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Masks and Eyebrows

Yesterday I heard a couple staff members, both of them masked, laughing about not knowing whether the other was smiling or not, happy or not. It can be difficult, in times that require most of us to wear masks most of the time–at least when we’re in public–to pick up on the usual visual cues from our fellow human beings.

But not that difficult. Masks that cover our mouths and noses leave the most expressive parts of our faces, our eyes and eyebrows, fully available for nonverbal communication. We send a lot of messages with our eyes and eyebrows, and most people can readily interpret them.

But did you know that eyebrows are more important in human communication than our eyes? This is something I’ve read much about lately. There was a study done in England that used photos of many well-known celebrities, from politicians to singers to actors, and showed them to test subjects. The subjects were asked to name them. Then the same celebrities were presented to test subjects with their eyes blanked out. And finally they were shown with their eyebrows blanked out.

Sure enough, when the eyes were blanked out there was a lesser rate of recognition. But the surprising thing to the researchers was that there was a much larger effect when the eyebrows were missing–many more of the test subjects couldn’t recognize even very famous people when they didn’t have eyebrows.

It has been said that this is why Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is so often described as ‘enigmatic,’ because she has no eyebrows. And another thing, if you have ever watched animals like dogs or horses in animated films, you will notice that they are given eyebrows that are not anatomically correct, but necessary if those animals are meant to express much in the way of thought or emotion.

I am getting used to wearing a mask, and to seeing people in masks. I hope everyone is.

Next week the library will begin offering curbside service to our patrons. The hours will be from 9 to 4:30, Monday through Friday. When your requested items are ready to pick up, we will call you. We don’t know at this point how long we will do curbside before moving to some inside service. But you can bet that when we do, we will be insisting that everyone wear a mask.

And I believe we will still recognize most of our usual patrons.

Library Books

I was talking to a friend earlier this week about library books. Millions of Americans check out and read library books every day. But some people never will because they don’t like the idea of reading a book someone else–a stranger, no less–has already read. My friend told me her husband (now deceased) had been one such. One day he was reading a book from the library, and found a stain of some sort on a page. He said it was from somebody’s lunch, and from then on he always purchased the books he read.

It’s true. Library books do get read by many people, and the more popular the book, the more likely that it has passed through multiple hands. We get our most frequent complaints about books that have obviously been read by heavy smokers. That smell is hard to get out of a book. But there are occasional food stains and more. But it’s not all that common: I have read almost exclusively library books for more than three decades, and it has rarely been a problem.

With the advent of COVID-19, there are new problems. A few people have asked me why, if grocery stores and other stores can be open, a library can’t be open? A library has a whole additional level of danger that stores do not. When you buy your groceries or anything else from a store (even books from a bookstore), they go home with you and that’s the end of that transaction. Everything you check out from a library is coming back to us.

We have spent a lot of time considering how to handle returned items. It’s a problem that nobody really knows how long the corona virus lives on the surface of books and DVD cases. Various libraries have talked about quarantining items for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Seventy-two hours is the guidance from the CDC, so the libraries of the Municipal Library Consortium recently settled on a standard of 72 hours (3 days) for all returned items.

There is a study going on in Columbus, Ohio, between the Columbus Public Library and Battelle Research, to actually ascertain how long the virus lives on books. But those results will not be available until mid-July at the earliest. In the meantime, we’ll hold to the 72-hour standard.

As libraries start moving towards providing some kind of service in the next few weeks, there are things for you to consider. If you request an item from another library, it will have to sit an additional three days before we can check it in and let you know that it’s here. And the things you return will sit for three days before we check them in. How long these safety measures will be in place is a question nobody can answer.

We counsel patience.


Day Twenty-four

The spring is coming on quickly. The skies are blue, the air is clear, everything is in bloom. Walking to work I pass Roger’s Produce with all its bedding plants displayed along the sidewalk: the magnolias have mostly gone by, but red buds and dogwoods are blooming around Eden Seminary and Webster University. Is it imagination, or are the birds more joyful than usual? Fewer people disturbing their mating dances? Less traffic noise to drown out their happy songs? Even the squirrels seem more ebullient and more numerous than in years past. If you haven’t been out much, it really is a beautiful spring. I have two observations to make about this.

First, in the past several years there has been much talk about losing spring. The worry is that climate change has eroded the natural order so much that we just transition from winter to summer with only a week or two of springlike weather interceding. A friend of mine on Facebook last year noted that ‘I would have planned more spring activities if I had known it was only going to last three days.’ But this year we are getting a spring like I remember. A rainy March leading into mild April days; varying temperatures teasing us with warm days and then cool ones. Everything in bloom–daffodils, tulips, azaleas, forsythia–seemingly all at once. Seems kind of unfair to get this wonderful spring when we’re all trapped inside. But we can go out, take a walk, spend time in the yard, so it’s not all lost.

The other thing I want to note is how lovely is this community of Webster Groves. Having worked here for fifteen years, I have witnessed quite a few controversies over new developments, even bitter fights; often these fights have ended proposed projects, which is always a disappointment to somebody. I don’t take sides in these things, but I will note that the long-term affect is a town like no other–at least not like many. So many beautiful lawns, so many flower-rich gardens, so many old blooming trees. Walking through Webster Groves at this time of year–even along Lockwood Avenue, as close to a main street as the city has–is like walking through a lush garden. I defy you to show me a community that does spring better!




Day Seventeen

Webster Groves Public Library is heavily invested in local history. One of our annual projects is to mount a historical display each July of some subject of historical interest. Last year we did the mayors of Webster Groves, a subject that was so popular we are still being asked to speak about it at various places. This year’s July display will be about notable women of Webster Groves. Much of that research has been done.

When we research these subjects, one of our main sources is newspapers. We have an archive of newspapers on microfilm, as well as bound volumes of some, on loan from the Webster Groves Historical Society. We also have an almost complete run of the Webster Kirkwood Times, donated to us a few summers ago by Dwight Bitikofer, that paper’s publisher.

Which brings me to the sad news. I read in last week’s edition of the Times that it would be the last issue for a while, perhaps the last print issue period. In his editorial about the closure, Dwight notes that it may be temporary. Ad revenue had been declining, even before the nail in the coffin of the COVID-19 pandemic; more and more advertisers are turning to online marketing. He also noted that each year, more of the red delivery bags are untouched on people’s front lawns. He is in search of a sustainable business model for a local newspaper.

Webster Groves has been served well by newspapers in its history. From 1914 to 1961, there was the Webster News-Times. From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, there was the Webster Advertiser. For a period in the 1970s, when there was no paper, the Rath family at Acme Printing stepped into the breach and produced a newsy, weekly newsletter called simply Acme Press, which ran from 1974-1981. (We also have a nearly complete run of this, donated by the Raths.) The Webster-Kirkwood Times has been printed since 1978.

Many, perhaps most people, now use online sources for their news. Dwight Bitikofer invites us to visit the Webster-Kirkwood Times Website. It worries me. Will online sources maintain the same level of archives that paper copies provide? Will a historian a hundred years from now be able to look up the name of a person who appeared in one local news story, one time?

Journalism has been called the first rough draft of history. I understand that. No, journalism is rarely perfect. It is up to later, more objective historians to look at old news stories and see the biases, unfiltered opinions, and undue urgencies of the time, and arrive at the historical facts that need to be preserved. But if that story is not there to work with, what will historians do?

One thing I know for sure, history will not be written in tweets.

Day Sixteen

I thought that today I would let up on talking about the current crisis and simply review a few recent books I have read.

The first is The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson. Larson’s books have been in high demand ever since his 2004 book Devil in the White City. His new book is about Winston Churchill and World War II; beginning on the first day he becomes Prime Minister, it tells the story of how he led the people of England during the early days of the war, how he wooed President Roosevelt to take a more active part in the war, and how his own family survived these terrible times. The book moves quickly through the early years of the war, providing broad historical background and telling intimate details in equal measure.

One interesting section deals with shortages during the war. Food and fuel were rationed, and many standard necessities were hard to come by. Larson tells the story of King George himself, who could not find the brand of toilet paper he preferred. The brand was Bromo, made in America but usually available in England. He had to order his Bromo through the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Another book I recently read is Cheaters Always Win: The Story of America, by J. M. Fenster. Fenster tells the story of how cheating has spread through much of American society, in areas such as school, business, relationships, sports, and more. One of her key points is that while you can establish your character in America by being upright and ethical, you can also establish your character by never tattling on people who are not upright and ethical: that kids in school are lectured more on not being snitches than they are on not being cheaters.

She has an interesting section on card sharks operating in the U.S. military. Did you know that Richard M. Nixon left the navy after WWII with $10,000 in his pocket, won from other sailors and marines? He used it to buy his first home and set up his law practice. Fenster also tells the story of a card shark who gave up the practice of cheating his G.I. buddies after his experience during the battle of Iwo Jima. He also had a huge wad of cash on him, won in poker games. But as the battle wore on, supplies ran short. He began peeling off $10 and $20 bills and giving them to his comrades in arms–to use as toilet paper!

I highly recommend both books, and I hope I have managed to take your mind off current events and problems with these reviews.


Day Fifteen

This weekend I was out much. I think many people were. We’re all trying to find things to do that entail little or no contact with other people, and on a weekend as lovely as this past one, that means parks. I was in a city park, a county park, and a state park in the past few days. They were different experiences.

Forest Park was very crowded Sunday morning, hundreds of people walking, running, and walking dogs. For the most part, people were keeping respectful distances. They waited until you finished crossing a foot bridge before starting across. They walked in the street or crossed to the other side to avoid passing each other. When we did these things, we often waved and offered polite, resigned smiles to one another.

But some people apparently did not get the message. I saw groups of people sitting at tables, groups of people gathered on blankets on the grass. People continued to approach strangers, asking to pet their dogs. In response to this, St. Louis has now announced the closure of roads in Forest Park to discourage such congregating.

Cliff Cave Park, a county park in heavily populated South County (Oakville, actually) was again very busy. I was hoping to have a bike ride on its 5-mile Mississippi Trail. But it was just too crowded to get on a bike. Moreover, the trail, which does after all lie along a flood plain of the Mississippi River, was still inundated from recent rains.

And again, one saw signs of people who are not heeding warnings against groups congregating. Picnics of a dozen or more people, groups occupying several tables in the big pavilion. I haven’t heard if St. Louis County plans to close park access, but it may have to.

Finally, I visited Hawn State Park, about an hour’s drive south of St. Louis. This is a lovely, natural park with forests of short-leaved pines and the oddly-named Pickle Creek meandering through it. It was blissfully unoccupied by other people. I saw a only a handful of people, and never came within more than a hundred yards of anyone else.

I understand that everyone is desperate for things to do, and when the weather is so lovely, there is the desire to get out to a park in sunshine. But that can’t mean getting together with a big group of family and friends, not yet, not by a long shot. We are all such social animals–but we need to go on making the sacrifice of not being around one another. It’s our only hope to shorten the time needed to diminish or defeat this virus.

Day Eleven

I awoke yesterday morning to the news that one of my oldest friends has the corona virus. He was tested Sunday, after exhibiting several of the standard symptoms, and has been home in quarantine with his wife (who is a nurse) ever since. He sent a text, which I read first thing and sent my sympathies.

I spent the day worrying about it, both about my friend specifically and about the situation in general. It’s funny, things are quiet outside, the spring is coming on, there is little traffic on the streets. I work as much as I can, but I am not as busy or stressed about work things as usual. I have groceries and toilet paper at home. There is an odd, embracing calm.

But then things hit close to home. Yes, I am in one of the demographics–people above sixty–most likely to succumb to COVID-19. That’s worrisome. I do the recommended things, as most of us do, but who can ever be careful enough? You can’t see a virus, you don’t know where it might linger, it is all very frightening.

Last night I called my friend and we spoke for a while. He’s not doing bad. His temperature has not climbed above 101.3. He has a little trouble when he walks around with shortness of breath, but is far from needing a ventilator. All in all, he feels on the mend. His biggest problem now is that his employer sent a courier with paperwork asking him to waive his HIPAA confidentiality rights, and that is a concern. But it’s reassuring to know that someone in my age group can contract the illness and live to tell the tale.

But then, my friend is a tough old bird. I hope I am too.

Day Ten

I saw an interesting item online today. It was a sort of clock face with an arrow, with the question beneath it, ‘Do you think life in America will be different after the Coronavirus?’ You were supposed to move the arrow from side to side to indicate a range from very much different to not different at all. I didn’t respond.

There is nothing more unreliable than a prediction, especially a prediction in the middle of a poorly understood crisis. Predictions rarely serve to make people feel better, and are really only indicators of your own level of pessimism or optimism.

I am optimistic. I am not sure why, but it does make me feel better. Walking to the library this morning I passed through a four-way stop. There is very little traffic out these days, but even so, if you watch at intersections, people will stop, look, and then proceed. This is because we are Americans. I’m not kidding.

Firoozeh Dumas is an Iranian-American author. She wrote Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America. I heard her interviewed when the book first came out. She told about her Iranian father, standing at the window of their first home in America, watching the street out front. He was ceaselessly amused at how Americans would pull up and stop at a stop sign, even though nobody else was in the intersection.

We have a deeply ingrained sense of civic life. America is a strong, successful, functioning democracy because most of us, most of the time, follow the rules. Even when nobody is watching. The stop sign does not represent oppression to us, something we must do, but an agreement amongst us, that we will share the roads with our neighbors, and all work to make them safe. Americans have been making such agreements for a long time–it can truly be said that America began when the Pilgrims sat down and signed the Mayflower Compact, agreeing to all abide by the same rules, and creating a society based on those rules.

We are asked to shelter in place, to not congregate. We are asked to make quite a few sacrifices in the name of containing this virus. I am encouraged to think that most Americans will do it. Sure, if you spend too much time online or watching cable news, you’ll see stories about some guy somewhere who purposely coughed on a grocery store clerk, or somebody who lost his cool at a Walmart and began knocking over displays. But for every story like that, there are many, many thousands of us who are trying our best to get through, and are doing a good job of it, because our lives and the lives of our good American neighbors depend on it.

So yes, I am optimistic.

Day Nine

Today I am thinking about literature that might be pertinent to our situation. Sure, there are the morbid selections, like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, or Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set during the same plague (bubonic) in the same city (London) as Defoe’s earlier work. There are books that sound more fitting than they really are, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, which is really a love story, though one of the characters is a physician concerned with eradicating cholera.

There are also non-fiction works. John Barry’s 2004 book The Great Influenza is probably the best history of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. (Read this one to learn why the ‘Spanish flu’ should be renamed the ‘Kansas flu’). But reading about such things, while edifying, might only serve to make us worry more.

Walking the eerily quiet streets these days I am reminded of On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel about the end of the world. Set in Australia, there has been an apocalyptic nuclear war, and the Aussies are just biding their time, waiting for the cloud of atomic radiation to drift across their island and kill them all. It’s a strange but compelling concept for a novel. It was made into a movie in 1959 starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire. It was much criticized at the time as being a piece of Red propaganda: Director Stanley Kramer had more than his share of problems with the House Un-American Activities Committee, so maybe there was some truth to that. Was fear of nuclear annihilation unpatriotic? The movie was remade in 2000, not a bad version, but it added very little to the story.

But for some reason, the book that most calls to my mind where we are right now is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, the sixth book in the Little House series. If you are familiar with this literary franchise only through the treacly 1970s television show, you may be startled by the harsh realities Wilder narrates in her books. This is not a long winter of bobsledding and Christmas parties, but a months-long struggle for survival after a blizzard strands the Ingallses and their neighbors with dwindling supplies of food and fuel for heating. The setting was the very real severe winter of 1880-1881 in the Dakota Territory.

It is the isolation of the family that most comes to mind now. Long days spent indoors with limited light and little to do, trying to keep warm, trying to keep up their spirits. Young Laura concentrates on what schoolwork she can until it grows too tedious. The family run out of wood and spend many hours twisting hay into makeshift logs; they run out of flour and spend entire days grinding wheat in a hand-cranked coffee mill. Kind of makes a little social distancing seem tame by comparison, and through it all the sense of family togetherness never wanes.

There is room for heroics too. When the entire village is threatened with running out of food, Almanzo Wilder and a friend make a hazardous journey through the snow to a farm rumored to have plenty of wheat. (This is the book where the Ingallses and the Wilders first become acquainted.) I don’t think that kind of sacrifice is going to be needed in our current situation, but every time someone smiles at me and says good morning–even from a distance, I ponder the resilience of the human spirit.