Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Chicago blog post - Part 1

14 July 2012, 2000 CST 

I’m in America. I’m standing on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower – a floor also known as the Skydeck. Below us – me and five other British librarians – stretches Chicago, Illinois: to the north and west, the sun sets over suburbs while, in the foreground, glass and metal skyscrapers are lit with glittering points of shimmering orange and red. The city blocks stretch out geometrically like a chess board: standing at the right angle, they appear as straight lines and perfect rectangles but move ever so slightly and it all falls out of alignment paradoxically becoming a sight which is more comforting, more beautiful. Because at the wrong angle, the huge towers below us fall into the oh-so-familiar image of an American city skyline: technically, an entirely new sight but one that seems so familiar after a lifetime spent watching television and movies imported from the USA. To the east, Lake Michigan shimmers in the heat and stretches away, practically an inland sea, to far beyond the range of vision. The promotional material – and there was a lot of it in the half-hour queue / security check – told us that on a clear day one can see four states from the Skydeck. Today however the haze from a sudden storm a few hours ago – the first rainfall in weeks – obscures all but a few miles into the distance.

But not for me. I’m standing 4000 miles from home sharing the Experience with five people I’ve only just met. And I can see far. I can see America, I can see the SLA, I can see Gotham City, I can see a place for heroes, I can see the future of my career, I can see new people and old friends. I can see the Experience stretching out before me: a trial, a test, a culmination. I can see the swirling tendrils of causal possibilities meshing into a single life-changing stretch of time. From this high, I can see the world and I can see everything clearly. 

For the rest of the week, every time I look up at the Chicago skyline, I’ll see it all again. Every time I look up. 

29 March 2012, 1715 BST

I’ve opened an email from Bethan Ruddock informing me that I’ve won an SLA Europe Early Career Conference Award 2012. The Early Career Conference Awards (1) are given every year to library and information professionals new to The Profession. They are awarded jointly by SLA Europe and various divisions of the SLA (2). My award is the Science-Technology Division’s award, given to me a. because of my full-time work with ebooks and e-resources, my library campaigning work using various social media technologies as part of Voices for the Library, and my writings on ebooks and National Digital Libraries, and b. because that’s the one I applied for. 

Over the next few months, the hugeness of this undeniably ‘significant thing’ will begin to weigh on me and affect me in several different ways. These range from small outbursts against the status quo to pure, mind-gripping fear of the unknown. Certainly it’s one of the biggest things (that’s me being semantically cautious: it’s actually THE BIGGEST THING) to happen to me in my career so far. This adventure feels so significant and over the period from March to July, it grows larger in my mind as the Experience gets closer. I come to see it as a culmination of everything I’ve done so far and as a test of everything I’ve learned so far. It feels as if the universe is checking to see if my three years in The Profession – in this crazy, maddening, beautiful, perfect career – have taught me what I need to know to be able to continue. In other words, it’s the boss fight at the end of the level after which I’ll be able to level up, distribute my skill points, and move on to the next stage. (3) 

14 July 2012, 1200 BST 

Which is how I came to be flying across the Atlantic in an American Airlines Boeing 767. On boarding the plane, I was childishly excited by the little pillow and blanket that American Airlines provide. This was much to the wry amusement of the lady in the seat next to me who seems more experienced at passenger flight and so approaches the experience with the apathy of the familiar. She’s reading Fifty Shades of Grey but so is everyone. 

I feel an odd sense of camaraderie with the strangers surrounding me. As passengers on the same flight, we’ve queued together, we’ve been herded through baggage and security checks together, we’ve waited in the departure lounge together. We’ve exchanged occasional glances, watched each others’ little rituals, and some of us have even chatted. We’re going to be in the same metal cylinder for 7+ hours and so, no matter who we are, that will always connect us. The Indian doctor flying with his wheelchair-bound mother; the American man connecting in Chicago for a flight to Los Angeles; the silent 50 year-old in the cowboy hat who I’m (semi-racistly) assuming is American; the British Scout troupe wearing full scouting apparel. As I watch these people in the terminal, I imagine their stories, mentally constructing who they are and how their lives brought them to this flight from Manchester to O’Hare. I imagine a Lost-style survival situation (4) and wonder how our brief little airport interactions – a nervous joke, a gripe about the queues, a smile – would impact our later relationships on the desert island. 

Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’m assiduously and frantically taking notes so as to fully document this Experience. I’m preserving every observation no matter how mundane because this feels like a genuine once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No anecdote about tiny AA pillows/blankets is too dull; no minutiae about fellow passengers is too minute. Not only do I have to crystallise this whole Experience in my memory so that someday I can look back on my glory days and smile but I have to prove to other people that I’m worthy of this trip. My family; my co-workers; my peers online; the person who sponsored me for the award; the panel who selected me; the mentor who has given me so much advice; the other award winners; the previous award winners (5); SLA Europe; SLA; CILIP; those people I met in high school who I will never see again but who occasionally ‘like’ my updates on Facebook. 

Fortunately the flight is making me partially forget my insecurities. We’re being pampered like children. The flight attendants tell us when to eat, when to watch a film, when to nap, and they wait on us like chirpy American butlers. All the way across the Atlantic, we’re anaesthetised by salty food and NBC Universal-sponsored programming – quirky new US sitcoms, promos for NBC shows, a couple of bad movies, and a 45-minute documentary on the “science” of online dating (6). Though I know it’s all designed to pacify us and make us docile for 7+ hours, it still works effectively. I read the magazines, listen to some music, watch Pirates of the Caribbean 4 mostly waiting for Ian McShane to be on screen again. I drift into an state of experiential stasis: in my memory, the flight seems to have shrunk to the length to an hour. 

One moment snapped me out of it. There’s a bit of turbulence somewhere over Canada and, in the moment, I imagine the phenomenological experience of being in a falling plane. It’s not just an intellectual consideration – a mental image of a plane falling. It’s imagining the actual nervous system reaction and the accompanying emotional reactions to the experience. How one’s stomach must feel, how sweat would break out across the skin, how one’s sense of balance would be disturbingly skewed to an unnatural degree. I imagined it as a dark mirror-image of the ‘taking-off feeling’. That imagined experience pulled me away from a fictional universe of pirate tropes and caused me to remember what the flight’s comforts are designed to make us forget: that we’re 32000 feet higher than humans are evolved to be. And I thought that we shouldn’t be placated like this: we should be amazed, we should be astounded at this technological marvel, we should applaud the men and women who make this happen. (7) 

14 July 2012, 1400 CST 

“I’m in Chicago.” I keep repeating this sentence to myself as I crane my neck to look at the buildings overhead. It’s raining: my tweed jacket (8), my suitcase, my trainers are soaked but I don’t care. “I’m in Chicago. Chicago, USA.” 

The airport was too busy to give me time to document my thoughts. I was swept through US Security and Customs all the while marvelling at the still-vaguely-novel American accents surrounding me. I piled on to a crowded inter-airport transit train which I was pretty sure would take me to the CTA station for a train to the city but which did cause me to think “I’m not sure where I’m going. I’m 4000 miles from home and I’m not sure where I’m going” – a sentence that I discovered actually exhilarated me rather than, as I’d predicted, terrified me. At the station, a homeless man helped this obviously-lost-looking tourist work the ticket machine: my first American dollar spent was a tip to this gentleman. Even the relatively mundane train ride, looking as it did so much like the American mass transit systems I’d seen in films and on TV, couldn’t settle the excited voice in my head. “I’m in Chicago. I’m in America.”

And now, standing in the rain on an American street corner under an American green perfectly-right-angled street sign waiting for an American ‘Walk/Don’t Walk’ sign to change surrounded by strangers speaking in American accents, I’m staring at the American-looking buildings towering overhead – with American art deco mouldings and American fire-escapes and stores with American names (Radio Shack, 7/11, Sears) underneath – and there’s nothing profound or philosophical or important going through my head – none of the complex feelings or psychological nuances that I expected. Only the simple fact, “I’m in America.” 

“I’m in America.” 

14 July 2012, 1800 CST 

On a bus tour of Chicago, I meet the other ECCAs (see footnote (1)). We come from different places in the UK, from different organisations, from different lives. We think differently and know different things. And yet our streams of life led us to this same place, to this singular experience. For the rest of the evening, we travel together on the bus, we admire the architecture of Chicago, we laugh at the tour-guide’s strange sense of humour, we slump into the shared exhaustion of travel and jet lag, we get to know one another in person for the first time, we climb the Willis Tower together and stand at the top of the world.

Over the next few days, we share an ‘Experience’. Most of life is spent in a continuum of  mundane experience – work, friends, sleep, work, film, sleep, work, meal, sleep – but occasionally there are bright moments that shine effervescent out of the stream of everyday consciousness – holidays, dates, special occasions, honours. And we separate these Experiences out from the rest of the continuum: we isolate a specific day or a specific week as ‘special’. It becomes an individualised point in time that we can separate from the usual stream and preserve in our memories like an insect in amber: perfect and pristine. So we can say “Remember that evening? That evening was a special evening. Not like all the other evenings. That evening was an Experience.” 

In my memory, the chunk of my life running from the 14th to the 20th of July 2012 will be separated from the stream of my experience. In my memory, it’ll become something special, something significant. An Experience.

But the truth is that nothing happens in isolation. The Chicago trip is linked by a thousand tiny strings to other experiences in my life. It’s impossible to psychologically disconnect it from other things going on: my work situation, my personal life, my social anxieties, the book I was reading at the time, the people I left behind in Britain. Even events that happened after Chicago change the colour of the Experience in my memory: some events that happened during the writing of this blog post changed the motivation behind the whole thing in psychologically complicated and personal ways that I don't want to go into. And so, however much I want to preserve that week in my memory as a perfect week – however much I want it to shine out as something special among the detritus of everyday life; however much I think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime Experience – the truth is that it’s as much a part of the continuum of life as anything else. 

Which is a fancy way of saying that this linear narrative (9) is not the whole story. But then again, nothing ever is. 

(1) Or ECCAs. Which, I’m to learn, can refer either to the awards or to the recipients of the awards. As in, respectively, “Giles won an ECCA” or “The ECCAs are over there eating cold pizza”. 

(2) Which, FYI, is the Special Libraries Association: a massive association for information professionals which has no particular geographic allegiance (unlike the ALA or CILIP, for example) (2a) The term ‘Special Libraries’ is somewhat broad. A theme of the Chicago trip is my becoming increasingly overwhelmed at the sheer ‘massiveness’ of the SLA and by extension The Profession. 

(2a) Although, for practical and geographical reasons, during my trip I meet more American SLA members than any other nationality. 

(3) In my head, this ‘cosmic testing’ theory is borne out by the fact that within an hour of returning to work on the Monday after the trip, I got to return to my previous post as E-resources Co-ordinator. Except on a permanent contract. For the first time in my career, I have a permanent position doing a job I really love. If the universe was testing me (3a), I think I passed. 

(3a) It wasn’t. I’m aware that not only is this theory totally irrational with no basis in reality but it’s narcissistic to the point of delusion. An anthropomorphic universe guiding the course of my career? Yikes. I’m simply observing how I felt: I’m not explaining it or apologising for it. 

(4) I mentally prepare a way to leverage myself into the Scout’s social group should the need arise. I daresay they’d be the most useful in a survival situation. 

(5) Who, by the way, are an intimidating set of names. Among these are names that I’ve been hearing since library school. 

(6) Sarcastic scare quotes added. 

(7) I also discovered that I’m worse at landing than takeoff. During the approach into O’Hare, there was one violent jolt that knocked open an overhead compartment and caused me to seize up in panic. When it became apparent we weren't going to die, the Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-lady and I shared a nervous laugh. Fun.

(8) A gift from my family for this trip. They knew I’d wanted one and what better way to establish myself as an English librarian abroad? This would be the start of my acting the ‘stranger in a strange land’ role. 

(9) This isn’t it. You’ll notice that this travelogue goes up to the end of the first day and contains nothing about libraries or conferencing or American culture and, let's face it, I haven't actually done anything interesting in it yet. Totally unsatisfactory. Well, Chicago was simply too big an Experience for one post and so, as CĂ©line Carty suggested, my Chicago posts are going to be serialised. The current plan is for four posts which are split chronologically and thematically: 1. (this sort-of introductory one) Experience; 2. America; 3. the SLA and conferencing; 4. Change. It’s yet to be seen how well this plan will work…

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Fear is not the mind-killer...

One week from today, I’m travelling to Chicago for the SLA Conference 2012 and I’m afraid (1). Fellow ECCAer, Ruth Jenkins, has written about some of the preparation involved and the accompanying fear-causing things. We share several firsts: first big US conference, first solo flight, first trip to the USA – as Sam says, “it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” For me, there’s also the following fears: I’m afraid I’ve received more ‘survival’ tips (2) than I can possibly remember; I’m afraid I can’t make a good impression on all the people I meet; I’m afraid of going to more conference sessions than I can absorb or of missing important sessions; I’m afraid of writing a travelogue that won’t do justice to the experience (3); I’m afraid of squandering this opportunity; I’m terrified of accepting an award at an early stage in my career and thus setting myself up for diminishing returns, ignominy, and eventual failure. 

And it feels fantastic. This is a real, sharp, crystalline, genuine fear of the unknown, of risk and of danger, and it’s the first time I’ve felt the like in years. 

McCormick Place: largest conference centre in the United States. Terrifying. From Flickr user: RauchWerks.

As I’ve grown up and become the person I want to be, I’ve stopped feeling the fear that used to be such a defining part of my personality. Through college and university, I was filled with this sharp fear and tremendous amounts of anxiety. About life, about the city I lived in, about the future, about coursework and exams, and particularly about social situations. The world was a huge and terrifying place, venturing out of my house was dangerous, telling people how I really felt would leave me exposed and vulnerable, and interacting with people socially would lead to embarrassment and degradation. I was nervous, I was shy, and I was introverted to the point of semi-solipsism. 

But life turned and I changed. I came to own the fear and subsumed the social anxiety as a part of my personality turning a genuine fear into a fashionable affectation. A certain nervous energy became part of the Zach Braff-ian ‘anxious nerd’ archetype that I adopted as a chrysalis until my real personality was developed enough to exert itself. I accepted the fear, acknowledged it, and in doing so turned my social anxiety into a defining characteristic. 

Now I’ve grown to a point where I no longer feel the fear as sharply or as often as I used to. As I’ve ventured out into the world and accumulated experiences, I’ve discovered that there is little to fear about life. Now I can give a presentation to a group of people (4) and feel entirely confident about doing so. I can go to the pub with a group of people I’ve only talked to on Twitter – virtual strangers – and feel genuinely excited about it. I can talk to my superiors at work, tell them how I’m feeling, and, to some extent, make demands without feeling anxious or scared of what they’ll say. I’m doing pretty well in my career and I’ve realised that at a certain point an excessive lack of self-confidence becomes irrational: I’ve done enough and achieved enough that some confidence is rationally justified. 

I think the reason why people behave in an ugly manner is that it’s really scary to be alive and to be human, and people are really really afraid. And that the reasons … 

That the fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job that we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay. That is my personal opinion. 
David Foster Wallace quoted in David Lipsky (2010), Although of course you end up becoming yourself: a road trip with David Foster Wallace

But as the fear has receded, I’ve learned that this kind of fear – this genuine fear of the unknown that I feel as I sit here today – is good. That’s why I’m excited to feel it with regards to the Chicago adventure. Because whenever I’ve felt this intense fear before, it’s changed everything for the better. Take for example the time I gave up a place at law school on a whim and applied to library school because it “felt right”. Take the time I gave up a secure, nice-enough, permanent job at an Army college to take a 6-month temporary contract at a university. These big changes – these big gambles – terrified me. But I did them anyway. And in both cases, they made life better than it was before. Fear is good. 

Do one thing every day that scares you. 
Mary Schmich (5) 

It’s the fear that helps us grow. By embracing it and moved beyond it, we become more willing and able to meet equivalently scary situations in the future. Getting past each fear represents levelling up until you’ve passed enough to not regularly feel fear. Until one day you wake up and discover that you’re not terrified all the time. I know that being afraid of going to Chicago is a good thing because by feeling afraid and doing it anyway, I will become more prepared for the road that continues to stretch ahead. 

(1) Apologies. This is a very personal post (hence the plague of personal pronouns) which may not be applicable to anyone other than myself and therefore fails as a piece of writing. However – justification – feedback I’ve received suggests that my personal blog posts – those conducting painful self-examinations – tend to be enjoyed and looked on favourably. So whatever… 

(2) Including tips about tips ie. the bizarre tipping culture of the United States.  

(3) I want to write a travelogue and journal of the ‘conference experience’ in the style of David Foster Wallace’s seminal essay on his cruise ship holiday. I’ve bought a new notepad for this very purpose. But he was a genius and I’m, well… not, so I fear I’m setting myself too high a standard. 

(4) As I did last Saturday: a presentation on E-resources for Dummies at the first event of the Manchester New Library Professionals Network

(5) Or Baz Luhrmann or Kurt Vonnegut or Eleanor Roosevelt. Whoever wrote it, I heard it in Wear Sunscreen.