a sign for a membership drive:  Bring a book and join the library.  Join the library? My only other attempt to join a library had been in fifth grade when a small one opened in a park near my house and I had to bring permissions from my parents and the school principal to join.  My parents readily agreed, thinking this way they would have some help satisfying my appetite for books.  The elementary school principal, however, thought that such extra-curricular activities would interfere with my academic studies and would not sign the permission slip.  So you can imagine my excitement at the news of being able to join a library by only donating a book.

That year was one of the most memorable years of my life.  My friends and I would hang out at the library every chance we got.  We devoured the new books, got to know new authors, Iranian, European, American.  The best book I read that year was a collection of short stories called When the Fish have Died by an Iranian woman, Zhilah Sazegahr.  The title story was about a fish that was deprived of water so gradually that it got used to living without it.  When it was thrown back into its bowl, it drowned.  But the best part of reading was talking about books with my friends and Mrs. Momeni.  We each had our favorites, and in each book a favorite character.  We talked about them so much, they would become real people in our lives.  At the end of that year, Mrs. Momeni decided to give a prize to those who had read the most books.  I was one of them.  For the prizes, she chose books by Sadegh Hedayat.  Hedayat was an existential Iranian writer who had committed suicide in Paris in the thirties.  Rumor had it that his books were so dark that those who read them would be driven to end their lives.  You can imagine the school's response to the choice of these books as reading awards!  Next year the library was moved to an annex building next to the nurse's office and the janitor's supply room.

That was 1978.  The political situation in the country was getting worse every day.  There were demonstrations in the University across the street from our school.  Banks and cinemas were being burned every week as symbols of the decadent West.  The Shah's secret police was losing its grip on the opposition.  My family left the country in November of that year.  We came to Houston, Texas where I had a cousin.  I started school right away.  One day, the teacher assigned a paper in history class.  Over the weekend, I went to the public library to do the research.  First thing I noticed was that there were not glass doors or locks on the shelves.  Timidly, I asked the lady at the reference desk if I could use the books since I was not a member.  She said: "Of course, you just can't check any out unless you have a library card."  I feasted on rows and rows of Encyclopedias and reference books.  When I was done with my school assignment, I sneaked into the fiction section.  I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting someone to come and ask for my card and not finding one throw me out or worse, report me to the authorities.  But no one came.

Before leaving, I took a chance and asked the librarian what it took to get a library card.  She gave me an application to fill out and it only had space for one signature.  Mine.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Dish on My Dogs, Part One by Carolyn

As you know by now, I live with three dogs. This is something that I both regret and celebrate every day. Any pet owner will understand what I mean. Let me tell you about Finn, the elder statesman of the group.

Finn (aka Finnegan McCool) is a rescue dog. He is a poodle mix -- the "mix" part is a mystery. I found him at a shelter (where they had named him Kevin, which doesn't feel at all like a dog name to me, but I guess they run out of good ones eventually). When I first met him, he looked pretty funky, because the shelter worker who tried to groom him had apparently gotten distracted and quit halfway through the job - he was shaved on one half of his body and hairy on the other. But still, he was beautiful to me.

Finn is one of the mildest-mannered dogs I know -- very laid-back. He cuddles with anyone indiscriminately. If you have a lap, he wants to be on it. When he wants to be petted, he nudges your hand with his nose, insistently, but doesn't claw at you like some dogs I could mention. One of his favorite things to do is to smell "people breath", the stinkier the better. When he first meets someone he stands up and sniffs their mouth. This can be a little startling, but if they will accommodate him by exhaling in his face, he will be ecstatic. He will wag his little nub of a tail, which is unbearably cute.

He is mostly white, with large splotches of black here and there, like someone spilled ink on him. He has poodle-kinky hair, so petting him feels like it felt when you laid down on top of your grandmother's bed, which was covered with a chenille bedspread, soft and nubby and comforting.

Finn can be strangely creepy-looking, though. He has a way of looking at you sideways which looks like he is giving you the evil eye. It makes you suspect he is plotting something against you. It can be quite disconcerting, but I assure you, there is no malice in his soul. Really. He is a lover, not a fighter.

Finn is kind of a floppy dog, with fairly long legs. Once my children propped him up in the recliner like he was sitting up and mocked him, laughing at his pink belly sticking out over his hind legs. They even took photos. I think that was cruel and may have psychologically scarred Finn for life.

Finn is the perfect dog except for two small flaws. He was three years old when I adopted him, and had not been neutered. Although he is neutered now, he still retains that boy-dog need to mark everything in sight. He has definitely peed on every piece of furniture in the house. He has peed on every square inch of the back yard, I'm sure. He even pees on his doggie sisters when he gets a chance. It is terribly embarrassing at the dog park when he hikes his leg to pee on a doggie stranger.

The other flaw is more serious: Finn is an escape artist. I should have named him Houdini. He regularly escapes from the back yard, either digging under the fence or squeezing through loose slats. He also streaks through the front door when the pizza delivery man comes, or I am trying to leave for work, or whenever he sees the opportunity. I cannot even count the times I have chased that dog through the neighborhood. The really irritating part is that when he sees me following him, he turns around and runs the other way. He just doesn't want his adventure to end!

Once I enlisted two complete strangers to help me; one to go down one street while I went down the other, and one to head Finn off at the pass. They must have thought I was bonkers, especially since I was in my pajamas and slippers at the time.

Just last weekend, there were six of us in the backyard. We unhooked Finn from his lead and headed into the house, talking about which trees needed trimmed. After a few minutes I realized Finn was not in the house with the rest of the dogs. Sure enough, he took advantage of our momentary distraction with the trees and squeezed out the fence into the big, exciting world. I can just imagine him thinking, "If I just veer off a little and casually stroll down the side of the house, they won't even notice . . . " We immediately mobilized the troops to search in two different directions, and found him fairly quickly, happily trotting down the street.

Other times I have not found him so quickly. Many times I have searched in vain and been sure that he was gone forever. Fortunately, someone has always found him and called me to come pick him up. He always charms his rescuers, and they tell me, "Oh, he's so cute!" Sometimes I am tempted to say, "Yes, he is cute. Would you like to keep him?" But I haven't -- at least not yet.