…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Sunday, September 03, 2006

what you don’t know can hurt you

I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I certainly didn’t realize it at the time. I actually felt well rested and pleasant enough upon awakening, knowing as I did that for the next few days I would be free of my labors: the nudging around of commas and such. Let misplaced punctuation flourish throughout the land this Labor Day, for I care not. What I do care about, among several other things, are reference books, and no one can make me give them up, not even on a weekend during which I’m encouraged to eschew the tools of my trade.

Ever seen the Hepburn-Tracy film Desk Set? Kate is the head of the reference department at a television network and Spence is an efficiency expert hired to assess where his newly developed supercomputer can replace employees and save the company a few bucks in payroll. I’ve watched the movie at least a dozen times, never giving a flying fig about the inevitable romantic sparks between go-getter working gal Hepburn and her perceived archenemy Tracy. I’m in it for the scenes during which Kate and her team field inquiries ranging from the total weight of the earth to the names of Santa’s eight reindeer, sometimes answering off the tops of their heads but more often searching out answers in their glorious stacks, an upstairs loft with thousands of books collectively containing all the information any of the various employees of a TV network could ever need to know.

A teenager when I first saw the film, I suddenly knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: Hepburn’s fast-talking, whip-smart human encyclopedia, without the messy romantic entanglements. Why did she have to moon after Gig Young or fall for Spence when she had the greatest life ever—a single woman with a head full of steam and a roomful of knowledge?

Years later I would at last locate my sexuality and understand the complications therein, though I still found no appeal in Gig or Spence. How great it would be if Kate instead fell for her coworker Joan Blondell and they forged a life together, two books unbound, swapping fascinating bits of information amid winks and smiles—it is a 1957 film, after all; adult relations are merely hinted at through the symbology of bathrobes.

I did eventually grow up to assume a career in which facts and figures figure prominently, though most of the data I need can be gleaned more quickly via Spence’s cursed computer than through the thousands of books that make up our research department. Still, there’s great appeal in physical volumes, their relative weight often indicative of their information wealth, their indices irresistibly inviting the reader in multiple directions at once. God help me when I have to look something up in a real book, because on my path to whatever I was looking for I’m liable to engage with some other entry and forget what I was supposed to be doing. If you ever happen to lose me in a bookstore, before having me paged like an errant child, check the reference section for my glassy-eyed self, hypnotized by the visage of so many compendiums of information, sorted and ordered for my tidy, systematic gratification.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a home without an encyclopedia. I know, I know. But there’s nothing we can do about that now; we can only shoulder on when faced with such retrospective adversity. It’s not that my parents couldn’t afford such—we always had shoes in the wintertime—they just didn’t particularly see the point in spending all that money on a stack of books they figured would ultimately serve only to collect dust. Besides, we had a branch library well within biking distance; I could go pet their encyclopedias whenever the mood struck.

So this morning I was flipping through my Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, ’cause that’s the way I roll. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just, you know, flipping. This is the second copy I’ve purchased of Robert Hendrickson’s 800-word tome, having bought the first during the 2004 holidays as a gift for my therapist, who had only weeks before asked if I could recommend a good book about the etymology of idioms. My therapist had not only asked me for information, she had asked me for information regarding a volume of information—somebody pinch me! I did my research and settled on the Hendrickson volume, then I wrapped it in holiday-nonspecific paper—she’s coy when I try to discover her belief system—slid it into a manila envelope, just in case my HMO forbade gifts between doctors and clients, and left it with her secretary.

When I came for my appointment the following week she told me the book was precisely what she had in mind and that she adored it, so much so that she bought a second copy for her father and a third for the office staff: When she showed them her copy they were reportedly loathe to give it back. For weeks afterward, upon arrival for my appointment, her receptionist would regale me with reportage: “According to the book ‘happy as a clam’ comes from ‘happy as a clam at high tide,’ because clams were dug at low tide, so, you know, they would be happier at high tide. I never thought about it, but ‘happy as a clam’ doesn’t really make sense, not without the tide part.” Truly it doesn’t. (This is why copy editors often excise hackneyed expressions from the work of writers who have slipped into autopilot mode—commonly heard idioms become furniture in the American lexicon, to such a degree that our brains no longer bother to process the words or their [potential lack of] meaning.)

I later bought a copy for myself, because how could I have lived this long without one? And as I glanced through it this morning I noticed the entry for “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” In keeping with the age-old superstition that the left is sinister and unlucky, Romans, particularly Augustus Caesar, always got out of bed on the right side to ensure good health and humor.

Good to know: The left is the wrong side of the bed. This explains so much. You see, my partner and I, we have our sides, and mine is the left—always has been—which means that for close to 12 years I’ve been getting up on the wrong goddamn side of the bed!

Why didn’t anyone tell me this before? Has my partner known all along? After all, she’s my Hepburn, retaining every shred of information she’s ever gathered, ready to spit it out on demand. Me? I often can’t remember my phone number; I’m Joan Blondell, always having to climb up into the stacks to ferret out my answers.

She’s left me to languish in the ill health and humor of the wrong side of the bed for over a decade—and she claims she can’t keep a secret! Sporks, you are officially busted. Starting tomorrow morning I’ll be getting out of the right side of the bed, thank you very much—and don’t think I won’t be rolling over your ass to get there.


Blogger WenWhit said...

Very nice, Scout. I love the bathrobe symbolism reference and I'm relieved to hear your retro adversity did not include winter footwear. I am greatly concerned by the wrong side of the bed issue, however. Please clarify, for the sake of my own mental assuagement, if you are referencing the left side of the when facing the bed or when in it!

4:58 PM  
Blogger treecup said...

Today Hubband and I whiled away the hottest period of the afternoon with your blog. I read it aloud to him in the cool of the air-conditioned baby room and felt oh so witty with your words coming out of my mouth.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Slangred said...

I'm with you on scout's witty wordiness, treecup; and with you on which-way-left-side anxiety, wenwhit!

If you stand at the foot of our bed and look at the bed, my side is on the left. Yikes.

Scout, Desk Set Kate is the reference librarian's icon. Although we'd never, never, ever confirm a fact, recite a formula, or spell a word without looking it up first. Tops of the heads cannot be trusted in our line...unless it's for Fake British Accent or Baby Names Guy. In those two cases, it is perfectly within reason to reel off whatever you please before hanging up the phone.

8:03 PM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

She was too nice to note that part of the reason I sleep on the "right" side of the bed is that I, um, well, snore. If I were to sleep on the left, I'd snore in her face.

I couldn't be less like Kate. Feels nice to be compared anyway.

10:12 AM  
Blogger alice, uptown said...

Desk Set is a fact-checker's dream. I'd rather query Kate Hepburn than Google any day. My bookshelves are filled with reference books that always lead me astray and onto other topics that suddenly entrance me. No computer will ever compete with that.

As for copy editing, I can quote Strunk & White chapter and verse. It's my version of a comfort book.

10:14 AM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

I think either side of the bed is the right side.

PS: I need that book.

7:49 PM  
Blogger weese said...

I share your penchant for reference literature...tho mine is more likely the Ortho Problem Solver… not particularly well written – but ooo the pictures.

More important - I revel in your eloquent prose.

6:57 AM  
Blogger NursePam said...

LOL! What I was told about "getting up on the wrong side of bed" is that the phrase comes from the danger of getting up on the side of the bed that has the chamber pot. And that gives the phrase an entirely new meaning ;^)

8:01 AM  
Blogger bryduck said...

God, I hate to do this, but I got slammed for it in Library School by a prof., so I feel the need to pass it along. The plural of "index" when referring to that thing in the back of a book is "indexes", not "indices". I'm so sorry . . .

2:05 PM  
Blogger scout said...

Both spellings are given equal weight for the plural of "index," as in the index of a book, in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, which is our dictionary of record at work and is therefore more or less my personal dictionary of record. The mathematical term, however, specifically calls for the spelling indices. Maybe your prof wanted you to spell it the other way to delineate it from the mathematical term? Still, sounds pretty pedantic to me.

2:19 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:19 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

On to an actual comment. As an actual (paid) professional reference librarian, I must come clean--I do not always get a source for my answers. Usually when asked for the spelling of words like "moron" or what the capital of California is, I will eschew the perceived waste of time, and since 99% of our patrons are 100% disinterested in where I got the information that the commissioner of Major League Baseball is Bud Selig, I'm ok with that.
Whenever it's something I'm not completely and totally sure of--like, say, that the sky is blue most of the time, or that the President of the United States lives at a place called "The White House"--I will find a source to provide the answer, and I pass the name of that along as well. The patrons still don't care, but I'm covered, and that's what's important, isn't it?

2:21 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

Hmm, scout, my dictionary (Webster's New Collegiate) says that "indices" is only used in the math sense. Gives a wholly ironic twist to your post when references collide, eh?

2:24 PM  
Blogger weese said... people with the 'words'.
but, did you know that Tall Fescue is a cool season grass, which tends to grow in bunches.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Slangred said...

Tall Fescue should be the name of a graphic novel character, I think. Or of a girl band. A rocking, take-no-prisoners girl band.
Tall Fescue. I like that.

10:38 PM  

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