Friday, June 25, 2010

Farewell Aroma Cafe: Until We Meet Again

Today was the last day of business operations for one of my favorite local (and locally owned) haunts, Aroma Cafe. Located directly across the street from my place of work, this charming, friendly and creative coffee-panini-salad shop was the first place at which I ate lunch when I started at my job two years ago. I didn't really know anyone in the U of Scranton community, and so, when it was time for my first lunch break, I stepped out of the library, and scanned the nearest street (Mulberry) for possible places I might grab a bite. And there was Aroma, with its eye-catching sign that set it apart from the chain restaurant (i.e. Subway) next door.

I walked across the pedestrian crosswalk at Mulberry and Monroe, and made my way inside, where a sleeping fireplace, full bookshelf, comfy couch, and scattered tables invited me to come on in and make myself at home.

I don't remember what I ordered that day. But I know it was tasty, because I went back again and again, to eat the unique (and cleverly named!) sandwiches and salads that make up the menu. And to see Patty and Logan, the mother-son team who own and run the shop.

I've had business meetings over lunch at Aroma. I've eaten quietly with a book at Aroma. Two years later, Patty and Logan know me by name, and I count them as two familiar faces I have come to warmly associate with the Scranton community. You cannot enter Aroma without being greeted with a smile, and not a "trained" smile but one that truly recognizes you and draws you in. The best customer service is the kind where those giving it know and care about their customers as individuals. And that's what I experienced at Aroma these past two years.

The University of Scranton is building a new dormitory, which will meet a need for our students. Patty was renting the space on Mulberry from the U, and now must close it down. Today was a bittersweet day as my co-workers and friends and I dined at Aroma on Mulberry for the last time.

Luckily for Scranton, they plan to reopen in the downtown area, which is maybe four blocks away from the main part of the U campus. Downtown has a different vibe than the stretch of Mulberry they formerly served. While Mulberry was mostly the student crowd, their downtown location will cater to the lunch crowd who are working professionals. I often make the four-block (10-minute -- they are long blocks!) walk into downtown proper to take my meals while at work.

As such, I look forward to when Aroma reopens and Patty and Logan can yet again become a part of the tapestry that is my local community here in Scranton.

(Photo courtesy of the Aroma Cafe Facebook Page -- a Page which, in less than 24 hours since being created, already has 85 people who "Like" it. There's a lot of love in Scranton, and I'm grateful to be a part of it.)



It is worth mentioning, if you are someone who values these sorts of encounters in your local community, or thinks you would value them if given the chance, I have two tips for you:

1) Shop local. There is something about a locally owned business that, somehow, makes you feel more like yourself, by its being completely itself and nothing else. This is just one of many reasons why shopping local, whenever possible, is the way to go.

2) Talk to the people who own and run the local businesses you visit, and let them talk to you. Though shy types might balk at this suggestion, the benefits really do outweigh the risks. Certainly it's important to trust your instincts about a place and its people, but if you get a sense that the place and its people are woven into your community, and you love your community, being open to knowing them and being known by them is a gift you don't want to pass up.


Update, 2/14/2012: Unfortunately due to various circumstances out of Patty and Logan's control, they've had to put off reopening Aroma Cafe for the time being. I hope they know how much their delicious food and warm hospitality are missed in the local restaurant scene in Scranton.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anatomy of a Paper Topic

What follows is more of a step-by-step guide than an anatomy:
  1. Pay attention and engage your mind in class
  2. Pay attention and engage your mind as you do the assigned readings.
  3. Wait for an "Ah ha!" moment to occur, then note it. (An "Ah ha!" moment is a moment where certain ideas and insights coalesce in your mind in such a way where you suddenly know something you didn't know before -- or, you understand something you already knew but in a different way. It's a light bulb moment, a moment that causes you to say "Ah ha! Now I get it!" The only way you will have an "Ah ha!" moment is if you do Steps 1 and 2.)
  4. Figure out how the "Ah ha!" moment occurred for you. What made you say "Ah ha!"? Why did that thing or those things cause you to say "Ah ha!"? What is interesting about the text you were reading/discussing, to cause this "Ah ha!" moment to occur? These sorts of questions would be your research questions (and would contain more specifics than my generic examples, of course).
  5. Using the tools of your discipline (this is largely where your professor/teacher comes in, although he/she will certainly play a role in the above steps as well), close-read the text in question in order to understand where the "Ah ha!" moment came from, i.e. how it (the "Ah ha!" moment) is constructed or built within the text.
  6. Your thesis becomes something like: "Here is an 'Ah ha!' moment that occurs in [insert text here], and this 'Ah ha!' moment is caused by X, Y and Z." You need to do the work in Step 5 to identify X, Y and Z. Furthermore, the length of the X-Y-Z list should be determined by your page length, meaning, only cover the number of points necessary to fill the number of pages for the paper. You won't be able to know in advance how many points this will be, unless you are hyper-aware of your writing and research style, so it's better to come up with a longer list, prioritize it, and then write the paper illustrating how X contributes to the "Ah ha!" moment, how Y does the same (and builds on X, ideally), so on and so forth until you see you need to wrap it up. 

So, if I were to turn the above into more of an anatomy, or at least an equation, it would be:
"Ah ha!" Moment + (How the "Ah ha!" Moment Occurs/tools and methods in your discipline) = Paper Topic or Thesis
...or something like that.

I like writing papers in this manner because it guarantees that the work I'll be doing is, to a certain extent, original. How do I know this? Because it was my "Ah ha!" moment. Could others have had the same "Ah ha!" moment before me? Sure. But will the same X, Y and Z be the combined cause of that shared "Ah ha!" moment? Probably not. And usually, the X, Y and Z of your study affects how the "Ah ha!" moment is articulated, thus your articulated "Ah ha!" moment is in many ways unique to you. 

Paper-writing, Spring 2010 

Disclaimer: This is not the only way to decide on a paper topic (or put more broadly, a research topic). This is simply what works for me, particularly in the humanities. And, it guarantees that you'll be interested in your research topic. There's nothing worse than writing a paper about something that doesn't interest you. You shouldn't have to, so don't.

Monday, June 14, 2010

First encounter with The Glass Menagerie

There once was a girl who thought she knew a lot. Her mind was quick. She reveled in learning, and was not shy about expressing her thoughts and ideas as they came to her.

One day she was sitting at the front of her high school English class, watching her teacher as he prepared to start the lesson. That day they were beginning The Glass Menagerie, a play by Tennessee Williams. The girl was in her element. The teacher only had a small handful of copies of the play, stating they would rotate who would read parts during each class period, while the rest of the class listened. This meant there would be many opportunities to volunteer to read, which was one of the girl's favorite things to do.

There were three characters in the first scene of the play: Amanda, and her two children, Tom and Laura. Amanda had the most lines, followed closely by Tom. Laura did not have many lines at all. To begin the lesson, the teacher asked who would like to read, and assigned three readers to the three parts. The girl was selected to read Amanda.

The scene began, and the readers read with clarity and enthusiasm, even as they were encountering this story for the first time. The rest of the class listened politely. The teacher alone would notice the glazed stares of most of his students during this exercise as they tried in vain to grasp the meaning of the text, being recited enthusiastically but somewhat robotically as the readers sat at their desks and read.

The scene ended, and the teacher thanked the readers. He asked the class who they thought the main character of the scene was. Someone answered, "Amanda," owing to the fact that she talked the most. The teacher nodded, accepting the answer and its explanation without comment.

The teacher then arranged the front of the room into a makeshift dinner table using three desks. He asked the readers, including the girl, to take their places around the table, with Amanda and Tom sitting across from each other, and Laura between her mother and brother, facing the audience. They then read the scene again.

After the scene ended for the second time, the teacher asked the class again who they thought the main character of the scene was. The students considered the previous answer given -- Amanda -- and the brighter members of the class assumed this meant the correct answer was someone else. The girl was enthralled, and held her tongue, curious to see how this would play out.

One student tentatively answered into the silence, "Laura?"

The teacher asked, "Why do you think the scene is about Laura?"

"Well... she seemed to be pretty affected by her brother and mother and how they were bickering. She's also really quiet. Probably because her family is so talkative. So, that's why I thought maybe she was the main character of the scene. Plus, she was sitting between the other two, kind of in the line of fire, ya know?"

And then the teacher played his trump card: "And you would never have noticed that if we hadn't have seen the scene played in front of us, with simple blocking. This is why, whenever we read plays in my class, we will only have enough copies for the characters in the scene, and we will 'perform' the scene in front of the class. The point is not to 'act' the scene, but to see how the story is told through more than just the spoken lines. There is nothing that kills a good play more than reading it from our seats and following along in the book."

The girl was blown away by this revelation. The teacher went on to say that, in fact, the scene told us a lot about all three characters, so there really wasn't a wrong answer to his original question. But the girl disagreed. He was right. The scene was Laura's. The girl had learned something new, and was quietly humbled in the process. She had thought she knew a lot. Maybe she didn't know quite as much as she thought. And rather than be annoyed by this, she was very excited at the prospect of the new knowledge this teacher had to offer them.

The girl was sure of one thing: this would be a great year in English.


This is a true story. The girl was me, and the teacher was my greatest mentor during my high school years, Mr. MacLean. He was my director for four wonderful years of shows (four musicals and two plays), and he was my teacher for two rigorous years of English (English 11 and AP English).

I found out this week that Mr. MacLean will be retiring from my high school alma mater at the end of next year. He changed the way I ingest stories and texts, allowing them to change me as I read them. The above anecdote is one example of how he did this, but there were so many more. I can only imagine that he will be sorely missed at Woodlands High School.

(Photo courtesy of Tojosan under a Creative Commons license.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Road to Good Health

About a month ago, I was at work one evening, trying to ignore a pretty bad headache. In the midst of my work, I suddenly was overcome with nausea, making my headache worse and causing me to wonder if I'd even be able to drive home. Needless to say, I went home early that night, and put myself right to bed.

I thought over all the possible causes of this sudden illness, which thankfully passed by the morning. I pinpointed several likely culprits, allergies and my diet being the two main ones. Scranton is one of the worst areas in the country for spring allergies. Other than get an air purifier for my office (which I quickly acquired), there wasn't a lot I could do regarding my allergies. I try to avoid over-the-counter meds whenever possible, so I focused my energy on the second area I identified as likely to have caused the illness: my diet.

(An aside: you'll notice I didn't consider it was a flu bug. It came and went too fast for that, less than 24 hours. That particular day, I'm sure it was a combination of the dust at my library, and the mug of coffee I drank that morning.)

I made the very difficult decision to cut coffee from my diet. I had been drinking up to 2 mugs per day, which to some may not sound like much, but for me it was pushing the limit of how much caffeine and acid my body could handle. I have since taken several other steps toward a healthier diet:

Juicer: I decided to buy a juicer, in hopes that I could drink fresh fruit and veggie juice in the mornings as an energizing alternative to coffee. Although the clean-up is a little cumbersome, I am trying to juice at least 3 times per week. I have had my juicer for several weeks now, and I love it. So far, my favorite juice has been carrot-apple-ginger (pictured right). Wow, talk about satisfying!

Whole Grains: After seeing the name of a certain cookbook turn up over and over again, in trusted sources, as I sought ways to improve my diet, I finally decided to obtain the book Nourishing Traditions. This book makes the very good case for returning to a diet modeled after traditional communities and cultures, all of whom tend to enjoy great health. One characteristic of this sort of diet is to eat whole grains, which you want to soak before cooking. Soaking them in warm water plus a bit of a fermenting agent (such as whey, vinegar or lemon juice) causes the grains to actually begin to break down, making digestion easier and also enacting all sorts of proteins that are good for you. This weekend I soaked and covered with a dish towel 1 cup of quinoa for just under 24 hours in 2 cups of warm water and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. At the end of soaking, I drained the grains, and then cooked them in 1 cup of water for 10-15 minutes like I would cook rice (pictured above-left). And they came out great! I plan to do more of this moving forward.
    There are other little things I've been doing as well, including cleaning out my fridge and pantry of things that were either expired or clearly not very good for me.

    All of this is because I want to feel better. It's that simple. And, so far, it seems to be working. For me, it's a bit of an adventure though, since I have never been discriminating about what I ate until now. And it's going to be a slow process... There's no way I can go cold turkey on certain things that have been staples in my diet until now (ex. things made with white flour). I do plan to slowly cut down on unhealthy things though, and certainly being in the midst of the Apostles Fast is helping. So, we'll see where this all leads for me -- God willing, to better health! 

    Sunday, June 6, 2010

    Why a blog?

    I'm a pretty avid reader of blogs (thank you, Google Reader). They include blogs written by Orthodox Christians, blogs written by librarians, blogs written by friends, blogs written by readers-writers-artists-etc., blogs written by interesting people I have encountered and wish to know more about, and the list goes on. Historically I have been a lurker on most blogs I read, although I do sometimes remove my invisibility cloak and make myself known by way of a comment here, a comment there.

    Of late, though, I have felt an interesting urge to join the conversation a bit more formally. I find myself encountering things, as I work to know and be known in my daily life, that I wish to share. With whom? Well that, I suppose, is yet to be determined.

    I'll be honest and say that I'm not sure what exactly is going to fill this space. But that's what's neat about a blog -- it grows and becomes whatever it turns out to be, and that's just fine as far as I'm concerned. Some themes and topics you can expect to see here, though, include things related to my faith as an Orthodox Christian (who is also a choir singer: "kliros," for those who've never encountered the word, refers to the space where the choir stands in an Orthodox Church), things related to my job as an academic librarian who's a bit of a techie and research junkie, and more.

    I also really love to tell and hear (or read) stories. So, in a way, this will be a space where I can tell the stories I encounter in the things I do throughout my days. I believe work -- the work of singing in the choir at church, the work of teaching students how to find the information they need, the work of loving my neighbor -- tells a story, or can if I let it. I love the work God has given me to do, and I want to share the stories I get to be a part of as I do it.

    So, welcome.