Thursday, March 21, 2013

30th Year Reflections/39: Spring Break

“True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” — William Penn

This week the campus is quiet. We are on Spring Break. The rest of the working world does not enjoy such a break; it is a thing peculiar to educators and students. Those of us in the library do not enjoy time off. We have plenty to keep us busy. But we take advantage of this “down” time to catch up on work we’ve avoided since our last break or attend to projects and tasks requiring larger blocks of time. Unfortunately for me, the hiatus corresponded with the arrival of a late winter cold. So my week has been less than productive, at least in terms of work accomplished.

On the other hand, the time was not wasted. My illness provided large patches of quiet time, of silence and rest. We need these times, what Penn called periods of “nourishment and refreshment.” For example, since August I have been writing a book. Thoughts and ideas about this monograph, not to mention time spent researching and writing, occupied almost every free moment. I squeezed these efforts into early mornings, lunch breaks, and late into the night. About two weeks ago I finished the first draft. Almost immediately I found myself going through the entire work, editing, tightening the language, deleting now irrelevant passages, tinkering. I would have continued in this vein were it not for some sage advice from a friend and colleague. “Let it rest,” she said. Put it on the back burner for a month. Get it out of your mind. Attend to other things. Give it a fresh start. She was right. I’ve been wrapped up in this work for nearly eight months. I need to let it rest. I need to rest.

Resting gives us a new perspective. It recharges our batteries and allows us to attack something with a passion similar to that with which we started. A period of rest gives us the chance (and permission) to perform a kind of “brain dump,” to flush our systems, get rid of extraneous matter, start with a clean slate. (I realize I’m pouring out all kinds of metaphors, but you get the idea.) A break is healthy. It is good for mind, body, and spirit.

For me this break comes at a good time. Winter continues to hang on. We have more snow on the ground now than at any time during the season. Temperatures are unseasonably cold. Cabin fever has set in. As much as I enjoy Winter, I long for Spring. Opening day of the baseball season is less than two weeks away. “March Madness” is upon us. (I still need to complete my brackets for the basketball tournament.) A break is necessary.

The key to Penn’s observation is found in the words “true silence.” Such a silence is my friend. Others may be threatened by solitude, or have never experienced it. They have no sense of what it offers. My experience over these few decades is that solitude is a gift. Those profound silences come in our asking. We should ask for the opportunity. Solitude also comes in our seeking. We need to look for the opportunity. However it comes—in the asking or seeking—we should embrace it as a time of rest. I will avoid any prescriptive comments on how to practice or experience those moments of quiet. For me, the monastic tradition provides some guidance, in the form of retreats. But I have also been able to translate those practices in quiet walks through the woods, while fishing in a boat, or even strolling around campus.

Breaks, be they “Spring” or otherwise, are good things, true gifts, and worthy of pursuit. We will be better professionals if we find and take advantage of those times to rest the mind.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

30th Year Reflections/38: Three-Minute Fiction

In early February I did something I've never done before: I entered a writing contest. My ears perked up while listening to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" when the contest--"Three-Minute Fiction"--was announced. This was "Round 10" of the contest. The challenge for this round was to write a story in the form of a voice-mail message. Each story had to be less than 600 words and capable of being read in three minutes. I decided to enter.

I played around with an idea or two before settling on something to do with Sherlock Holmes. An opening and ending came quickly to mind, but I struggled with the middle. A few days before submissions were due I came up with the missing piece. Obviously, since I didn't make it into the finals, the judges thought my piece less than stellar. But I was happy with it all the same, and so share it with you here. Sherlockian purists may have some difficulty with my story as "The Napoleon of Crime" appears, post-Reichenbach. But I needed him for the story to work and so bent Canonical understanding. (I also put Holmes and other characters in the present, à la "Sherlock" or "Elementary," things a purist will also object to.) Purist or not, I hope you enjoy the piece:

"The Adventure of the Pall Mall Flat Answering Machine."

“Good evening, Mr. Holmes.” (The speaker’s tone is slightly menacing.)

“I expect that you are still at the office—or the club—working out some detail on the latest round of European debt financing or NATO expansion. I know that this message comes as no surprise to you; indeed, you anticipated its arrival.”

(The menacing tone increases.) “In the same way, I know that there is little—if any—surprise to you in my having obtained this number—this most private of numbers—although I would imagine you find this little tidbit faintly troubling.”

(The voice becomes sarcastic.) “You haven’t quite worked out the ‘how’ in that ponderous mind of yours. But you know who I am and what I am capable of; you know my voice and my methods. The only remaining question in your mind is—why. Why call? Why leave this message? Why create a trail you can trace?”

(The voice becomes spiteful.) “The answer is quite simple. I no longer care. You and your meddlesome brother have managed to destroy my reputation, but now I have something in my possession that will turn the tables, if ever so slightly, in my favor.”

(The voice suddenly shifts to a velvet smoothness.) “I’ve come across a bit of information—gathered from your doctor, in fact—that proves beyond any doubt that you and your brother are both losing your minds. There’s a particularly nasty beast in the Holmes genetic pool that has suddenly raised its fearsome head. Art is not the only thing in the blood. Your brother already presents some of the symptoms: forgetfulness, absentmindedness, senseless blabbering. Before long, you too—so your doctor tells me—will show signs of the illness. Over time the embarrassed whispers of your compatriots will grow to shrill cries of confusion, discontent, and yes, even compassion. In the end—most likely with regal consent—you’ll both be packed off quietly to some asylum, to end your days hand-fed by royal retainers, oblivious to all around you.”

(The voice becomes conspiratorial.) “But I have a cure, one that will save you from such a piteous end. It comes, however, with a price, one I’m sure you—and your brother—will be more than willing to pay. You need to drop whatever you’re doing and meet me at….”

(A scuffle ensues; the phone is dropped. The answering machine picks up raised and muffled voices during the continuing scrum, and the sound of a police whistle. Half a minute passes before the phone is roughly snatched from the ground. A new voice, somewhat winded, comes on the line.)

“You’ll have to forgive the Professor. He’s not quite himself after taking that tumble over the falls. Now, for the love of all that you hold dear, will you please take your keys, come to my flat, and open the front door? Watson’s away on a fishing trip, Mrs. Hudson’s off visiting a niece, and I left my set of picklock tools on the desk, right next to my keys—I’ve locked myself out! Mycroft, come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same!”

The sound of a receiver being slammed into the cradle ends the call.

U of M Archives and Special Collections Featured

The Archives and Special Collections Department of the University of Minnesota Libraries is featured in the latest issue of Legacy, the magazine of the University of Minnesota Foundation. "Legacy," to quote from their masthead, "is published four times a year by the Foundation to give Presidents Club members and other donors and friends an update on how private giving fuels discovery at this great institution."

The Foundation's web site features an interactive photo with video links. Click here to go directly to the interactive page.

On arriving at the page click the "Start" button to see the photo with links to video segments. Click on one of the six numbers to see more information and links to the video. I'm featured in the Number 1 link, with three video clips related to the Sherlock Holmes Collections. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

30th Year Reflections/37: The Adventure of the ebay Auction

Dear Sir, Could you tell me if there is a Coventry Street in Minneapolis. It sounds most unlikely but I am bound to inquire as it affects an experiment in psychic Research. The name & address of Philip Jackson, architect, at that address was the reference. Probably it is an error. I could not think of anyone else to whom to apply. Pray excuse me. Yours faithfully, A. Conan Doyle

The short letter quoted above, dated September 14, 1923, came to my attention in late February. A Sherlockian collector on the East coast—and a Friend of our Sherlock Holmes Collections—alerted us to its existence and the fact that it was being auctioned on ebay. A link to the item was provided by our collector-friend and so I looked at the description and images on the ebay site. Along with the letter was the original envelope, addressed to “The Chief Librarian, Public Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.” The reactions of a couple of our local Friends of the Holmes Collections were unanimous—we had to have this item for the Library. And so began “The Adventure of the ebay Auction.”

My initial reaction was the same. Doyle’s letter, with its local connection to Minneapolis, was too good to pass up. But I had no idea about proper library procedure in acquiring items through online auctions. I knew that we could—and do—purchase items through traditional auctions. But online auctions are slightly different animals. After conferring with colleagues in the acquisitions department it was determined that the best approach was for me to purchase the item and then seek reimbursement for my expenses.

Unfortunately, this scenario presented a set of problems: I did not have an ebay account, a PayPal account (used by most sellers on ebay to facilitate purchases), no experience with bidding in such an auction, and perhaps not enough money of my own to cover the purchase. Also, the clock was ticking. It was now the last day of the auction, which ended at 3:58 pm. I spent the latter part of the morning and early afternoon attacking each of the problems. In short order I established my ebay account, set up and linked a PayPal account with my bank and ebay accounts, received financial backing from one of our Friends, and received valuable tips from my colleague, Lisa Vecoli, who is an old-hand on ebay. Her final admonition was to settle on my maximum bid and to use a figure that was a bit unusual (so that I would not lose out on an item by a few pennies or dollars). About ninety minutes before the auction ended I settled on a maximum bid and submitted it to ebay. All that remained was the waiting.

The waiting was excruciating. The Doyle letters had been online for five days and yet, when I posted my bid, I was the sole bidder. No one else had expressed an interest with another bid. The time remaining on an auction is posted above the description of the item. When the timer hits one hour remaining the numbers turn red and count down by minutes and seconds. Somewhere around 45 minutes remaining I needed to leave my chair and attend to some other business. When I returned, the timer was under 30 minutes. No other bids appeared. I nervously sat in my chair, tapping my fingers, bouncing my foot, and then got up to attend to another errand. With about 10 minutes remaining I stayed glued to my chair, muttering “Come on, come on…” to myself, hoping that no one would swoop in at the last moment and bid the item higher. The red numbers continued their countdown. 5 minutes, 4, 3, 2. At ninety seconds I was locked in to the screen, muttering, tapping, bouncing, and hoping. I was still the sole bidder. The seconds continued to roll by. Under a minute the countdown continued second by second. 40 seconds, 30, 20, 10. I’d been told that some bidders act in the last seconds. I recalibrated a new maximum bid, just in case I needed to go higher. 5 seconds, 4, 3, 2, 1. There were no last-second bidders. I’d won the auction! The letter was mine (with an ultimate home in the Sherlock Holmes Collections).

I surged out of my chair with a whoop, a holler, and fist pumps through the air. Those in the office knew what was up and shared in the excitement. Lisa was down the hall, teaching a class. Earlier, before she left for class, I told her that I might interrupt her session by coming into the room and giving her a “thumbs up.” I did exactly that. Happily, her class was engaged in some activity that didn’t require her immediate attention and so we gave each other “high fives” and celebrated the moment together. She was as happy as I was. With a certain bounce in my step I came back into the office, still pumping the air with my fist, and tried to settle down for a few more moments of work before calling it a day.

The next day, with all accounts now verified, I logged into ebay, went to my personal page, found the Doyle description, and hit the “pay now” button on the screen. Within moments the transaction was complete. A few days later a small box containing the letter and envelope arrived in my mailbox. The editorial board for our Holmes newsletter (on which I sit) has already determined that the Doyle letter will be the lead article for our June issue. So ends “The Adventure of the ebay Auction.” But our excitement in sharing this new acquisition with you is just beginning.

This post also appears--with images--on the U of M Archives and Special Collections blog, Primary Sourcery