What got you interested in BTP to begin with, or what made you start volunteering? Does it tie in to the rest of your life in any meaningful way?
I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2016. I was still working, but I wanted to do something meaningful with my free time.
I'd had a work-study job tutoring adults taking remedial math while I attended community college. I learned a lot about how the public education system lets people down. Based on that experience, I decided I wanted to do something to support adults learning material they'd missed during K-12.
I found BtP on VolunteerMatch. It was five blocks from where I lived. I used to drop in 2-3 evenings a week to wrap after dinner when we were in the church on NE 50th St and 15th Ave NE.
Is there anything you especially like about volunteering with us? What are your favorite parts of the process?
In 2017, I joined the Keyholders' Collective, which are the people who vote on decisions for BtP and open the space for shifts, among other things. I enjoyed opening for Saturday shifts, which I did sporadically during 2018-2019, and regularly from June 2020 through December 2021, during quarantine. Now, I usually go in and work on projects when we're closed, or do things from home.
One of my favorite one-off volunteer activities was after the downtown Barnes and Noble closed, in 2019. We were one of several education-related non-profits that B&N invited to come in on the Sunday morning after their last public day. They'd moved all the remainders that were not worth returning to the warehouse to their basement. We were able to take as many books as we could remove from the premises between 8-9 am. I'd brought some extra grocery bags, so the only limit was how fast Michelle and I could run around shoveling books into them.
I have always liked to wrap. It's a great way to be with other people, working towards a common goal, in a way that lets me control how much or how little I socialize.
Everybody starts off by responding to letters, even if they eventually move on to wrapping or other tasks. Some of the letters can be memorable. Are there any requests that surprised you, or that you remember standing out in any way?
I don't remember being surprised by a request, but I have been surprised by some of the requests we've been able to fill. Once I opened a package that had been returned because the person who'd asked for books had been transferred to another prison in the same state. The volunteer who'd filled the order had written a note on the invoice, apologizing because we didn't have a particular style or brand of illustrated study bible he'd requested.
Which we never do. But I checked the stacks anyway. Since we'd put his first order together, someone had donated a mint-condition copy that was 70-some years old. The godparents of a kid in rural Montana had signed the dedication page after his Confirmation sometime in the 1940's, and it looked like no one had ever opened it again.
In the time that you’ve been here, do you think that your views on the prison system, or what it’s like to be incarcerated, have changed? Please feel free to talk about those views if you would like.
I was in high school during the draft for the war on Vietnam. The draft ended before I graduated, but my views on the prison system were formed around the potential consequences of draft resistance.
I participated in the National Moratorium on Prison Construction (NMPC) when it was a project of the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee in the '70's. I first read about ankle monitors in the NMPC's newsletter, which said that if we let the government start imposing new sentences that were not quite as bad as prison, it would just expand what was illegal to cover a host of new infractions that were not quite bad enough to warrant prison time. The philosophical issues haven't changed much over the years. I did not anticipate how much the US government has come to rely on incarceration as a solution for a wide range of problems.
Do you have any book recommendations for us? Is there anything you especially like to read in your spare time?
One of the first books I borrowed from BtP was "The Jewel-Hinged Jaw", a collection of essays by sci-fi writer Samuel Delaney. Most of it was literary criticism that went over my head, but in "Letter to a Critic", about how hard it was to make a living writing sci-fi in the 60's, he claims that it wasn't until the late 1960's that book manufacturers figured out how to bind a paperback with more than around 160 sheets of paper. So if you look at paperbacks from that era, that's why they're so much skinnier than today.
Which is my excuse for not having kept up with sci-fi over the years. I started reading it in monthly magazines in the 60's, when the short story was the basic marketing unit. Now, I'm afraid to commit the time necessary to read a 500-page book that is first in a series. So most of what I remember is from the 60's and '70's. And I'm sure that if I read it over today, I'd catch a lot of racism, sexism, and plain immaturity that I missed when I first encountered it. That said, I remember enjoying these two authors:
Fritz Leiber started out writing horror fiction. The first book I read by him was "A Spectre is Haunting Texas", but my favorites were his first two novels, published in 1943, "Conjure Wife" and "Gather, Darkness!"
The Retief series (15+ books) by Keith Laumer was a satire of the Cold War, among other things. Retief is a minor career diplomat who has to keep bailing out his superiors to prevent interstellar catastrophe.
I don't care for fantasy or vampire novels. I've not read any of the Game of Thrones series. But George RR Martin wrote "Fevre Dream", my favorite vampire novel, about the conflict between rival bands of vampires on either side of the Civil War, as told by a human river boat captain on the Union side. The title comes from the Fevre River, now the Galena River in Illinois. What I remember about it was how well Martin wove a lot of details about how steam-powered boats of that time were built and maintained, and life on board one, into the rest of the story. Maybe it's my favorite vampire novel because there's lots to read about besides vampires.
I've just started reading "Death's End", the third in a trilogy by Chinese author Cixin Liu, published in 2010. I'm glad people are still writing sci-fi about aliens and going into outer space. It's harder than in the 40-60's, before we knew just how boring most of outer space would be.
For non-fiction reading, I'm afraid I've become over-reliant on the internet. One non-fiction book that improved my life was "Elements of Style" by Strunk and White. Someone gave it to me while I was writing leaflets and other things for a defunct Trotskyite sect. This was during the 70's, when we had to fit whatever we wanted to say on an actual 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. My previous writing experience had been term papers, where it pays to pad things out to a minimum required length. The message of "Style" is, shorter is better. Ironic, considering how long I've gone on here.
Are there any other parting words that you’d like to share with whoever’s reading this?
Wrappers rule! And they get to choose the music in the space. Definitely learn to wrap if you haven't tried it before. Our underground video presenting Team Paper vs. Team Plastic: https://youtu.be/8bxVX6WF4mo?si=tS3VQWAL-FT6CVW4