Monday, December 30, 2013

Dean MacCannell: The Ethics of Sightseeing

Shop Indie Bookstores
While I was reading this book to me, someone (half-jokingly?) said to me, "themacinator, we've been out of school for a billion years." This is (partially, since she meant undergrad, not #onlineschool) true, and if I weren't such a dork, I would have put "The Ethics of Sightseeing" where it belonged: down. But I'm a dork, so I kept reading. If names like Lacan, Freud, Derrida, Butler, Foucault and (a new one for me) Erving Goffman make you want to erase your memories of liberal arts seminars, you don't need to read anymore. Just travel and go about your business, because MacCannell wants to make sure you will never step out of your house without thinking through the lens of someone or other. (Other, get it?)

This is a difficult book that is even more difficult to explain. MacCannell is a pioneer in the field of tourism studies (that exists) and is not particularly happy with the direction the field is going in. "The Ethics of Sightseeing" appears, to the rookie in the field, to lay out a new direction. A tourism scholar, John Urry, didn't like MacCannell's original work and argued (perhaps missing MacCannell's original point? Who can keep track of scholarly infighting?) that tourist travel is about freedom, and that the "tourist gaze" is what makes it so. (Don't say I didn't warn you about the college-y stuff.) MacCannell, explaining Urry, writes that "We can disrupt the order of things... Paris is familiar to me and Kansas remains foreign. Even if the global system of attractions is a fixed grid, it need not function to determine tourist priorities, tourist behavior, or tourist thought." But MacCannell isn't having this. It's too simple: Urry believes that tourists travel just to get out see something different, which just isn't enough for MacCannell, as it suggests that what's at home is "unpleasurable, flat, and dull." MacCannell agrees that some people might be bored and need to get away, but also thinks that some people have great lives and also like to travel (I can think of a couple). Second, it also posits the "boring ordinary" as the frame of reference for the tourist gaze. MacCannell again: "He also suggests the tourist extra-ordinary should not be so extreme as to make the tourists feel 'too much out of place.' This is not a high standard for tourist attractions. It makes sightseeing closer than it need be to television."

MacCannell posits a Lacan-based gaze, where the viewing subject is not so free after all: "the viewing subject is caught, manipulated, captured in the field of its own vision." It's a little depressing, but MacCannell takes it as a jumping off point. If one is aware of this gaze, one realizes that the object/other is as limited as the subject: we have a hard time seeing anything outside of our ego (or our guidebook's definition of the subject). Once we recognize this, we can resist the tourist representation with an awareness "second gaze:" one that is "capable of recognizing the misrecognition that defined the tourist gaze." Subjects are incomplete, objects are incomplete, there are layers of meaning, we'll never get it all.

I'm already thinking about sightseeing differently. MacCannell is clear from the beginning that he's talking about sightseeing specifically, not tourism as a whole, which is a useful, if murky distinction. There are a variety of reasons to do this, and he sums one up like this: "sightseeing involves the whole person, mind and body, being and existence. It is about the person's connection, or lack of connection, to nature, heritage, other human beings, and especially, their own psyches. It is the one activity that any tourist can enjoy, old and young, the fit and the infirm, women and men, from every nation and class. The other tourist activities may have their own distinctive qualities, but none are more totalizing than sightseeing." Basically, sightseeing is both an end- something people go out to do- and involved in all tourist activities. I might go out to sunbathe at the beach, but I can't avoid taking in the sights. MacCannell has other reasons for choosing sightseeing including sociological and ethnological, and one of these is that "it has the greatest potential to bestow insight upon general social and humanistic fields." This is where the ethics come in.

And this is where I'm left most confused: I just don't get what exactly, in MacCannell's mind, "ethics" is. I'm sure it's very clear to people who study things like Lacan and philosophy and sociology and are still in school (not #onlineschool). But it's not clear to the average reader, and "The Ethics of Sightseeing" is not prescriptive about how we can go about being ethical sightseers. It's dazzlingly complex and thought provoking, if you can stand it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Emma Forrest: Your Voice in My Head

Shop Indie Bookstores
Emma Forrest has written the Book Of themacinator's Year. "Your Voice in My Head" is about Forrest's love affair with her therapist- and not in the gross, movie, overdone way of most of these stories: there is no actual inappropriate relationship between Forrest and her therapist. Rather, Forrest finds a therapist who is skilled in a way we all hope therapists will be; in helping their clients (us) heal. And then he dies. And Forrest, in a very human, not always in a straightforward line way, continues to heal, even though sometimes it seems to her and us that she won't. When he dies, Forrest finds out that she isn't special: the therapist had helped many others heal which relieves her of her guilt- she "wasted" her last phone session with him, being flippant and not talking about any issues and not knowing that he was dying. In so many ways, this is all of our worst nightmares: our therapist dies before we're ready (are we ever ready?) and then, to top it off, we aren't the only ones in his life! I mean, we must know that, we're paying for the privilege of an hour a week in his presence, but our egos protect us from this fact. Forrest, though, seems to get it: this man saved people, and all of these people, like her, are now alone. They depended on him, and are dealing with the first part: alone before their time, like spouses without their partner.

I could not put this book down. Forrest is a gripping writer. She falls into a passionate relationship with an actor who she refers to by a pseudonym and who I stubbornly refused to look up until after the book was over (even though, after looking him up, I had no idea who he was, which isn't surprising, since I don't know who Sean Connery is- and no, that's not him). She struggles through the aftermath of the relationship, because of course there's an aftermath, with the help of her mother and a new therapist and some medication and her voice in her head. "Time heals all wounds. And if it doesn't, you name them something other than wounds and agree to let them stay."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Jana Leo: Rape New York

Shop Indie Bookstores
The Oakland Public Library recently joined Link+, a union catalog for libraries throughout California and Nevada. All of a sudden I have access to all of the books on my list, for free and just as quickly as if my local bookstore had them- after years of wishing and hoping and typing in titles over and over- I can read All The Things.

Enter "Rape New York." This book is near the top of my list, which means it's been on the list a very long time. I had no idea why I put it there or when or what it was about. When my boyfriend picked it up he read the back of the book and rolled his eyes: "I hate those books that don't tell you anything about the book." It's a series of blurbs, and I agree, I don't like those either, but he read off words like "crucial analysis, screed and feminist theory" and I knew "Rape New York" was on my list for some good reason. And it was.

"Rape New York" is 142 pages of impossible-to-put-down feminist theory/architecture/some-other kinds-of-theory-that-I-can't--explain genius. I literally wished that I could read slower so that I could absorb the words more thoroughly, something that I have never found myself wishing before. The book is so dense that I can't possibly summarize here, but it does bring up the point that the publisher was right to only include blurbs on the back: any 3 sentence back of the book summary would be an insult. Those of us who know how to read between the blurb lines and pick this up, will pick it up and hit the jackpot.

Leo moved to New York with her partner and they settled in Harlem because it was cheap- what they could afford. The building plays a crucial role in the assault she subsequently suffers: the front door doesn't lock and the grate on her window- an escape route- doesn't open properly. Her notion of "home" and what home means to her, and to women in general: "rape remains shrouded in secrecy. The sanctity of the home and the body, and the fear of the ultimate invasion of privacy, is perverted by society distancing itself from the victim. The crime occurred in your home, not mine. Shrouded in secrecy and silence, the victim is implicated as at fault." She goes on to discuss the complex connection between home and the homeless, or those whose "home" is prison. Many women are raped in their homes. This ideal of having a house, a home is fraught: people worry about losing their home where home is house as property, and the "home turns into a cage, a physical enclosure, from which they are unable to leave." They're trapped, financially, which strips the house of any home-ness at all. Prison has replaced the house for many, especially for black men. Leo traces the predatory development process through the "unsustainable price of property, and the celebration of wealth as the only social value." She is not glamorizing or vindicating her assailant but following important threads with the emotional and academic authority to do so. It's genius.

Read this book and try not to be blown away, I dare you.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Dan Baum: Gun Guys

Shop Indie Bookstores
I get what Dan Baum was trying to do with "Gun Guys," and I admire him for it. I just wish he had been successful. Baum is a liberal and likes guns- he knows he's in a small club, or at least a small club that's willing to talk about it, so he embarks on a journey to get to know others who like guns. It's not quite clear: is he going on a year long journey? Is he on an ethnographic, anthropological survey or trying to prove/disprove a hypothesis? And what happened to all of the books and data and stats he says he read- the book is very short on real analysis.

Coincidentally, I finished this book the day before the anniversary of the Sandy Hook incident, which has been all over the media. Just as Baum's arguments for a middle ground were starting to sink in, I'm doing just what he wanted me to get over: emotionally reacting to the ubiquitous presence of guns. My personal filter bubble is bombarding me with alarming stats about guns- there are more guns in the US than there are people- and a tragic article from Mother Jones about the deaths of children since Sandy Hook.

Baum takes people like me who are unlikely to read a book by a conservative gun-toter on a journey through various gun things- the range, gun stores, gun sporting events, hunts, concealed carry classes etc. He humanizes gun carriers and encourages readers to get past knee-jerk responses like "all guns are bad" or "the second amendment says I can have whatever gun I want, whenever I want it." On the other hand, he also throws out statistics without citations that are don't jibe with what the folks in "my" circle usually say that make me go straight back to the knee-jerk side I'm on and demonizing the other. To wit, in a discussion of the last twenty years of crime statistics: "most kinds of gun accidents [emphasis in original] had also decreased." (p. 31) In a discussion of the uselessness of closing the "gunshow loophole," he poo-poos concerns about sales of guns at gunshows, writing that "Professors from the Universities of Maryland, Michigan and London studied crime from the vicinities of 3,400 gun shows- including those in loophole states- and found that the shows, loophole or no, had no effect on local homicide or suicide rates. Still, to those most worried about gun violence, letting people buy guns with no background check seemed crazy." (127-128) Well, this number may be absolutely true, but it ignores a very large truth: gun sales affect much more than the local homicide rates. Oakland, where there are no gun stores or gun shows, is one example of this, as is Mexico: guns bought at gun shows are thought to be major players in the crime rate in that country. I guess "those most worried about gun violence" shouldn't care if the guns play a part in homicide outside of their jurisdiction? People on both sides of the gun debate accuse the other of playing fast and loose with data, and unfortunately, I found Baum doing the same.

A glaring example of this came quite early in the book: I had never heard of something called "shall issue" permits. In 1987, Florida decided that any adult who wanted a permit to carry a gun would get one, unless there was a good reason to deny them. As Baum says, "state officials shall issue the permit and not apply their own discretion." (p. 30) Baum says that he originally thought this was crazy and would lead to more gun violence, but it didn't, so he reconsidered. "My sneering at Florida had been misplaced: Shall-issue may not have caused crime to drop," he writes, "but neither had it uncorked rivers of blood. And let's be honest- I found that a little thrilling. Because now I could get a concealed-carry permit of my own and start handling my gun every day without feeling as though I were contributing to a virulent social pathology." (p. 33) If this doesn't jump out as odd to you for a book published in 2013, don't worry, Trayvon Martin does merit a footnote on page 243. Baum, having switched to sneering at those of us who think guns DO contribute to virulent social pathology, uses Florida as an example of an exciting state- problematic for those who think that Zimmerman killed an unarmed kid, unleashing, well, rivers of blood. 

All of these criticisms aside, Baum's description of his life as a gun guy with a concealed weapon is educational for a gun hater like me. Apparently there are 5 cardinal rules of carrying a gun: 1. Treat all firearms as though they are loaded. 2. Never allow your muzzle to cross anything you are not willing to destroy and pay for. 3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you're ready to fire. 4. Be sure of your target and what is around and behind it. 5. Maintain control of your firearm. (p. 36) And Baum lives by these rules and is pretty convincing that other gun guys walking around with these guns follow these same rules. As he says,
I found that I wasn't so much in Condition Yellow as Condition Day-Glo yellow. Everything around me appeared brilliantly sharp, the colors extra rich, the contrasts shockingly stark. I could hear footsteps on the pavement two blocks away. As people around me went about their business, utterly relaxed, I experienced a weird amalgam of envy and pity. Their bliss seemed ignorant, almost irritatingly obtuse. There was an undeniable sheeplike quality quality to them as they licked their ice cream cones and swung their shopping bags. Utterly blithe and vulnerable, they looked like extras in the first reel of a disaster movie. And there I was, striding among them, uniquely capable of resisting whatever violence might be their portion. It surprised me that it made me feel rather noble. (p. 49).
In a way, this is reassuring: Baum truly is a noble guy and he is hyperaware every moment that he carries his gun. The guys he speaks with and writes about are also hyperaware and careful with their guns. But there's another side of this: if we have law enforcement with guns, do we need other people armed and being hyperaware, careful of every move and ready to defend themselves and others? Baum would argue that the police can't get anywhere in time, and he's right, but does that make carrying guns the answer? He truly wonders about his responsibility while carrying a gun, and mourns the loss of friends, wondering if they would have been saved if they also carried. I don't agree, but if Baum does his job with "Gun Guys," liberals should understand. I wish Baum had done his job- I might be able to see more grey. As it is, I still want all the guns in the ocean.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Emily Matchar: Homeward Bound

Shop Indie Bookstores
When I took up gardening, I did it because I inherited (from the landlord) a beautiful garden, complete with pre-made raised beds and lovely native plants. Although I resisted the term "urban pioneer," it's true that I was very excited to eat my homegrown chard and kale and fussed over my tomatoes that first year like I imagine some people fuss over their children. I've tried my hand at an artistic endeavor or two, but know my limits: I'm not a crafter and I certainly don't even try to cook. In other words, I'm not into Emily Matchar's "New Domesticity" and if I am honest, I kind of scorn it. Put simply, new domesticity is the "re-embrace of home and hearth by those who have the means to reject these things." Though there are a lot of push and pull factors leading people (read: women) to this new domesticity, it's not always obvious why people are taking up knitting as their extracurricular when they used to be reading, writing, going back to school or playing sports. New Domesticity is an even bigger phenomena: it's not just people like me who garden like weekend warriors motorcycle, it's people dropping out of "normal" life to craft as a full time job, hoping their earnings on Etsy will be enough, moms who decide that attachment parenting is the way to go, and that working is incompatible with natural mom-ness, and that food is so unsafe that the only way to live is to grow your own. All of it.

This is kind of creepy to me, and Matchar does a decent job problematizing it. Betty Friedan and other second wave feminists worked hard to get women out of house and to demand that men do their share. Many of these new domestics are "reclaiming" feminism saying that the workforce is oppressive and that it's more natural for women to be in the home, with their kids. Some of these new homemakers blame feminism for forcing them into the awful, stifling position of needing to work and sending their kids to daycare. As Matchlar writes, "feminists certainly believed in women's rights to have careers and financial independence, but they did not, as many today suppose, invent the two-career family. The economy did that." New Domesticity doesn't really answer this problem: It's a nice thought that women can drop out/opt out of the workforce to raise kids because they're feminists, but it's a daily life that depends on privilege, especially in tough economic times. It relies on a financial situation of inherited or passed-down wealth or a partner with a large and stable enough income to support the wife and kids. And this privilege comes with a very backwards sense of dependence: If mom stays home because dad is earning the money, mom is once again dependent on dad, who has many more options than mom. The dad can leave (he's got the money), the dad can change jobs (he's got the skills and experience), the dad can opt out of taking care of the house and the kids (he's got the job as the legitimate excuse, and hey, didn't mom embrace homemaking as her life's work?).

There's another part of this "return to the home" bit that has a creepy underside which Matchar touches on but doesn't dig into a whole lot. It's a nice thought that by opting out and line drying our clothes and raising our own food we can save the environment, but it's a very simple and, honestly, not very effective form of activism. I'm certainly not going to argue that people shouldn't eat locally, drive less, buy Prius(es) or make their own bread- lots of Matchlar's subjects seem to be obsessed with making bread and canning things. But it's when they do this because they don't trust the government or the American food system and decide to opt out entirely that I start feeling a little bit like I've been transported to Idaho. As Matchar writes, "this intense focus on what control the individual can have on their food is a mark of today's DIY culture in general. Progressive food politics lauds individual action, having largely written off government regulatory agencies as hopelessly ineffectual, even corrupt." The government may be ineffective, and I'm also not going to argue that lobbyists are out of hand, but really, if all of the people who care opt out, where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave those (again we get back to privilege) who *can't opt out? Basically, eating out of that horrible, governmentally regulated food supply, which, to be honest, has given us some pretty awesome things, like chlorinated water and pasteurized milk. Before you think I'm just a total grinch, I'll give you another example. These same opt-outers are often the same people as the anti-vaccinaters, and maybe now you'll agree with themacinator in saying that yeah, opting out can be pretty selfish. Kids are dying because mom's don't trust the government- educated, smart moms don't believe that the government can/should/is doing a good job/has the right to regulate what goes into their kids' bodies. Individual activism can be a) shortsighted b) ineffective and c) dangerous. This DIY thing is going a little far, and it's all wrapped up together. I'd much rather that these back-to-the-home people banded together to fight the real systemic problems underlying our food supply, thus making the entire food system more healthy and equitable, so everyone could benefit from their beliefs. As much Michelle Obama's priorities are not my own, they're certainly not a feminist nightmare, and I believe that new homemaker-feminists have a lot to learn from her.

Matchar writes a lot about the new DIY parenting, and tries to explain it by breaking feminism into two: "liberal feminism" and "cultural feminism" (I think this is sort of a ridiculous dichotomy, but I'll let that stand for this purpose). "Liberal feminism," according to Matchar "suggests that most gender inequality is culturally based" while "cultural feminism is the idea that some gender inequality is actually just 'gender difference' and that we should honor women's (and men's) natural, inherent natures." I'm not exactly sure how this is feminism (and I don't think that Matchar thinks it is) but it is the way that people advocate for this return to the ideal of womanhood as mother and housekeeper. I find it disgusting and essentialist. It's not good for women, it's no good for men who may want to be dads, it's no good for queers- um, I guess all same sex couples have to pick a role, right?- it's no good for anyone who identifies as anything else- and it's totally retrograde about race. Once again we're back to idealizing that white, middle class housewife who is respectable and does respectable things and wouldn't want to do "unladylike" things like work, achieve, be competitive or otherwise do the things that most poor women have to do.

Which leads me to my final point: While Matchar is decent on class (she acknowledges that this return to the hearth is a primarily middle and upper middle class pastime, and then works hard to show examples of people who are struggling to make ends meet with one income), she completely whitewashes the issue. Although she doesn't ever explicitly mention race, I'm pretty sure that her subjects, or at least the vast majority of them, are white. Do you know a lot of nonwhite knitters, canners, return to homeschooling mothers? And really, is this an ideal that a lot of people of color you know aspire to? The ethic (or maybe aesthetic is a better word) that Matchar comes back to over and over is that of the 1950s, which, if I recall right, wasn't a particularly great time for women of color. Women of color are *still fighting for equality and might laugh at the idea of opting out or complaining about the freedom that their mothers fought for. The life that Betty Friedan et al said sucked wasn't the life of the woman of color in the 50s, and it certainly isn't the life of most women of color now. This discussion of race in this new (sub)culture is entirely missing from "Homeward Bound," making an otherwise insightful look at a slippery new phenomenon disappointing.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Karen Sternheimer: Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

Shop Indie Bookstores
I tend to surround myself with people "like me": down-to-earth, smart, interested in dogs, etc. Yet even these smart, worldly people always seem to know worlds more about celebrities than I do. Like, I may have hand-selected the 10 least-obsessed-with-celebrity drama people in the East Bay to hang out with, and yet they all shake their heads at me when they say "Katy Perry" and I say "who?" or talk about a show called "black and orange" or something and I say "what?" I can't help it, I just don't care. I also don't have enough brain space to keep track of what the A's are doing on the field and City Council is doing in chambers and what Rollie is doing in my house and what my #onlineschool is demanding of me this week and what I'm reading and yeah, you get it.

So I have been trying to find a book that just might help explain why everyone is so obsessed with celebrities. Every time I went through the library catalog looking for books, I looked for "Celebrity Culture and the American Dream" and now that Oakland is hooked up with Link+ (a fancy version of interlibrary loan), my year-long search was over! Maybe, finally, Dexter-like (see what I did there?- just don't ask me the actor's name...), I could learn why society produces celeb-obsessions and, armed with that information, learn how to fit in better, or at least bolster my arguments about why it just isn't that important to care.

But Sternheimer's book is missing a word or two in the title. The subtitle (obscured by the giant Link + sticker on my copy) is "Stardom and Social Mobility." Perhaps a more accurate title would be "Celebrity Culture and the Creation of the American Dream" or a flipping of the title and subtitle: "Stardom and Social Mobility: Celebrity Culture and the American Dream." The book, while fascinating, did not serve as a guidebook to explain to themacinator how to fit in better or why everyone cares so much. Rather, "Celebrity Culture" documents the rise and fall of the studio system in Hollywood and how that affected the presentation of celebrities and American understanding social mobility. It's wonderful: "fan magazines," followed by magazines like People, have helped Americans to swallow societal norms through the lens of celebrities who are either "just like us" or inspirations. One day themacinator will learn that there's more to a book than a title. (Maybe after 1 million books?)

Sternheimer documents the ever changing "American Dream." Since the 1920s it's evolved and changed through periods of collective good will, a "Leave it to Beaver" period of suburban utopia, the 80s need for extreme wealth, etc. Through it all, celebrities were portrayed as representing the Horatio Alger ideal of the ability (true or not) of Americans from all walks of life being able to rise from nothing to become super rich. Not noted by the magazines depicting this amazing ability to become Someone was the fact that only white people could become Someone and only if they behaved appropriately. For example, women had to uphold traditional standards of femininity, not earn too much, love to clean, etc. If you believed the fan magazines, blacks and other people of color simply didn't exist, and/or couldn't possibly "make it."

Celebrities are also the perfect way to demonstrate that people who fail fail on their own accord: there's nothing systemic about downward mobility, people bring crappy situations on themselves. Clearly if a star overdoses or spends all of their money, that's a case of individual failings, not the times or systemic problems. For example, female who had problems during the depression had probably had been too independent, and had "brought problems associated with the Depression on themselves." Think contemporary celebrities who "twerk": there's something wrong with those oversexed Madonna-wannabes, right?  It's not possible that it's only possible for young women to succeed in the music industry through shocking displays of sexuality.

Interestingly, the production of celebrities and what they represent changed with the end of the "studio era" in 1948. Prior to the United States v. Paramount Supreme Court decision that decided that the movie companies were violating the antitrust laws, the studios owned their actors. After this, actors became free agents: the studios didn't decide what fan magazines could print about them anymore. Fan magazines could now print negative stories and more private information. At the same time, the '50s and '60s represented large cultural shifts and representations of celebrity culture moved from idealized portraits to more complicated, if not more accurate, pictures. Sternheimer explains that according to Ellis Cashmore, "the invention of the zoom lens [was] a defining moment in the history of celebrity culture," and cites an important picture, taken in 1962, of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton kissing while still married to others. The distance (literally) between celebrities private and public lives was closed. The darkness was brought into the light (is this bad or what?) for the public.

So why do we care so much? Sternheimer doesn't really answer this question, and I guess I'm still looking. Partially, Sternheimer believes that, especially during economic hard times, "celebrity culture provide[s] a fantasy that enabled the public to partake, at least vicariously." We can dream that, even with a recession, we can be rich and famous (and happy?) like those celebrities, and we can condemn them when they fail- if only they hadn't been so showy, and had been more moderate, like us. Is that what it is? We just need something else to think about, and someone to look at that's "worse" than us? Is there nothing else to it? We're not all hoping for exceptionalism? Do our parents tell us we can be famous one day? And why? Isn't this whole country based on the idea of exceptionalism? "Celebrity Culture" is a start, but there's more out there, I'm sure.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Another personal post coming up (book review soon, don't worry!).

Part of my current dissatisfaction (which I'm still happy to blame on grad school) is my adjustment to being a person who sits behind a desk. Four years ago (!) I wrote about being a blue collar worker, and though my current situation isn't just a difference in economics (I make substantially less now), it is a difference in the actual job. In that post, I discussed my inability to wrap my head around what my parents did for a living: they were very successful at their jobs- well-respected and well-liked and well-compensated. At times, they've told me they even liked their jobs (and I'm sure they'll correct me if that's wrong!) But *I never understood it: what does someone in an office do all day? It's like I learned in school about widgets and assembly lines and policemen and firemen and then my brain stopped. People in offices? That's the stuff of New Yorker cartoons! Nothing really happens there, right?

I tried office life a couple of times as a teenager and college student in internship and volunteer work and basically bombed out: I can't sit still and do that officey work too fast, which meant I was a terrible free employee. Copies weren't for me. I was a bad New Yorker cartoon. Then, as detailed throughout themacinator, I found animal welfare. This was perfect: no desk, no sitting, different stuff every day, single serving friends (see: Fight Club), and action all the time. Then I burnt out, quit and found myself with no office-free place to go. What's a girl to do?

Fast forward: after a year and a few months of vacation and being employed by a crazy lady I'm back in a familiar place in an unfamiliar job. I didn't REALLY get away from animal welfare after all. But this time, I'm behind a desk. All day, I sit at a desk. I get up, talk to coworkers that I can't hear when they yell, and move around to make those dreaded copies. Sometimes I get up and go to the bathroom. But my desk is my new spot. And at the end of the day, I'm still not sure what I did all day, much as I wasn't sure what my parents did all day. I know I worked hard and I know that I often don't finish all the things I needed to do, but somehow, like a person who lived before the Industrial Revolution (let alone the advent of desktop computers), I can't wrap my head around the fact that if my hands aren't dirty and my body isn't tired, I can't possibly have completed a day's work.

What is this? Always a fan of Durkheim, maybe it's anomie:
The developments in the division of labor associated with industrialization facilitated anomie. As work became routinized, broken down into dull, repetitive tasks, workers lose the sense of their role in production, and are less committed to the process and the organization. As a result, the norms of the workplace exert less influence on their activity. (see "Durkheim's theory of social class")
Maybe it's something in my personality: I literally need to see the results of my labor. I love a clean kennel after I scrub it, or some one's eyes lighting up when I finish processing their dog adoption. My current job, coordinating the volunteers at an animal rescue, is certainly meaningful, but it's a step removed. I recently hit a milestone- I have two hundred active volunteers- but it's an abstract number. I am happy when I staff a busy event with competent volunteers that I've trained myself and feel rewarded when volunteers fight over positions because they're so enthusiastic. But I am missing the feeling of *doing something. Just with my oath not to go to grad school because I wanted action, this is themacinator, chiming in with her #firstworldproblem of not having to work enough.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

I'm Going to Blame Grad School

I haven't been blogging. Or going anywhere or reading much (!) or shooting or gardening or doing anything.

And even though it's November 2nd and I *could be blaming the offseason, I'm going to blame grad school and further, #onlineschool.

Pretty much from the day I started college I swore I wouldn't go back to school which I'm pretty sure disappointed my parents and I know disappointed my now 95 year old grandfather who were all sure I was destined for greatness, which included some fancy letters after my name.* As I had from entering preschool, I excelled at school. I think I pulled a B+ once in college, probably in one of my 3 required science/math classes. I didn't make the dean's list, or whatever it was called, but that's because I was no longer an overachiever: I focussed on being happy, not on grades, and I still did well.

But I knew right away that I wanted to do stuff, not to talk about stuff, and a liberal arts school is all about talking about stuff. I knew that if I heard the word "problematic" one more time after waling out of that place that I was going to vomit. I wrote an entire thesis about "intersectionality" which Word will never recognize as a word but which my entire four years of higher education was based on. I graduated with honors and a double major in Religious Studies and Women's Studies, which my sister rightly told me was basically the most useless degree ever. I was done.

And for about 8 years I did stuff. Then I burnt out. I straight up quit animal welfare and did nothing for about 6 months. It was amazing. But then it was time to get a job and I had no other skills. I mean, I had skills, but no one really wanted to hire a sector switcher who had been to college then gone into animal welfare and was an excellent poop scooper. It didn't work. I tried publishing, worked for a crazy lady and ended up not working again. Guess where I am now? Back in animal welfare.

And in grad school. Further, in #onlineschool as I like to call it in my twitter rants.

My reasons for not wanting to go to graduate school were more complicated than not wanting to talk about stuff, though that was the main one. I'm a huge autodidact. When I'm not in school, I read a lot (as you know if you ever read this blog). I read everything- I was one of those kids who proverbially memorized the cereal box at the breakfast table, except actually me and my dad fought over the newspaper. I read books, I read my dad's stale New Yorkers, I read twitter, I read longreads, I read stuff and synthesize it on, etc. I didn't feel like I needed to go to school and be assigned reading. I hate sitting. I don't sit still well, and I get kind of annoying when I'm doing mandatory sitting. Some might even say "disruptive." Not a good skill in a classroom.

But I thought about it and talked to some people and figured library school might be a good thing. There are two ALA (American Library Association) programs in California. One's at UCLA and one is online at San Jose State. You don't have to take any grad school tests to do the SJSU one, and it's online, so you don't have to move to LA. I signed up in the middle of last year- I'm in the middle of my third semester. It is all of the things I hate. Mandatory reading that is REALLY dumb and lots of sitting. But it's worse: none of the good things that came with school. You don't meet and like your peers. You don't have great professors, or you might, but there's no interaction with them, so who knows? One class I took, the one I was super excited about last semester, my "lectures" were one page typed outlines. There are terrible assignments: write a five page, double spaced paper about ALL the problems facing public libraries today. Use ten academic journals. I feel like I'm in 5th grade. There are group assignments where we sit in silence in virtual conference rooms. The situation that caused this rant today? A professor who assigns youtube videos this week that don't show up. I went to email her, but her only email address is a) hard to find (it's only on the syllabus which I had printed out because I still can't read mass quantities online) and b) when I went to look on the syllabus didn't show up because it's a link to an online form.

#onlineschool is terrible and it is sucking my will to live. I don't write anything because by the time I get home from work and decompress for an hour, I have to do homework (which is actually schoolwork) for a couple hours, then decompress for another hour. I don't garden because I feel pressured to do work. And now there is no baseball.

I realized today that I have no concept of whether other grad students feel like this, because I don't have peers to talk to, which at least #reallifeschool students have.

And with that happy post, welcome back to, and I'm off to more homework!

*Note: I in no way, shape or form mean to suggest that my parents or grandfather are disappointed in me or are not supportive of me. I have basically the best family a macinator could ask for. I mean, you don't get to be THIS awesome without an awesome family behind you. But one way to strut your stuff is with fancy letters, and that was one thing I couldn't do. Did it hold my family back from their awesome and supportive ways? Of course not! Was there a chance for my grandfather to ask me every time he saw me when I was going back to school? Why yes, yes there was. But that's his way of showing his faith in me. I know this, but it doesn't make for nearly as interesting of a blog, does it?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Garry Wills: Why Priests?

Shop Indie Bookstores
Garry Wills has either done it again and written a great book or, if you're not in school and not that interested in scholarly stuff, not done it at all. I feel like once again I've been suckered by a title: "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition" totally plays on those of us who are interested in why the priesthood is, well, a failed tradition. The thing is that "Why Priests?" isn't really about the failed tradition, it's about how Christianity didn't prescribe priests and how that came later. So maybe it should have been called "Why Priests? A Made Up Tradition" or "A Tradition Destined to Fail" or "Christianity: A Priestless Tradition" or any such descriptive and not tricky title.

I love Garry Wills and was stoked to hear about this book. "Bomb Power" totally changed the way I look at things and Wills is really good at making otherwise unapproachable subjects approachable. Except when he's not. I read a lot of books like "Why Priests?" in college: they dive deeply into texts from the Bible and other early religious texts and they're great, if you are studying religion. I'm not studying religion anymore, I'm learning about it and trying to apply it to real life. Honstly, I gave up after 100 pages. If you're looking for a readable book on priests or Catholicism or anything like that, this isn't it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Homans: What's a Dog For?

Shop Indie Bookstores
Back story: I like to get books from the library (if you've ever read this blog, you're probably wondering why I always tell the same backstory). One of the awesomest things about the library is being able to put books on hold and have them miraculously show up at your branch. You get a notification by email that your book is at your branch and then you have two weeks to go pick them up. My branch is two blocks away, but quite small- none of the books I want are there. So periodically I request a bunch of books on my list. Usually they're some combination of very esoteric and new, popular-ish nonfiction. They trickle in and then come All At The Same Time. Last week 3 showed up at once. They included Garry Wills' new book "Why Priests," Shereen el Feki's "Sex and the Citadel" and John Homans' "What's a Dog For" which is also quite new. As I was checking the books out, the librarian told me that two had holds and couldn't be renewed. I realized I would have to read the books in overdrive if I had any hope of finishing all them in 3 weeks. I took a guess and started "What's a Dog For" first figuring that dogs are the most popular thing in the Bay Area. After I finished I thought to check the status of the books. This was the only book WITHOUT a hold on it. Classic move on my part. Anyway.

What IS a dog for? How has that changed over time? Why? These are fascinating, career-driving questions for people like me. John Homans' book is an attempt to answer these questions by someone who is, by all accounts, a casual pet owner. He does things like call his lab mix (a mix by his own description) a lab and attribute pure bred qualities to her over and over. He puts a rubber blanket on him when he euthanized his dog, prepping for the fluids that would flow- a practical thing to do but something those of us who Do Dogs cold-heartedly scoff at: What's a little post-humous release? He asks great questions and admits to anthropormorphasizing his dog. The last third of the book is devoted to a discussion that, brief and necessarily simplified discussion of animal welfare. (Complaint: doesn't clearly distinguish between animal welfare and animal rights. Man I hate a discussion of Ingrid Newkirk that doesn't say "animal rights is NOT animal welfare in big bold letters at least 17 times.) He does some serious research and generally presents it in a readable way.

As a dog person, I can't really tell you if this book would satisfy a lay person. For a dog person, it's a wash. The history and the science is kind of presented in a haphazard manner: back and forward through time and through perspectives. There is a LOT of ground to cover and the book covers it very quickly. Homans talks to all the right people, though he presents them all in a name-dropping type way: Temple Grandin, Turid Rugaas, William Koehler, Karen Pryor, the Baileys, BF Skinner, etc. I'd rather there was a little more time spent on each facet of the human/dog relationship which would mean giving up some of the accessibility of the book and gaining some depth.

There is an in-depth conversation of the human-dog relationship in terms of communication: it's clear that Homans really values the relationship between dogs and people. Dogs, you may have heard, are the only animals that we know of that can/do follow when humans point. I point at a toy and Rollie (well he's mostly blind) looks at it. I pointed at the treat on the ground that I dropped and Mac most definitely did look at it and gobble it up. Other animals don't do this, even apes. He talks about the important relationship of dogs to important people in animal science: Darwin and Goodall were both extremely influenced by their dogs. And he meets with the scientists who are now studying what it means to be a dog. The in-depth history, though, is pretty much that: historical.

I was hoping for much more about what happened in the last 100 and maybe even 50 years: How we got to the dogs in dresses stage. Why so many people are getting bit by dogs now, how we lost the understanding that, no matter how well we communicate with dogs, they are still dogs. But I think that an overview by a non-dog person necessarily can't have that info: this is not a book by someone who truly understands dogs but a book by someone who wants to understand the human/dog relationship. That's not a bad thing, it's just a different thing (not accurately represented in the title). It's a philosophical thing. Homans is asking questions about what it means to be human, as well. He talks about politics and class and how they are reflected in our breeding and treatment of dogs. This is wonderful and we notice it but don't usually say it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Simon Garfield: On the Map

Simon Garfield has written one of those charming books that were all the rage about 10 years ago- a biography of a thing. There were books about the tulip, salt, corpses and who knows what else. "On the Map" is very much a biography of the map. It has flashes of what I was hoping it to be: sort of a sociological analysis of maps and mapping and the "mind-expanding exploration of the way the world works" that the subtitle promises. "On the Map" contains a lot of cool tidbits and some cool pictures, but mind-expanding? Not so much.

It really is mind-expanding to think about how people before world exploration saw the world. I'm not just talking colonizers, I'm talking people in general. Think about it: you lived somewhere and knew the geography of the place, but what else was there? Could you picture the next place over? Did you want to picture the next place over? If you lived on the coast, did you imagine what the coastline looked like, beyond the immediate waves? I have a sense of the shape of California, but really, it's the shape on a map. When I'm standing with my toes in the water, the only shape I REALLY know is the shape that's as far as I can see to my left and to my right. The earliest maps would have given me a path to follow to get me where I needed to go, but not a picture of the shape of the coast. This is really astonishing to me, and maybe sociology isn't the right word: it's almost philosophical.

Another mind-blowing example of how maps change how we think (or maybe better, how we think changes how maps operate) is the mobile-phone/GPS style map, or "me-mapping." These dynamic maps now move with us: we are the center, literally, of the universe. I pull up my phone to figure out where I am when I'm lost or disoriented, click a button and whoosh, I'm located on the map. I can then orient myself on the map and get directions, if I want, to where I want to go. No more finding myself on the map- the map finds me. In a way, this is stepping back to that primitive spot on the beach: the only place I really know is the spot on the coast that I'm standing on. In a sinister way it's erasing everything else. Now that I do have the capability to know everywhere else and the shape of the coastline, instead of orienting myself to that geography, I'm orienting the geography to myself. Scary, creepy and self-centered. We are losing our ability to find our way around because we follow the arrow or the voice in the GPS. We are losing our sense of perspective, our place in the world.

Garfield doesn't lay this out very well, and maybe that is a benefit of the book: he gives us the history and then lets us fill it in, as I've done here. He gives us lots of stuff to tell our friends: did you know that Nicaragua blamed Google Maps for their invasion of Costa Rica? Yup. Apparently Google Maps had the borders wrong and they wanted them set straight. Also, Bill Clinton gets bonus points for lifting restrictions on GPS satellite technology in 2000 when he said the Cold War is REALLY over, enough is enough. And he presciently warns that we are unreasonably dependent on GPS:
GPS is now such a significant part of our lives that the effects of failure would be catastrophic. Malfunction would be a blow not just to the digital cartographer and the iPhone user, it would be as if the world's entire harvest of electricity, oil and gas had run out at the same time. The loss of GPS would now affect all emergency services, all systems of traffic control including shipping and flight navigation, and all communications bar semaphore. It would affect the ability to keep accurate time and predict earthquakes. It would set the guidance and interception of ballistic missiles to haywire. What would begin with gridlock at road intersections would very rapidly tun the world dark, and then off. Everything would stop. We would be practically blind. We would not be able to stock our shops and feed ourselves. Only those who knew how to plow a field like they did in the middle ages would have a chance.
Wow. So what do we do? Learn how to triangulate again? Keep AAA maps in our cars, if we can find them? Keep growing food in our backyards? (My tomatoes won't last me very long.) It's not really clear that we can or should go back. It is clear that maps and mapping have an immense influence in who we are and where we're going (dude, stop me), even if kids never fight to fold a map or try to read a street name that's been worn out in the crease of a map. Even if my boyfriend can't find his way around without a GPS and I have to give my volunteers printed directions to their destinations, there's mapping involved. Garfield does a good job of describing this and how we got to this point. The book is quick and readable and food for thought if you know how to get there.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Mischievous Animals

A quick and dirty flashback newsy item.

A fatal dog mauling in Los Angeles is getting press in Los Angeles because the owner of the dogs is getting charged with murder. This is big news. First, I need to say that it is tragic that the woman died before moving to the next part. The big news for me, though, is that LA is charging the dog owner: holding him responsible. Undoubtably the dogs will pay with their lives, but it sounds like the owner will suffer as well. For years in my past life as an animal control officer I pushed for the use of Penal Code 399, "Felony Mischievous Animal." This law says that if you have an animal and you know that it has "mischievous" tendencies, you better be responsible. If not, you can go to jail. It means that animal control (or the police) can put someone on notice so that the "I didn't know" excuse doesn't fly. It basically gives law enforcement a way to stop blaming the dogs for doing things that their human owners can prevent (like killing innocent people). While I was still an officer, we did actually charge someone with a felony using PC 399. The felony was reduced to a misdemeanor, but this is much better than "just" euthanizing the dog.  This I believe was the first time we had done this in my jurisdiction, maybe ever, but certainly in recent history.

I am REALLY impressed with LA for doing this, and further, for the Los Angeles Times for their reporting. Sure, the articles are titled "Pit bull killing" and "Pit bull owner charged..." but they discuss the importance of charging the owner and talk to reasonable, non-biased experts like the good people at the National Canine Research Center. Loving pit bulls doesn't mean that this kind of awful, tragic event doesn't happen. It means advocating for a fair, appropriate response, including what Los Angeles is doing and focusing on the right part of the story like the Los Angeles Times has done.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Two Reasons I Don't Mind O.Co

Everyone hates the Coliseum. I don't like the Coliseum, but I like it better than a new stadium. And I'll give you two reasons, in two words. You can read the long version, or you can stop here.

Word 1: Marlins.

Word 2: Astros.

1. The Marlins' new stadium/tragedy/apocalyptic nightmare has been well documented and I'm not going there. Their attendance for the last 3 home games? 15,52013,996 and 13,231. These are games against the Phillies, too, and I'm guessing at least half of these *announced* attendance figures were Phillies fans who frequently attend games at "Citizen's Bank South."

It's not like this new stadium (just built in 2012) brought a good team, either. The team is currently the worst team in baseball at 13-37. That's right: after 50 games, they've only won 13 times. Can you imagine being a fan? Why would you go and bolster their attendance? I tried to make a seat purchase to figure out a comparable ticket price but for the life of me I couldn't understand which seats were comparable to mine at the Coliseum. I think they're slightly more, though. I will note that you can purchase a ticket for $410, which is more than I have spent on anything I can remember this calendar year. So you pay more to watch a crappier team. A much crappier team. I bitch about the A's but at no point in my 25+ years of fandom can I remember a start that bad. (Where's the stat-a-matician when you need him?) Even the Astro's are better.

2. Which brings me to the Astros. It's not an exaggeration to say they're better, it's a fact. It's not like they're much better: they're 14-36, which makes their winning percentage looks like a pretty good batting average at .280. Their slogan, "It's a Whole New Ballgame" is correct: it is a whole new ballgame in the American League West: They're totally appreciated, especially by the A's who are undefeated against them this year.

I was able to figure out comparable tickets on the Astro's site. If you want to pay $25-45 (and I never pay over 30 unless it's a Big Game and still get great seats), you get to sit in the 3rd deck or way out in bleacher land or on the lower outfield land. See picture.

Announced attendance at the last 3 games? 19,366, 18591 and 15907. Higher than the A's, sure, and totally unbelievable. Just peek in one time on TV. This park was built in 2000.

Dave Zirin's Bad Sports tells you all you need to know about why new stadiums are bad deals for cities, and it's pretty clear that Oakland is the king of Bad Deals. These two arguments are just fuel for the fire. I also wrote this nifty little piece (it may be changed by the time you read it, since that's the nature of a wiki) on Mount Davis: more evidence that Oakland has no idea what they're doing when it comes to new stuff and sports. I am not an apologist: I hate the Coliseum. It sucks. Getting in and out is awful, the concession stands seem to have been built to create traffic, Mount Davis is an abomination, sharing with a football team is egregious, and really, what's to like about the stadium itself? But here's what's to like about staying: tickets are probably the cheapest in the Majors (someone else has to do the legwork) which means that fans like me CAN go and cheer on a team that is actually contending. Oakland isn't eating money for a new stadium shilled to us by people like Lew Woolf- if he's shady now, why do we think he'll be any in the deal for a new stadium? The Coliseum is right by BART and lots of non-parking lot parking, so we don't even have to pay the exorbitant fee for the parking lot. Just remember: Astros and Marlins. 13 wins. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dave Zirin: Game Over

Shop Indie Bookstores
Today, someone mentioned on twitter that Jewish heritage day at the A's came up. I replied that this day was second only in my pantheon of grossness to Pink day at the ballpark. I don't like my baseball on the same plate as my religion. I don't like my patriotism on the same plate as my baseball, either. It gets messy and the two don't taste good together. Some might say this means I don't like politics and sports together, and I guess this is true. I felt squeamish the celebrations during the baseball games after the bombers of the Boston Marathon were caught. It just felt like, well, clapping at Temple. But according to Dave Zirin, you can't separate politics and sports, and reading "Game Over," you know he's right. So maybe I just don't like their politics on my baseball field (though that's not true about religion- I don't want my religion on my field, either).

Here's Zirin's point: athletes are basically not supposed to be political beings. When they sign their contracts, they sign away their rights to speak out about anything. (Think Ozzie Guillen and his "misstep" as Marlin's manager: he expressed admiration for Castro's longevity as a dictator and faced major fallout from his management, MLB and the press.) On the other hand, "at every sporting event we are encouraged to colletively celebrate the displays of nationalism, patriotism, and miliatry might that festoon every corner." Think beyond the national anthem: think fly overs, the new (hideous) camo jerseys, corporate culture of sponsorship, etc. When we attend mainstream sporting events, we witness giant spectacles of homoeroticism while passively supporting (or more, paying for) homophobic corporations that further homophobia in boys growing up with these mens as role models. And don't even get me started on the Olympics (I wouldn't want to throw a wrench in THB's next venue!) Sports are political. Somehow, this doesn't bother me nearly as much as the religious and nationalist part.

Zirin's book is uneven. It clearly reads as a bunch of previously-published essays glommed together into a book, which is unfortunate. Some of the parts are really great, and I learned a lot about the NCAA and the awful exploitation of the kids playing ball for our enjoyment. The NCAA makes so much money, it's ridiculous, and the kids don't get a dollar, not even for the sponsored gear that's plastered all over their bodies. If they get cut from the team, no matter for what reason, they lose their scholarships. Tough shit dude, you're here for an education, I mean to play sports, I mean for an education. Can't play? See ya. I even felt sorry for the bajillionaire NBA and NFL players who got locked out by owners pleading poor even though they were double-bajillionaires, ten times over. Did you know that after football, NFL players don't get health care? Sure, they're rich, but they get beaten up for a living, for our (well, not mine) entertainment and then don't have any right to healthcare, which most of us would agree is a basic human right. Let's just say that post NFL they have more than a few pre-existing conditions that might disqualify them for health insurance. But I didn't like how Zirin conflates gender and sexuality- I'm sure he knows the difference but his essay mushes the question of the treatment of female athletes, gender distinctions and homophobia into one, and they're not. And although I'm convinced: the Green Bay Packers are the best, we need more good examples. If you're going to read a Zirin book, I'd go with "Bad Sports." Otherwise, follow him on twitter (he posts a lot of his articles there) or check out his podcast, Edge of Sports.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Joe Queenan: One for the Books

Shop Indie Bookstores
Queenan may have written this book as an anti-eBook treatise (I don't know if he did but suspect he might have) but it's really a piece about his love affair with books and reading. I can't blame him- I kind of love physical books, too- a friend is here looking at my shelves and asking why they're labeled by BISAC codes. (Answer? How else is someone supposed to find something?) Queenan doesn't organize his books by BISAC codes: he organizes them by texture and height. Can you blame him? What an aesthetically pleasing way to go! He goes further: books are toys. I totally relate to this:
I like to play with my books, to mark them up, to give them a lived-in look. I like to stack them up on the shelf and move them about and rearrange them according to new parameters-height, color, thickness, provenance, publisher, author's nationality, subject matter, likelihood that I will ever read them. Then I put them back the way they were.
My parents know that I do this, too. From the time I was a child I've been pulling all of my books (ALL of my books) off of the shelf and arranging them on the floor only to put them back again in some other permutation. I do this now, too. Maybe they shouldn't be by BISAC code, come to think of it. Maybe they should be by color or by alphabet, regardless of subject. And those graffiti books should be on the other side of the house.

Queenan does some things that I find inspiring: one year he read only short books. One year, a book a day. And he knows he will never read Middlemarch. He doesn't talk to his friends about books because he knows he wont' agree. Also, he hates the Yankees. Queenan will not read books about the Yankees, Yankees fans, or supporters of the Yankees. Including Salman Rushdie. I wish I could be this strict, but it would take more work than it's worth, I think. I'd have to research who likes the Yankees, and then I would have to think about the Yankees. I'm just going to quote how he feels about the Yankees, because it's SO GOOD:
This vindictive attitude is rooted partly in principle and partly in pathology; I, like most Americans, resent the Yankees' success, wishing that my own cheapskate teams would also go out and purchase championships by the fistful. But I further reject the notion that Yankees fans experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat the way the rest of us. They are fans who have not paid their dues. Yankees fans, not to put too fine a point on it, suck, and the rest of us do not. Rooting for the yankees, as a friend of mine who roots for the Cubs says, is like rooting for the air. 
And he loves libraries, especially for the things that don't belong there.

One of my favorite passages should ring true to lots of readers:
I one tried to devise a term to describe the euphoria a person feels when he approaches the end of a book he has not enjoyed reading. I think the term is in fact "euphoria," as the closest I ever got was Buchendungfreudejoie. Others share my inability to chuck away a book once they have slogged a good way into it. One of the best friends I have ever had says that when reading a book she dislikes but cannot quite bring herself to abandon, she is thrilled when she suddenly, unexpectedly stumbles upon a passage so awful or disgusting or immoral that it would make it a crime to continue holding the book in her hands.
Isn't that what books are for? To give us that out that life doesn't ever seem to come up with?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Peggy Orenstein: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Shop Indie Bookstores
This book made me realize: I'm an asshole when it comes to liking books. It's possible that in the past I have felt that thb was this way: every book I recommended was just "so-so" or had a million problems with it. But after reading "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" and finding a million problems with an overall pretty good book, I've realized that either a) I am hypercritical/picky about books or b) I'm turning into my father. (Turning into? Both?) In 1995, Peggy Orenstein wrote "Schoolgirls," and, as an impressional teen, I still remember how important that book was to me. The big issue then was self-esteem, and Orenstein nailed it.

The big issue now with girls is, well, actually I have no idea, because I'm a grown up and I don't have kids and don't really pay that much attention. But I do notice how pink is back, and how pink, combined with consumerism, is somehow supposed to be empowering for women (fight cancer, buy something pink!). I also notice how Disney is *the thing- you sort of have to live on a tropical to not see small children in Disney princess outfits. I haven't found a tropical island to live on. And of course there's the hypersexualization of young kids, although that seems to have cooled off as a topic when obesity came around. Now we talk about fat and take it for granted that kids wear bikinis and tight tee shirts and sparkly booty pants. It's not weird that they do- it's weird that we don't talk about it. Remember when we didn't have reality tv? Remember when we didn't have reality tv that involved 5 year olds dressing like beauty queens? It's hard to remember, and I'm not kidding.

So Orenstein's "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" is a welcome look into this bizarre land of what it means to raise a girl now. Only... it's either a piece of reporting (Orenstein mentions a couple of times that she's a journalist), or it's a diary of a mom trying to raise her kid right (in Berkeley), or it's a sociological piece, or it's... none of the above. And at 192 short pages, it's none of the above successfully. Not very helpfully, the publishers have given it the BISAC codes of 1. Girls-Psychology, 2. Femininity, 3. Mothers and daughters. I wonder what Orenstein would make of that- a whole section for girls?

"Cinderella" touches on so many things that I want to know more about. Orenstein clearly did a lot of work for this book- or to raise her own daughter after decades of working on this stuff. She says upfront that she was hoping for a boy, and who can blame her? It's a nightmare out there for raising a strong, confident girl: one who wants to achieve without falling into the traps of either rejecting society's norms to to the point of being an outcast but also without accepting them to the point of needing to be beautiful, weak and adored for her external beauty. So did Orenstein write this book because she had learned all of this stuff and had a wealth of knowledge to share (I wouldn't blame her)? Or did she write the book but not quite go deep enough into any of the subjects? We get snippets of each phase of her daughter's age and along with it, snippets of information: why the Disney monopoly is dangerous, what the pink marketing trend is all about, why playing together cross-genders is important, etc. But there is clearly so much more to say. Just when I got involved in a discussion about dolls or Miley Cyrus, time to hear about Orenstein's daughter and then move on.

But I'm not sure this is really a flaw with the book. The book is very readable, Orenstein is very humble and honest about reality: she knows she's a feminist and she knows that society is a tricky place to navigate as a feminist. She doesn't think she has all the answers as a mom, or as an "expert." I just wanted more, and I have a feeling that Orenstein has it, just not in this format. Give me more, dammit! Great topic, poor execution.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Brian Chen: Always On

Got a cell phone? (I know you do. Even THB has one.) Got a smart phone? You probably do, even if THB doesn't have one. Got a tablet? Take it everywhere? Use it all the time? Use one of these things more than a computer? Yes, if you're honest, probably. Brian Chen knows all about it. He's not critical of it, he just knows about it and in his short "Always On," he shares a bit about what the iPhone has done to create the "anything-anytime-anywhere" world we now live in. The book, written in 2010 and published in 2013 is, amazingly but not surprisingly, out of date already, thanks to the very phenomena he writes about. The book is uneven and at times Chen seems giddy about technology, but you can't really blame him- he writes for Wired; it's his job to love this stuff.

"Always On" is iPhone-centric because Steve Jobs (still alive at the time of writing) and Apple were at the forefront of creating anything-anytime-anywhere phenomena with their iPhone and other phones had to hurry to catch up. Also, Chen explains, the vertical integration that Jobs, the control freak, built into the phone was key to its success. Other smartphone companies couldn't initially compete (and now are way behind in market share) due to the fact that they didn't control the whole process. Apple built the whole physical phone and the whole ecosystem including iTunes and the App store. Other companies like Google and Microsoft figured this out later. In the meantime, customers both benefited and suffered from Apple's invention. The App store has a bajillion apps which can do everything and will be able to do more. They've made some people extremely rich and saved people's lives. On the other hand, they're subject to Apple's rigorous screening that borders on censorship: when we depend on one company for so much of our content and assume that that is all that is out there, our world becomes limited by their whims. Further, Apple is very careful about what kinds of coding can go into the apps because the company is terrified that something will get in there and "break" or modify the phone. This means that creativity is stifled; hacking for good is often a way of making new and cool stuff. No hacking allowed on the iPhone.

My main quibble with this book- besides that it's not very well written (it's fine for what it is)- is that Chen can't seem to decide which side he's on and doesn't acknowledge that. The book opens with a heartwarming story about a guy who saves his own life while trapped in a building thanks to his iPhone. He chuckles at the idea of technology making us stupider, and later in the book talks at length (for a short book) about the idea that our brains have been changed by technology. Although he gives both sides on both of these issues, it's clear that he favors the "no, we're not stupider" and "no, we're not changed" arguments. We get a personal anecdote about how he tried to unplug with disastrous results for both him and his people. Then comes the chapter about privacy. Chen pretty clearly is worried that the "always on" culture is dangerous. "We should ask," he writes, "How can we use these technologies so that data can benefit us rather than cause harm?" This is the smartest thing he says in the whole book, but it comes on page 189, 3/4 of the way through the book, and should probably come before all of the other stuff, if it's what Chen believes. Instead, it comes later, and I can't figure out if it's what he thinks, or if it's what he thinks about privacy issues. Bottom line, this is a decent, fast read with some interesting history on our new smartphone appendage.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

East Oakland?

Something I wrote for Oaklandwiki on East Oakland. I hate when people call things "East Oakland" Just Because They Can, or because they don't know any better. Link here, though it may be changed by the time you see it- the good and bad of a wiki!

East Oakland loosely describes a large part of the city of Oakland and includes a number of neighborhoods. "East Oakland" is often synonymous in public language both in- and outside of Oakland as "the ghetto." Our Oakland has a great piece mapping how the media delineated East Oakland over a series of articles.
Complicating the fact is that what is described as "East" Oakland is in fact South Oakland, as directionally, Oakland is much longer North-South than East-West. The widest part of the city is just south of the Bay Bridge, and cuts across straight through Oakland pretty much 1/3 of the way South of the city. 
Many people, perhaps the majority or residents and outsiders, think that anything East of Lake Merritt is East Oakland. This would mean that anything with "Avenue" in the street name or East followed by a number (i.e. East 22nd or East 14th (now called International Blvd)) is East Oakland. This is a huge, diverse swath of territory: literally from 1st avenue on the shore of Lake Merritt to past 109th Ave at San Leandro. Running over 100 blocks North-South (see above) and from the flats to the hills and encompassing the majority of 5 of 7 City Council districts, this hardly seems appropriate. Certain neighborhoods would certainly object if it were portrayed this starkly. Maybe East Oakland would only be described as City Council Districts 56 and 7, and the Southeast portions of Districts 2 and 4. This would eliminate the stigma of "East Oakland" from neighborhoods such as Crocker HighlandsMontclairGlenview and even Eastlake
The linguistic implications of calling something "East Oakland" are huge: many people will not travel to somewhere that is considered "East Oakland" because it's considered dangerous. One might argue that the surge in gentrification in places like Old OaklandUptownand Temescal could not have happened in "East Oakland" because the downtown and North Oakland names did not carry such a stigma. Sure, they were empty and people from Oakland know that West Oakland has it's own share of problems, but there's nothing like the gangster, lost-cause feeling of East Oakland. This, in turn, leads to a vicious cycle: dollars aren't spent in "East Oakland" so businesses stay away from East Oakland. People don't move to East Oakland because there are so many empty houses and so few services. "East Oakland" the geographic area spreads as "East Oakland" the cultural problem self-reinforces.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Kevin Powers: The Yellow Birds

Shop Indie Bookstores
The quote on the cover of "The Yellow Birds" is from Tom Wolfe: "The All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab wars." That's a strong comparison, but really, I think maybe Kevin Powers does it. The book is hard to put down, disturbing, sparse and haunting. Clocking in at 225 pages with biggish font and taking place over maybe 8 days over the span of about 8 years, Powers does a lot with a little. We just hit 10 years in Iraq, and just like Mother Jones "we're still at war" feature (every day they have a new picture of soldiers abroad), this book is a reminder that 10 years is 10 years too many. There are no heroes in "The Yellow Birds," just war. Read it.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin: Black Against Empire

Shop Indie Bookstores
It is not easy to find "authoritative" writing on the Black Panthers. In my quest for learning about the Black Panther Party, I've come up with some theories: lots of the Panthers were killed, so couldn't tell their stories; the Party collapsed in on itself so the party has many competing versions; and the Civil Rights version of history is the "acceptable" version, so that's what gets funded/studied. But Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin don't have to guess: "Black Against Empire" *is authoritative, I mean, it's even published by the University of California Press- those guys do their research. Part of the lack of an "adequate history," they write is because of the "character of state repression of the Party [that was] aimed specifically at vilifying the Black Panther Party." This "shaped public understandings and blurred the outlines of the history." In order to overcome this, "Black Against Empire" was written through a process of "strategic genealogy": Bloom and Martin work through the Panthers' political practices through contemporary documents and primary sources, using retrospective interviews and memoirs only as backups. It's a fascinating read, especially coming after reading Elaine Brown's autobiography. If I could have a do-over, I'd read "Black Against Empire" first, and then "A Taste of Power," for reasons I'll get into later.

Bloom and Martin believe the Black Panther Party (BPP) came into being and fell away at a specific time for a reason. Not since the Civil War, they write, "almost a hundred and fifty years ago have so many people taken up arms in revolutionary struggle in the United States." That's quite something when you think about it. The civil rights movement was fading, they say, though that is something I couldn't quite wrap my minds around: Bloom and Martin say that civil rights was failing to deliver what black people really sought. The civil rights movement was a call for citizenship, for "full and equal participation." Legally in the late sixties, African Americans were getting closer to achieving this. In reality, many were still facing the same old shit, and needed a movement that did with the Panthers did: challenged the very authority of the state to grant them that citizenship. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the founders of the BPP were angry and felt like they were living as colonized subjects. In founding the BPP they effectively channeled the rage of many other young blacks into a revolutionary group that sought to bypass the institutional channels that the civil rights movement was working through.

"Black Against Empire" basically covers the years from 1966 to 1971, though it is most comprehensive from 1967-1970. This is the time when the BPP were able to ally themselves with the anti-war movement at home and the anti-imperialist movements abroad. Ideologically, the BPP argued that black people were, like other people of color at home and abroad, a colonized people. They argued that theirs was a common cause with the North Vietnamese and all oppressed people and that police (pigs) were the occupying forces. As young white activists started protesting en masse against the Vietnam war and began feeling the blunt end of police oppression, this argument resonated. The BPP was anti-racist and believed in coalitions across racial groups while standing firm on black self determination. Abroad, the BPP found friends in places like Cuba, Algeria and China as they couched their arguments in Marxist language and allied themselves with the communist North Vietnamese.

Practically, the BPP gained strength through its self-defense tactics. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale figured out that one of the best ways to both organize "brothers on the block" and stand up for the black community was to police the police. This was hugely successful: so successful that in 1967 Assemblyman Mulford introduced AB 1591 to outlaw open carry. When Newton famously sent an armed delegation to Sacramento to protest this bill, the media coverage led to even more press and support for the Panthers. Armed self defense thus became a double edged sword of both an effective and illegal strategy for the BPP.

So why do I wish I had read this book first? "Black Against Empire" is presented as an authoritative political history of the Black Panther Party. I believe that it is, but having read Elaine Brown's book first, my impression of the BPP is anchored in her story, which is personal, detailed and by definition, autobiographically skewed. Reading "Black Against Empire" I found myself saying "that's not what Brown said," even though I know that means nothing as everyone lives their own story. I wish that I had read Brown's book saying "That's not what 'Black Against Empire' said." That being said, the two books compliment each other: where "Black Against Empire" is a political history and thus attempts to leave out the highly personal stakes of the BPP, Brown lived it, and her book gives the reader a true sense of the time.  Also, "Black Against Empire" ends abruptly, rushing through 10 years of Panther history, while Brown's direct involvement in the end of the era gives the reader a good picture of the school and the ultimate collapse of the Party.

If you want a book on the Panthers, read this one. With the backing of the University of California Press, it's got the weight of credibility. The authors are thorough in describing other literature and the book clearly leans to the left, which appeals to me. The book looks long, but that's partially due to extensive endnotes; it reads fast. Try it.