Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Obituary Symmetry

....or, I Love When this Kind of Stuff Happens.

The two obituaries in today's New York Times couldn't have been better planned.
http://www.nytimes.com/pages/obituaries/index.html (Best appreciated, at least by this "Lackluster Veteran", in the print format. See http://www.pewinternet.org/press_release.asp?r=140 for what I learned at WLA last week.)

Peg Bracken, "I Hate to Cook" Author, Dies at 89.

Vincent DeDomenico, 92, an Inventor of Rice-A-Roni.

According to his obituary, DeDomenico and his brothers invented "the San Francisco treat" in 1958. The inspiration occurred as he watched his sister-in-law mix a can of Swanson's chicken broth with rice and vermicelli. And the rest, as they say, is history -- though not in the household in which I grew up. My mother took great pride in her cooking and baking abilities. Not a single box of Rice-A-Roni ever made it to our kitchen cupboards. And I'd guess that this ban, not consciously made, has remained in place since I left for college in September of 1968. (Mom's 87 and will be cooking up a big feast when JoAnna and the boys and I make our first Thanksgiving trip to Warren, Pennsylvania, in at least 10 years. And everyone's favorite homemade cookies will have been freshly baked. )

Baby boomers all remember the jingle, of course, sung by a chorus of voices and punctuated by the clang of a cable car.
Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat.
Rice-A-Roni, the flavor can’t be beat.
One pan of boiling cooking ease
For flavor that is sure to please.
Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat.

(Spoken by a male announcer with a deep, mellifluous voice) Rice-A-Roni, the delicious break from potatoes, now in 6 fabulous flavors.

In case you've forgotten it -- hardly likely -- you can revive those brain cells at.....
Beware! It will continue to play on a continuous loop inside your head for days.

And you know you still want to know more.

For a brief history of Rice-A-Roni, go here (http://www.ricearoni.com/rar_aboutUs/history/index.cfm)

Andrew Purvis posts a brief, satiric tribute to Edith Pilaf, who allegedly sang the first Rice-A-Roni jingle. (Yeah, right, and I have a bridge for sale. Or maybe you'd prefer to read The Glass Castle.)

And as for Peg....
The I Hate to Cook Book was published in 1960. Her obituary notes that it was the perfect accompaniment to the Rice-A-Roni era. In spite of the era's quest for conveninece, her book, though popular, didn't end up on the list of top ten nonfiction books for the year (http://www.caderbooks.com/best60.html); Betty Crocker still ruled the cookbook category with a ruthless efficiency.

Peg's breakthrough book has long been weeded from the collections of LINK libraries. Wisconsin Dells has a later edition, published in 1986: The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book. Since 1994, it has circulation 47 times. Not too shabby. 22 amazon reviewers give it an average of 5 stars.

Somebody should take care of the following YouTube search result: No Videos found for 'Peg Bracken'. As a spokesperson for Birdseye frozen foods, she became a regular fixture on TV.
http://www.birdseyefoods.com/birdseye/about/history.aspx (but nothing about Peg)

I did learn the following tidbit, though
On March 6 in Springfield, Massachusetts, General Foods, via Birds Eye, conducts what is now called "the Springfield Experiment" in 18 retail stores to see how consumers will react to frozen foods; today, the experiment is considered the birth of retail frozen foods. The initial Birds Eye line features 26 items, including 18 cuts of frozen meat, spinach and peas, a variety of fruits and berries, blue point oysters and fish fillets. By May, sales increase dramatically.
Mom was 10 years old at the time, living on Hartford Terrace in Springfield with her parents and 3 sisters. I'll have to ask her if she remembers frozen foods becoming a dinner staple at that time.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

An "After This" Afterthought

I enjoy interacting with the group of regulars who attend Middleton's book discussions, and they give me consistent high marks for the books that I choose. Now I'm wondering about continuing in this role, perhaps once a year, after I retire -- as a "guest leader".

I have mixed feelings about the idea. I don't want to be accused of not being able to let go. And, perhaps, as a new director, I'd feel it was a bit intrusive. When Dad retired, he continued to attend services as a member of St. Paul's as a member, though it certainly must have been an extraordinary adjustment for him. (Everyone was so sad to see him give up his pastoral duties.) At the same time, he politely refused to accept, for example, requests to baptize children of parishioners he had confirmed and/or married. (And there were lots of them after serving the same church for 24 years.) But this is certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison in my situation.

Comments from colleagues?

Friday, October 12, 2007

"After This" Discussion Questions


I used discussion questions from BookBrowse (http://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm?book_number=1875) as a jumping-off point for my own, although not all similarities have been obscured. The opening question worked particularly well as a warm-up.

After the program, I dutifully wrote up the following summary for the library’s “Events Evaluation” webpage.

For the most part, everyone participated in equal measure, offering thoughtful, mostly positive comments and observations. I abandoned my prepared list of questions early on, but not because they didn't work. After the first two, the discussion developed its own momentum. A number of participants offered their own prepared questions, for which they were eager to have feedback. Only two members of the group had previously read anything by McDermott, which makes me even happier with the selection of "After This". Grateful comments all around after the program concluded.

In her sixth novel, Alice McDermott takes us on an elliptical tour of John and Mary Keene and their four children: Jacob, Michael, Annie, and Clare. In this most understated of family sagas, McDermott provides us with a series of vignettes that span the years from just after World War II into mid-1970s. The characters and setting are vintage McDermott: Irish-Catholic Long Island suburbanites. As with all her fiction, there are many passages, skillfully observed scenes, worth savoring, which make the audio version of the book a distinct challenge, especially while driving.

1. Had you previously read any books by Alice McDermott? If not, is she an author with whom you were familiar? What were your expectations as you began reading this novel?
2. McDermott’s writing style has been praised for its effective use of imagery and understatement. How well are these elements put to use in telling the story of the Keene family?
3. In another writer’s hands – Colleen McCullough or John Jakes, for example – After This might have been stretched out to 3 times its length. How successful were you in filling in the blanks of the Keenes’ lives?
4. What examples of McDermott’s understatement stopped you in your tracks? (The essence of Pauline: It would be Pauline’s way to say, No you didn’t. It would be Pauline’s way to refuse the decorum of the fib, to embrace the painful honesty.)
5. Mary is the first character that we get to know in the book. She is 30, with no husband in sight, works full-time in a Manhattan office, and lives with her father and brother. What kind of path did you think her life was going to take at this time? After the first 8 pages of the book, how well did you feel that you knew Mary?
6. What about the two men we know about in Mary’s life before she married John: her brother’s friend George and Mike Shea. How did they shape your understanding of her life as a married woman and mother unfolded?
7. Why does Mary continue to remain friends with Pauline throughout her life? Is Pauline a difficult person because she never married, or did she never marry because she's such a difficult person?
8. Why does the wind always seem to be blowing during the first quarter of the novel? (The bitter April wind in Manhattan, the windy beach on Labor Day, the downed tree.)
9. In the first decade of the 21st century, how far removed are we from the type of family life depicted in After This? What does the future hold for Clare and Gregory?
10. What’s the significance of the novel's title?
11. How important is the church in the lives of the Keene family? How does the role of the church change from one generation to the next? Why did McDermott use Sister Lucy's story (page 214) as one of her vignettes?
12. The 27 customer reviews of After This on amazon.com comprise a wide spectrum of reactions. 10 people gave the book 5 stars, 8 gave it 4, 3 gave it 3 stars, 2 gave it 2 stars, and 4 gave it 1 star. Here’s what Arlene had to say: The author spends so much time giving details about episodes and I kept thinking "so what?" It seems like much detail was given to meaningless aspects of the story and so much was left out that would have been more interesting. Each chapter was like a short story unto itself, and then just dropped. No interaction between the family members themselves, just insanely boring details about their individual lives. I wish I HAD just borrowed it from the library and not been out my money. If Arlene was sitting with us right now, how would you respond to her?
13. If characters in books could be given awards, I’d nominate Mrs. Antonelli for a “best supporting” role. How does the chapter in which she appears – when Jacob takes Clare out of school under false pretenses – help to fill in the gaps of what we know about the Keenes? Why do you think that McDermott seemingly stuffs this chapter full of personal memories?
14. How would you describe this book to a friend how had never previously anything by McDermott?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Memory of Dad's Retirement

Dad would have turned 92 today, but Parkinson's Disease snuffed out his life 8 1/2 years ago. In fact, the slow, inexorable phyical and mental decline left him hollowed out throughout the final few years of his life. JoAnna and the boys and I saw him only one or twice a year during this time, usually at Christmas when we'd make the pilgrimage to both sets of grandparents' houses. When it was too late, I decided I had all these questions to ask him about his life -- growing up, choosing a career, courting Mom, being a father. By that time, he didn't even know who I was.

The congregation of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Warren Pennsylvania hosted a retirement party for Dad on Sunday, August 30, 1981. Here's what I noted in my journal that day.

Dad's last official day as pastor of St. Paul's. He delivered an inspiring sermon, giving no sign of the emotional turmoil he must have been experiencing internally. I found myself frequently fighting back the tears. In fact, at the conclusion of the service, I was suffering from a headache centered near the bridge of my nose.

The family ate dinner together at Jackson Heights, not the most appropriate restaurant to share a special occasion. Warren has no outstanding eateries; we had no choice to speak of. With no meatless entrees to select from the menu, Barb ordered the pot roast beef without a single disparaging comment. Maybe she is finally realizing how strange her inflexible philosophies appear to others.

Dale skipped out on the afternoon open house in Mom and Dad's honor at the church. To be expected. Unfortunately, he missed one of the most sincere and touching outpourings of love that I have ever experienced. The president of the Warren County Ministerial Association, Father Carter, and a few members of the congregation saluted Dad's 24 years of service. Father Carter's heartfelt speech left me feeling exhausted from working overtime to suppress the emotion I felt. Standing in the reception line, I tried to remember the names associated with the identifiable 50/50 mix of familiar faces and strangers.

A conversation with Bill Brader after the morning service best typifies the emotion-charged day. At one point, Bill said to me, "You know, Paul, at this point in time, I just feel like finding a quiet corner and crying my eyes out." I felt my body quake as he spoke these words. Using every ounce of strength I could muster, I managed to retain my composure.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates

In my October 4th post, I made a reference to being a baseball statistics junkie way back when – and even threatened to name the starting line-up and batting averages of the 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. (Game 1, to be specific.) I'm delivering on this threat – and offering some parenthetical remarks in the process.

Bill Virdon cf .264 (Best team outfield fielding percentage with .983)
Dick Groat ss .325 (Led the league in batting average)
Bob Skinner lf .273 (Led the team with 11 stolen bases. Not a fleet of foot team.)
Dick Stuart 1b .260 (“Dr. Strangeglove”. 114 hits and 104 strikeouts in 438 at bats)
Roberto Clemente rf .314 (Led the team with 94 rbi’s)
Smokey Burgess c .294 (Struck out only 13 times in 337 at bats)
Don Hoak 3b .282 (Led the team with 74 base on balls)
Bill Mazeroski 2b .273 (Hit the most dramatic home run in baseball history)
Vern Law p .171 (20 wins, 9 losses, with a 3.08 earned run average)


For Father’s Day this year, JoAnna gave me the David Maraniss biography of Roberto Clemente. I stopped reading it after finishing the chapter on the 1960 World Series. The book reminded me of the plodding, formulaic, young adult sports biographies I regularly checked out of the Warren Public Library in junior high school. (Yes, my reading tastes back then were unforgivably lame.) A friend of mine, also from Pennsylvania – though we didn’t know each other way back when – and also a big Pirates fan during the 60s and 70s agrees with this assessment.

According to the customer reviews on amazon.com, however, the two of us are decidedly in the minority. (Some might say the minor leagues.) 41 reviewers rate the book a 5-star read, 10 give it 4 stars, 2 give it 3 stars, and 1 person only managed a 2-star reaction. I wonder how many people reviewed the person instead of the book. Indeed, Roberto Clemente is one of the few baseball players that I’d give 5 stars.

Unfortunately for Pirate fans, of which I consider myself a dormant example, there’s been nothing to cheer about since 1979 except for a beautiful new stadium.

Friday, October 5, 2007

New Library Director Recruitment & Hiring Timeline (Not a Final Version)

I've already shared this list with one colleague. (Congratulations to Kris Adams Wendt on a stellar 34-year career in public libraries at Rhinelander.) Now the next time someone asks, I can refer them to Retiring Guy.

Tasks (and who is responsible)

1. Identify costs association with hiring process: reimbursement for travel to interview, relocation expenses for new hire. (Library Board, Finance Committee) Decision item included in 2008 budget proposal.

1. Review Library Director position description: duties/examples of work, knowledge and abilities, physical demands of the position (Library Board)
2. Read Trustee Essentials, chapter 5: "Hiring a Library Director", with focus on what to look for in a new director, basic legal requirements, steps to follow when hiring (Library Board, Staff, City Administrator)
3. Appoint a search-and-screen committee: refine overall timelime, determine non-board members who will participate. (Library Board)
4. Prepare Achievement History Questionnaire (to be sent to applicants with acknowledgement letter): determine number & type of questions to be included. (Library Board)


1. Write job advertisement: approve wording, determine where to publish in online & print and resources & when the ad should first appear, set deadline to apply, select contact person. (Library Board, Management Staff)
2. Determine salary (Library Board)

February-March-April (search-and-screen committee)
1. Conduct review of resumes: acknowledgements, distribution, method of preliminary evaluation & ranking.
2. Contact references.
3. Consider procedures for contacts not listed as reference.
4. Determine number of candidates to invite for interviews
5. Determine format of formal interviews.
6. Develop uniform list of questions for interviews
7. Schedule dates and times for interviews; make necessary travel arrangements.
8. Plan activities for staff interaction: tour, informal staff contacts, management staff meeting.

May (Search-and-screen committee)
1. Conduct interviews.
2. Contact references (assignments, uniform list of questions)

June (Library Board President, search-and-screen committee)

1. Contact selected candidate
2. Send confirmation of appointment and starting date in writing
3. Request letter of acceptance
4. Notify other candidates of hiring decision
5. Provide housing, school, other community information

August (Staff)

1. Staff in-service (Meet the New Director)

September (Library Board, Staff)
1. Conduct orientation
2. Host community reception

Thursday, October 4, 2007

What's going on in library circulation?

Is it the weather?
Wisconsin’s summery conditions have continued into the fall.

The early-season successes of the Badgers and Packers correspond with September Saturday and Sunday circulation tallies that are slightly below Middleton’s year-to-date averages.

Or is it something downright ominous?
According to the Foreward column in the 7/30/2007 issue of Publishers Weekly, “[T]he record-breaking sales of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows provided a much-needed shot in the arm to bookstore sales, which were down 4.3% through May and had fallen every month this year.”
Librarians tend to take stock in a reworking of an old hippie adage: Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries. In this case, if people buying fewer books, then they should be visiting their libraries more, right?

Actually, that may be the case here, as the number of “checkout sessions” at the Middleton Public Library in September 2007 increased a whopping 37%, compared to the previous September – from 13,125 to 17,999. Overall circulation increased just 2%. Maybe people are just visiting us more but checking out fewer materials each time.

What concerns me, though, is a 3% decrease in the circulation of materials for adults, as opposed to an 11% increase in the circulation of children’s materials. This decrease had occurred only one other time this year – in March, less than 1% -- so it’s much too early to declare that a trend is taking place.

After a review of a LINK spreadsheet that lists the circulation of library materials by format, however, it turns out that the circulation of books may not be an area of concern.
Here’s the breakdown of some September 2007/2006 comparisons in adult formats:

Format (2007 circ) (2006 circ)
Fiction (4,653) (4,484)
New fiction (1,960) (1,933)
New nonfiction (1,576) (1,476)

The declines have occurred here:

Format (2007 circ) (2006 circ)
Nonfiction (5,518) (5,745)
Paperbacks (2,490) (2,512)
Magazines (946) (1,139)

The downward trend in paperbacks has been occurring for the past 3 years and may be related to the declining popularity of the mass-market format.
The decline in magazine circ canceled out most of the gains we had experienced so far this year.

But here’s the eye-poppin' revelation:
Format (2007 circ) (2006 circ)
DVDs (7,508) (7,524)

Up til now, we had always experienced double-digit percentage increases in this particular format. And we’re already experiencing up-and-down use of our music CDs in both the teen and adult collections. (Welcome to downloading.) It's no secret that circulation of audiovisual materials has driven most circulation increases in public libraries in recent years.

Some may accuse me of obsessing over increasingly obsolete methods of library use measurement, and they may very well be right. (Full disclosure: I really love this stuff. It goes back to my boyhood of being a baseball statistics junkie. Want me to name the starting line-up and batting averages of the 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates? Actually, I can’t do the batting averages anymore, but I certainly know where to look them up.)

It’s not as though people are abandoning us. We can't seem to offer enough children's programs to meet demand. We continue to experience increased use of our public-access computers – this summer was particularly challenging – and reference staff is providing more instruction in helping patrons find their way through the “e-government” maze, a topic worthy of a separate post.

One last Nellie’s crunch: Of the 49 LINK library locations in the South Central Library System, 29 recorded declines in circulation when comparing September 2006 and 2007. Can’t tell you about their DVD circ, tho.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Read It First Here

Each bimonthly issue of The Bookworm, the Middleton Public Library’s newsletter features a brief profile of a staff member. For the last issue of 2007, Liz Dannenbaum, Head of Adult Services and de facto newsletter editor, selected the Retiring Guy and asked me to answer the following questions. Unlike a face-to-face interview, I get to ponder my answers.
(Current issue of The Bookworm found at http://www.midlibrary.org/library/newsletter/default.asp)

How does it feel to be the director of the "Library of the Year"?
I'm very proud of the recognition it gives us for the great things we do. And it’s an especially well-deserved honor for a hard-working staff and a very supportive community. I don’t know how meaningful this statistic is … but each Middleton library staff member – and we have a total of 20 fulltime-equivalent employees – is responsible for 36,000 circulations. The state average is 18,000. (Oops! Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned this. Everyone is going to want to be paid double what they earn now!)
As wonderful as it is to be selected as the Library of the Year, I still find what's most gratifying are the frequent expressions of satisfaction I hear from people who use the library – mostly along the lines of…”You have such a friendly and helpful staff!”

Now that you've decided to retire next summer from this job, what do you look forward to doing after that?
I look at next year not so much as a transition to retirement but as an opportunity to reformat my career. My options will include teaching, consulting, and perhaps even serving as an interim library director on a short-term basis. After my dad retired, having served 38 years as a Lutheran minister, he still found himself in the pulpit on an occasional Sunday morning. (I never asked him if he recycled his old sermons.)
As for other things, I should be able to give more attention to the blog I just started (“Retiring Guy”) and write the short stories that have been percolating inside my head for the past 30 years. I also have some ambitious home landscaping projects in mind and plan to do a lot more bicycling.
Sounds like I’m going to be busier than ever, doesn’t it? Where’s the hammock time?

What are you reading these days?
Right now I’m re-reading After This, by Alice Dermott, in preparation for the library’s October book discussion. I have to admit that much of my reading – and reading plans – of late has me focusing on favorite titles: Confederacy of Dunces, Rabbit Run (and the rest of this series), and Gone South, this last title by the inexplicably neglected, nearly forgotten, it seems, Robert McCammon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The "last" year

Although it may seem that I'm eager to leave, I still very much enjoy my responsibilities as Library Director. Nevertheless, I still can't help but think in terms of "last acts".

  • Last staff in-service workshop (Next August's gathering will be an opportunity to "Meet the New Library Director".)
  • Last calendar ordered for myself. (Shouldn't I be organizing my life electronically anyway?)
  • Last budget preparation. (Well, almost. Due to the recruitment & hiring timetable, I needed to prepare a template for the 2009 budget proposal. Thinking too far ahead maybe?)
  • Last budget presentation to finance committee. (The new director will have no doubt already experienced this sensation elsewhere.)
  • Last Wisconsin Library Association conference as a full-time librarian. (I've already volunteered to help out at the registration desk for the October 2008 WLA conference at the Marriott in Middleton. What an arm-twister that Nancy McClements is!)

But it's too early to take a curtain call right now.