The smell of compassion.

You see all sorts of things when you work with the public. You smell all sorts too.

I dread warmer days for this reason. Sometimes the counter is just not deep enough to suit. There is always the dilemma – body odor, or perfume? Both are bad for different reasons.

Strong perfume or cologne affects my asthma. I start having a hard time breathing, so I start to breathe very shallowly and sparingly. I’ll make the transaction go as fast as possible just to get them away from me. I think it would be rude for me to just walk away and take a deep breath and come back, but then it is rude to wear so much cologne or perfume that it makes breathing difficult. If you bathe daily and wear deodorant, you don’t need perfume.

But then, sometimes people use artificial scents to cover up the natural ones. That is much harder.

Sometimes the bad odor is a mix of smoking, not bathing, and drinking. If you drink alcohol often enough it comes out in your sweat. Sometimes it is the smell of poverty and desperation. Everything the person puts into their body is cheap. Sometimes the smell is so strong that even if the person isn’t standing there anymore, the smell is. It is like a bad ghost, haunting where they were.

It has to be hard to be in the skin of someone who smells this badly. Some seem to be totally unaware of it. They have gotten used to it. One patron seemed to be aware that he had terrible breath from smoking cheap cigarettes so he’d talk out of the side of his mouth. He’d sort of clench his teeth to talk. He’d then go outside to smoke yet another cigarette. His partner had an entirely different aroma. He smelled of some mixture of cheap cigarettes, gas-station food, and ferret. He seemed totally unaware of the funk that surrounded him. He checks out only DVDs and the smell permeates the plastic on the cases. There is nothing for that aroma except time. I wonder what the next patrons think when they get these titles.

I feel bad for all the people who smell really badly. I want to say something. I want to tell them that they don’t have to poison themselves with cheap food and cheap cigarettes and cheap alcohol. I want to tell them to not treat themselves so cheaply. I want to tell them that everything they are doing to fix their problems is actually causing more problems. I want to save them.

And I can’t. And I shouldn’t.

I’m sure that people wanted to save me when they saw me out doing my errands when I was stoned for ten years. I’m sure that when people saw me glassy eyed and mindlessly smiling they thought that something was wrong but it wasn’t kind to tell me. As long as I wasn’t hurting anybody, let it be. And so they did. I’m sure that I wouldn’t have listened to them anyway. I wasn’t in a place in my head where I could or would listen to anybody.

I am trying to be loving and compassionate, and serve people where they are and as they are, instead of where and as I want them to be. I’m trying to love them on their journey. I’m trying to understand that who they are now is the result of where they have been and I don’t know that story. I’m trying to understand that they are doing the best they can right now, and that even though it isn’t what I think is best, it is what it is.

It is hard. I want them to all slow down and love themselves enough to get off the Ferris wheel, the treadmill, the hamster wheel that our society gives us when it tells us we have to be more than we are. I want to tell them that they don’t have to keep doing it the way they are doing it, because my way is better.

And then I remember that I’m not being loving when I think this. I remember that to not let them make their own choices is to not let them be who they are. Who am I to tell them how to live? Each person has to grow their own way. Each “wrong” choice leads to openings and opportunities. I would not have learned to appreciate working out at the Y if I hadn’t been obese. I would not have learned the secret peace of being sober if I hadn’t been an abuser.

But here’s the trick. Even if they never stop smoking, or drinking, or eating unhealthy food, or doing any number of things I think are “bad”, I have to understand that is OK too. That is the hardest part. I have to know that they may stay just like they are, and that this may not be a stepping stone to health. They may not be a diamond in the rough. They may not ever be a flower in the making.

The ones who smell bad are just the ones whose choices result in that. There are plenty of people who make choices that don’t call attention to themselves, but I might disagree with if I knew.

I remember reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” many years ago. Well, I didn’t really read it. I read about a quarter of it. I couldn’t finish it because the narrator kept talking about how sad he was for the people he was with, that they weren’t as enlightened as he was. I knew then that such an attitude was, in itself, not enlightened, and I quit reading.

So now I’m trying to learn this lesson all over again. The minute I try to make someone else into my own image, I’m not respecting them. I can’t fix them. But more importantly, I have to learn that just because they are different from me doesn’t mean that they are broken.

Late books are someone else’s fault.

This guy came into the library today. He hands me several items that are way overdue. They were due three months ago. He tells me that they were in his ex-girlfriend’s car and he had to track her down to get them back. He also says that he didn’t get any notice that his items were late, possibly because his email address is wrong.

After I check the items in, I let him know about the fine. The total is just under $30, but he can’t pay any of it because he only has a credit card and never carries cash. The library only takes cash and checks.

Because his items were overdue to the point that he got billed for them, it had gone to collections. When he hears about this he loses his mind. “There will be hell to pay if this affects my credit score. My score is over 800!” He keeps repeating this. He also tells me that he is an attorney.

He tells me that it is the library’s fault that he was not notified because a staff member put in his email address incorrectly. He doesn’t get that the library notifying patrons about overdue books is an extra. It isn’t an automatic. It didn’t always do this. Patrons are responsible for whatever items are checked out on their account, not the library. His items were three months overdue. He gave them to someone else to deal with.

So at no point is he responsible for his actions.

And he is an attorney. I think I’ve figured out part of what is wrong with our legal system, and our country.

All he has to do is pay the small fine and it is all good. He can’t do that right now because he only carries cards. That alone is a bad decision.

All he had to do was keep up with his checked our items, which is very easy with our online system.

Yelling at a staff member sadly doesn’t fix the basic problem that he doesn’t think he has to take care of his own problems.

Library rules are for everybody.

Yes, that sign applies to you. Yes, that rule is for you. You aren’t above it.

Don’t park in a no parking zone, even if it is for “just a minute.”

Don’t use your cell phone in the library. In fact, don’t use it in
any business. They don’t want to hear what you are going to do this weekend or what you did last night, and with who.

The overdue fees apply to you, the same as everybody else. Really. I know it is hard to believe. You aren’t special. Well, you are special, just like everybody else.

Asking for special favors or an exemption is really rude. It draws negative attention.

You may think it can’t hurt to ask, but it can. It can make people resent you.

It says that you think you are special, that you are above the rules.

Recently there was a patron who bought some earrings from me, so she had my card. My card has my email address and my personal phone number on it. She turned some books in late and wanted me to “take care of it” She said I should do it “because we are friends.”

Now, I don’t know what her definition of “friend” means, but if all the interaction we have had is over some jewelry, we aren’t friends. If we’ve never hung out or been over to each other’s house, we aren’t friends. We don’t even exchange Christmas cards.

If she had a legitimate reason for wanting the fines waived I would have done it, and not because we are “friends”. You know, something big that would have prevented her from returning or renewing her books on time – like she was in the hospital. Or a car crash. Something unavoidable. But just couldn’t be bothered to bring them back on time, no. That isn’t a valid reason for waiving fines.

Not only did she call me, she emailed me about this. I said I couldn’t do it and gave her the customer service number for the main library. If they want to do it, fine. As for me, I think it sets a bad precedent. Do whatever you want and have no repercussions. Get someone else to clean up your mess. Don’t be accountable for your actions.

That isn’t the mark of an adult.

Now, while the library doesn’t actually keep any of the money it makes
from fines, that isn’t the point. If we are going to waive fines for everybody who asks us to, then what is the point of having fines? What is the point of having due dates then? People can keep a book out for as long as they want and anybody else who wants it can just wait until they bother to bring it back.

Rules are good, and rules are for a reason.

People don’t like rules when they stop them from doing whatever they want.

Yes, you have to have your library card or your ID to check out. It doesn’t matter that you have been in every week since the library opened. It ensures that we are in the correct account. Rules keep us safe. The same person who gripes that he can’t just tell you his name instead of showing his card will raise holy hell if something, or worse, a hundred somethings, are checked out on his account that he didn’t check out.

That is why we have rules, and why we apply them equally to everybody. Otherwise, we are being discriminating, and that is illegal.

Losing my job is not worth coddling people.

Ask and maybe you’ll receive.

There are some strange things people ask for at my library. Sometimes they want to know if we sell these items. (We don’t sell anything.) Sometimes they want to know if we have these items and will give them away for free. Sometimes they just want to borrow them.

Here’s a current list –

A comb.
A scale (a man wanted to weigh himself).
A flash drive.
Notebook paper.
Post-it notes.
Sodas and snacks.
A file folder.
A fax machine.

The best ever – a bow and arrow. (Wanted for purchase) Since we said no, then the patron asked if we had a crossbow for sale. He was serious.

Plenty of people ask if they can borrow a pen or a pencil. We usually let them, but after a while if it becomes routine the librarian may suggest that the person (usually a child) bring his own pen or pencil to do his homework. Sometimes this isn’t received well. While it may seem like good customer service to have many of these things available, the more items that the library provides that aren’t actual library materials takes away money from buying said library materials, you know, like books.

The library is not an office supply store.

Personally, I think it would be a good idea for the library to stock and sell many of these items. It would certainly help out in lean budget years. Perhaps not crossbows, though.

A pain in the gut.

A regular patron came in recently. Well, by regular I don’t mean he is normal. I mean he has been in often for the past several years. His paranoia has gone to new heights. He makes my former boss’ end of the world preparations look like child’s play.

He has a thirty year supply of seeds. He is raising his own food, and not just vegetables. He is raising sheep and goats and chickens. He even has a beehive.

Or at least I think he has all this. He might just be preparing to be prepared. It is in the works, at least.

He believes that you can’t trust anyone or anything. He believes that the government is out to get us all. He might be right. Who knows?

I’ve noticed that all these preppers don’t seem like happy people. Somehow all of this stocking and storing, this training and testing, doesn’t seem to be making them content. Somehow, instead of getting a sense of calm that they have everything under control and their lives are free from worry about other people and their perceived lack, they seem even more wound up.

I understand some of their desire to fend for themselves and not trust other people. When I was in college, we had to do group assignments. The group had to do the research and work on a project. Rarely did I get to pick the group I was in. I usually ended up doing all the work because I didn’t trust the competency of my fellow students. I didn’t want my grade to be adversely affected by their slack.

So the preppers are doing the same thing, but instead of their grades being affected, it is their lives. They think everything is going to hit the fan and it will be every man for himself.

I can handle only so much of this kind of talk. He has shared some of his theories with me in the past about how things are going to go south and I always feel physically bad afterwards.

I want to be present for people. I also want to be open. I want to study them as well. Sometimes I have to allow myself into situations that are uncomfortable for me in order to personally grow and learn.

But this time was different. Perhaps it was a cumulative effect. Last night’s rambles weren’t especially paranoid, but somehow I was affected adversely.

I started to feel a pain in my stomach shortly after our conversation ended. Now, it might help to know that I have a hernia. I thought it was acting up. I got it when my Mom was dying and I had to lift her from her bed to get her to the bathroom. I remember the feeling of my muscles in my abdomen snapping from the strain. She wasn’t especially heavy her whole life, and she was even less so then because of the chemotherapy, but I wasn’t trained for that kind of lifting.

I’ve strengthened my abdomen quite a bit in the past few years with water aerobics and yoga, but that kind of injury never fully heals. I’ve learned that if I do a forward fold it usually helps.

Not so in this case. I waited a bit, and then went to the bathroom. While sitting there, I thought about this pain. It kind of reminded me of the pain I had when I was in my first year of college. That wasn’t a pain from any physical illness, but it manifested in a physical way. It was a pain from stress, from anxiety, from fear. It was the pain of being too far away from everything I knew and facing a whole lot more of the unknown.

Then, I went to the student health services and they, in their ignorance, gave me an anti nausea pill that knocked me out for half a day.

I didn’t want to be unconscious, but I also didn’t want to be in pain.

So I prayed. What do I do, Lord?

The answer? A hard exhale. Just like in yoga class, the ocean sounding breath. Just like one teacher says “Fog up that invisible mirror in front of your beautiful face.” So I did it. Huhhhh.

And I felt instantly better. I did it a few more times and the pain was all gone.

And now I think I’ll have to tell that patron that I can’t listen to his prepper paranoia any more.

Just like finding out that I am allergic to a certain food and I no longer eat it because it makes me sick, I have to do the same with people and ideas. If they make me sick, don’t let them in my head.

But it is also good to know that the answer to every question is just a question away.

New Year’s reflections for the library.

It is a new year. What will this mean for the library?

It is looking good for the employees. Everything looks stable. Our jobs are affected by the economy, but it is all balancing out. We are slated to get a raise soon, after five years of hiring and wage freezes.

There is a new branch manager. She in one day has already impressed me. She wrote us all a thank you note after her first day saying that she is grateful to be working with us. She has shown appreciation for the innovations we have taken. She has worked in many departments of the system and actually knows how to do everything that everyone does.

This is already more impressive than the last branch manager who only managed to stay hired because the administration was afraid of her hitting them with a racial discrimination lawsuit if she got fired. We all still have a lot of resentment over that. We were abused by an incompetent bully for 12 years and they knew it all along. And when I say incompetent bully, please understand that she was both incompetent and a bully. As for being a bully she was a master.

Our circulation manager is leaving. She is moving to the Main library. This is a promotion for her, and a relief for us. Five years ago I would not have thought this. Five years ago I would have been terrified at the idea of her leaving.

Not now. Now we are all celebrating it.

She has changed. Or I have changed, and I can now see her for who she is. She was never empathetic. She is more interested in getting the job done than getting people to go along with her. People get in the way. She doesn’t understand that if she is going to get something to happen, she has to get all of the staff behind it. She doesn’t get that part of being a manager is actually dealing with people. She has said many times that she doesn’t like dealing with people, so it amazes me that she got a customer service job.

I’m sure a lot of how she thinks has to do with her upbringing. She didn’t really have a childhood. Her parents weren’t really parent material and she had to do a lot of the work. But she is in her mid 40s now, and it is time to unlearn a lot of bad habits. Not listening to your staff when they work up the courage to tell you that something is wrong is a good thing to unlearn, especially when you’ve asked them to give them feedback.

We are all glad she is going. We have noticed in the time she has been working at another branch to fill in that we are all more relaxed. I’m a little concerned now that she is going to spread her negativity not only there but also to the rest of the system. But then, that was their choice. She was hired for that job, so that is what they wanted. Perhaps they can’t see her the way we can. Yet.

As for the patrons, who knows? I suspect there won’t be a lot of change. I suspect we will still have the patrons who come in all day, every day, and play games on Facebook rather than deal with their problems. I suspect we will still have patrons who come in reeking of alcohol who check out the limit on DVDs for the same reason.

Plenty of people use the library to escape. The funny part is that escape works different ways. You can escape your problems by playing games or watching movies or reading the same fluffy fiction over and over. You can also escape them by self educating. With the first, you aren’t fixing the problem. You are just putting it on hold. With the second you are doing something about it.

Both are running away from your problems. It is just that the second one is running toward something.

So it will be a new year at the library. There will be some welcome changes. There will be some predictable consistency. But most of all there will be stories. And thus there will be things to write about. Sometimes I think that is why I stay here.

That, and the fact that I’m not sure what other marketable skills I have.