Fun Days in Bernal Heights

Today I’m feeling deep appreciation for our sweet neighborhood in Bernal Heights. I spent the morning writing a book review in Pinhole Coffee, chatting with people sometimes and feeling thankful for JoEllen’s lovely cafe which gives such a good space for local community.

On the way home I ran into Frank from Good Life (we always say hello) and then Mike from Progressive Grounds who was blasting his friend’s band playing a cover of Minor Threat song from his bicycle.

Between the time I left and the time I came back, someone took half the books from our Little Free Bookshelf – leaving one of the guidebooks to Paris and the Penguin copy of Moby Dick. (Glorified name for what is just a wooden wine box on end, under the porch awning. It’s fun when other people leave books there, and I often read them and put them out again.)

I picked up some trash from the sidewalk and put it into the bin under our sidewalk bench made of stumps and a board. Someone sat there last night and had take out food and a cigarette. Someone else often comes and drinks a glass bottle of Squirt there, leaving the bottle… I wonder who it is, and I like them for having a habit, secretly visible to me though I never see them, only their distinctive bottles.

Running into Marc from Unicorn Precinct and having a rambly, jumping, lightning speed conversation about books and poems. He was reading Daniel Borzutzky and I felt like I recognized him (from ALTA conferences?) I told Marc about the neobaroque movement and he talked about his children’s play “Factory Full of Weasels”. Danny critiqued his copy of Jacobin magazine a bit (it has nice layout tho) and we both excitedly tried to explain the weird awfulness of “Politics and Apocalypse”. (Shudder.)

Down the street doing a quick errand I was chatting with El Ahorro owner and family as they are opening a sandwich shop in the back of the store – already a great neighborhood store.

Friends who live close by, coming over this afternoon for end of the year tea and black eyed peas.

The guy a few houses down must still be on vacation, his perpetual barbershop-and-garage-sale still closed for the holidays.

Next week I’ll go to the two free tai chi classes, one at the library, one at the senior center, a new habit in the making which will bring new acquaintances I’ve likely seen around the neighborhood.

It’s nice to live somewhere for years, to see the same people every day, in my usual haunts, feeling just a little connection to others, the opposite of isolated, knowing the usual ways the fog and afternoon wind rolls in and out through the gap in the hills, kind of like how we were aware of the tide when we lived on the houseboat in Pete’s Harbor.

[photo: a tiny zine called Fun Days in Bernal Heights, by the downtown zine kiosk owner]

Bernal zine

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What we’ll do

One thing that was starting to dawn on me: we would see a wave of women speaking up, more than ever, which would change things in ways we couldn’t predict. The heartfelt stories suddenly popping up on “Pantsuit Nation” felt like early blogging days over again but expanded further out to a new group. Stories of past abuse or injustice, large or small incidents as women thought about their lives, their mothers and grandmothers and daughters. Despite the ways the political status quo supports already privileged white women I started to feel that a little bit more of a cultural shift was about to happen in this country with Clinton’s election. I really love diaries and the history of women’s writing. In this context for me it is touching and sad to see how difficult it is for women even now to participate in public intellectual life. So often the pattern is that women of color blaze the trail and fall hard under attack while a lot of white women professionalize up and get a dribble of token jobs.

My hope is that we will fight harder against that process and women will keep on writing and being outspoken – not in the way it might have unfolded, but as a point of resistance and awakening under whatever is about to happen (which I dread.)

Even the most privileged women don’t manage to tell their stories or truth in public (or mobilize and organize, which is what comes next) maybe in some cases because they have a fair amount to lose and are invested in the status quo. Beyond that personal investment and co-optatation we should also be aware that culture and politics can change quickly. We can’t know what aspects of our life will condemn us in the future (for example, being a landlord in some political climates has meant heavy political oppression for generations.) Early blogging or any frank public writing leaves us even more vulnerable on a political level than we might fear in our personal lives or from being trolled online.

Also I thought that Samantha Bee thing about Clinton’s life clamping down on herself and trying to mold herself into what was required by The Patriarchy was the most depressing thing ever and I felt glad I have at least some remnant of punk rock in my soul. Man that was awful. Nope nope nope. She took a pragmatic road but what a road to hell. Glad I am not a politician right now.

This is just to say that this can be a point of resistance. Maybe that is comforting – kind of like, well, So what. Keep on being out there if that’s a way you want to risk yourself. It can be small and personal but it has a real world effect. Maybe the women who began to open up in that “private” Facebook group will find ways to keep on doing something like that. I respect the ways that people find to keep themselves and their families safe. But it’s also important that we keep speaking up as much as possible. For myself I’m thinking that I stand by my own years of public writing and always will. Everyone please blog harder and poet harder, if that’s what you do.

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Informal register

I miss “real blogging” and was thinking that one reason I have been having blog-like posts and conversations on Facebook rather than here is that this blog feels more “formal”. I intended that from the beginning, but what if I were to be a bit more quick and casual in how I post here? It won’t feel like a conversation since comments are rare and our methods to find and consume people’s unmediated or unedited public writing have shifted to happen via tumblr/facebook/twitter/medium. I also use Dreamwidth for informal posting.

Here is a commitment to continue the pleasant ramble of my long posts on a platform which I sort of control (though not with the ideological purity of running my own server under my desk or whatever, since I use a hosting service).

Is this now an actual move of resistance?

I have a feeling the conversations will happen on FB and Twitter. The FB conversations especially will be lost in the mists of time and proprietary control and unsearchability and crap API. Alas. The Twitter stuff is at least reachable and searchable and I believe it has more chance to be archived for the future.

This, also, because I am increasingly annoyed at which people and posts Facebook shows me and doesn’t show me, even on the “See all” setting.

liz-flipping-off-with-funny-tshirt

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Guest post from Ben Rosenbaum

Benjamin Rosenbaum is a science fiction writer. I know him (in person!) from the world’s largest feminst science fiction convention, WisCon. Here’s a guest post from Ben about the Amina hoax, identity, power and privilege, and sf writer James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon.

A funny note: Ben’s comments in the Amina posts under his email address, “plausiblefabulist@gmail.com”, sparked some very alarmed emails to me from other commenters!

—-

I still like a lot of Amina wrote and see no reason not to continue to like it. I liked the thing about “Der Judenstaat and Al Awda”, I liked “Still Sunni”. The author, as Roland Barthes said, is dead. I can be enraged at Tom MacMaster and still find Amina an attractive hero. I like Matilda, even though Roald Dahl was apparently a complete jerk.

What was attractive about Amina is that she was articulate and interesting and knowledgeable, and also that she was personally courageous and speaking from earned experience. If some things felt a little off about her reports, one was inclined to forgive them — she was speaking from her own experience, after all, and she was under a lot of stress.

The hoax does not mean that the opinions were any less articulate. It does however unravel the package of articulateness, integrity, courage, and personal knowledge, replacing it with a somewhat less appetizing cocktail of articulateness, deceit, cowardice and academic knowledge.

It is correct that we judge opinions based on where they are coming from. This is not an error, or an unfortunate bias. We cannot check every detail of what we hear ourselves, so when we hear an opinion, we are entitled to ask: how does this person know? We very often have to go with gut feeling, with trust. In a constrained academic context we can check footnotes, we can replace some personal trust with institutional trust, but it’s essentially the same process.

Part (granted, quite a small part compared to real people’s lives put in danger) of the tragedy here is that Amina would have made a brilliant character in a novel. Minal is right about where
it’s full of Fail
— but if MacMaster had been building true alliances with real queer Arabs on the basis of honesty, all those years, they could have called him on those things; all the moments of Orientalist fail and male-gaze squick could have been first-draft problems. That that novel will never be written is not because of a lack of talent; it is because of a lack of courage and humility.

(I don’t, by the way, say that sneeringly. Indeed, I say it with a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” — as a white guy, I can well understand the temptation of stolen authority. Maybe I’m projecting here, but in the Washington Post interview MacMaster says, “the biggest reason [for inventing Amina] was that I found that when I argued, debated and made points that I knew to be factually sound on issues relating to Middle East by myself, I got pushback. I was prevented from [saying] what I was trying to say. I created a relatively simple character, so when I commented on blogs or in a discussion online, it [was] not going to be about me.” My theory? I suspect he wasn’t prevented from saying what he was trying to say at all — he was just called on it. Privilege made that feel like suffocation. The pushback — which was actually a gift, a way in, a way to make allies, to come to understand — felt intolerable. And he did care passionately about the issues. He wanted to be heard. Stolen authority felt so natural, so right, that it was addictive. That’s just my theory. But it gives me a lot of compassion for MacMaster. People have been calling him a sociopath, and in some ways that is an accurate operational description of the way he carried on a lot of these relationships. But I don’t think he’s a sociopath in the technical sense.

Character is built of habits, and choices have a way of snowballing. This is not to excuse the choices he made; he knew full well what he was doing. He could have stopped any time, before being caught. He chose the easy way, the cheat, the stolen rush, and kept on choosing it.)

But what about the general case? Should people have a right to pretend-blog as a compelling-but-fake persona?

I don’t think there’s necessarily a hard-and-fast rule. Jackie Monkiewicz brought up the case of James Tiptree, Jr., who also carried on whole correspondences and friendships in a persona. One salient difference is that when Alice Sheldon revealed herself as the true Tiptree many of her friends were amused, or even joyful — not rageful and betrayed at all. Le Guin wrote “oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable — Wie geht’s, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! […] I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic, and ETHICAL, a put on.”

I can think of some reasons why the reaction differed. For one thing, power relations are asymmetrical, and pretending to be in a more privileged position than you are does not create the same kind of infiltration, false authority, false protection, that pretending to be in a less powerful position does. For another thing, Tiptree could say, when she came out, “everything else was true”. She really had been in the army, in the intelligence services, been a big game hunter; it was all HER, just a male version of her (this may also, for all I know, be true of “Paula Brooks” — it’s definitely not true of Tom/Amina). But these reasons may not be the full story. Part of the deal is simply that if you can pull things off, you can pull them off; you just can’t be disingenuous that you’re taking a risk. Sometimes you can kiss people out of the blue and it will work out well, because you have read the situation right. Other times it will work out very, very badly. In those latter times you are not less at fault because you didn’t understand.

I never assumed Amina was exactly who she said she was; I certainly hoped she was disguising and obfuscating crucial details. When it first became clear that it was a hoax, I imagined that perhaps the author was really an alternate Amina — a real Syrian-American lesbian blogger who was not in Syria, who was playing out a fantasy out what would have been, if she had stayed. That still would have been dangerous and irresponsible, she would have been putting people at risk and it would have been immature… but at the end of it I would have been able to read those entries as hers, and liked them as hers, instead of liking them as the entries of a fictional character.

I think it would be fine for a blog persona to be false, to be a hoax, if the effect of the hoax was neutral or just. The Sokal hoax is an example of a just hoax. It harmed no one and cleverly exposed sloth and timidity. A neutral hoax would be if it turned out that, I don’t know, say, Linus Torvalds was an Arab woman. So what? We’d still have Linux. His nationality isn’t relevant. We don’t believe in Linux, and trust it, and take it seriously because of personal authority based in its Finnishness.

The thing is, when you’re perpetrating a hoax, plan for the discovery. Plan to be outed, because if the average person on the internet is getting more
gullible (which I doubt, but whatever), the least gullible people, the Snopeses and Liz Henrys, are getting more powerful, more networked, and faster at exposing you. If you are doing a hoax, know that you will get caught, and — as in the Sokal example — make getting caught the punch line, make it part of your point. Make it so you can hold your head up high when you do get caught, because the hoaxiness was part of what you were really saying all along.

Benjamin Rosenbaum http://www.benjaminrosenbaum.com

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Very small adventures

This morning I had a Very Small Adventure, which is a little like a Very Small Epiphany. I’ve looked for Very Small Adventures for ages but only just now named this practice – it deserves a name! A VSA takes anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours and is simply a departure from habitual patterns. I started doing this long ago to ensure that I was on time for things and didn’t get bored. To have a Very Small Adventure, leave early for something you need to do, and on the way, take a detour to explore. That could mean driving a different way to work, going down a new road, taking a bus to the end of the line and back, or going into a different corner store than usual to buy a soda and see what it’s like in there. It is crucial to sit and stare at something new and very helpful to have a map to look at.

The Very Small Adventure of the day today came about because I dropped off Moomin at school at 8:20am and then needed to go to work, but don’t have any meetings till 9:30. Normally I might stop to pick up non-refrigerated groceries on the way to my office, or get gas, or do some other tiny errand. Today I wanted to have a VSA instead. Instead of turning left on the road that goes to my office, past the marsh and the county’s main dump and recycling facilities kind of over by Oracle, I went straight on down one of the main roads into Redwood Shores to see if I could see any of the shoreline in back of the San Carlos Airport.

voyage to corkscrew slough

I ended up in a lot of back parking lots behind hotels and shopping centers looking at Steinberger Slough and its resident ducks through chain link fences. I came across some people passionately making out in the cab of a big truck so it must be a good romantic make-out spot even at 8:45am.

There’s a nice non-fenced view at the northeast end of the shopping center, in back of Nob Hill Grocery. I sat in the car and wrote a few lines and felt very peaceful there. Though, I did neurotically imagine what explanation I would give to the bread truck delivery guys or the police if they came to ask me what the hell I was doing there and they would believe that I was poeting and watching the morning rather than shooting up or working on my suburban bomb plot. I ended up hoping the police would investigate the hot and heavy passion in the truck cab before they would bother the tiny car with the FMINIST license plate. After 15 minutes of driving around through those back parking lots and subdivision cul-de-sacs and doing some free associating in my notebook in my lap, I found a trail access point next to a road, at the intersection of Teredo and Spar.

I would like to note that “Teredo” is a terrible street name! Everything in that neighborhood has a fake maritime name that has nothing to do with anything – they could name the streets things like “marsh” or “pickleweed” or “cordgrass” or “liquefaction zone” or even “goose poop” if they were going for local accuracy. But no. “Teredo”. Which, if you don’t know, is a sort of marine worm, really a clam, that’s notorious for boring into the hulls of ships and into piers and pilings and eating them into skeletons no matter how the wood is treated. It’s like naming something “Termite Lane”.

The access trail was up a short gravelly slope, about 10 feet and manageable for me on crutches especially in my energetic morning. I hauled myself up the path and stood there to look at the morning light on the water of the slough. It is the sort of trail people only go on to walk their dogs. But I bet you can see lots of seals from it in the early morning and evening. There is probably somewhere along it that’s good for guerrilla kayak access, too. In future adventures I’ll look for somewhere similar but with a bench. It was nice to see the Port of Redwood City, the gravel crushing factory in action, and my own harbor but from the other side of Bair Island.

I sat in my car for a bit there too thinking about the act of looking at familiar things from other perspectives and how important it is. Now while looking at the map of this place, I will have a mental image in which my maps in my head all hook up, which my friend Lisa explained was “stitching manifolds” in math or topology. I listened to Leadbelly singing “Good Morning Blues” on the radio from the awesome Monday morning KPOO blues show and it was the perfect sound track.

The other good thing about my Very Small Adventures is just making space in a day to think and to go outside routine. When I do this (which I do a lot oftener than I admit to, when alone) it helps me feel like a human being with free will and agency even if I’m just stealing 20 minutes out of my day going to work in my cube and shop and cook and pick up my kid. It also prevents me from doing what I really, really shouldn’t do which is write in my lap while driving.

I love my car especially I think because of disability. I feel hugely empowered driving around by myself and just making the simple decision to go one way or another and stop as often as I want without anyone being annoyed or inconvenienced.

I got into work at 9:05. Go, me!

Well! I have many adventures from the last month and from NYC and Boston to relate, but I’ve been busy and sick and then even more busy and sick again. There’s a lot to catch up on. Rather than go back in time I thought it best to blog about my morning and jump back in the saddle that way. Peace, out!

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Historical Hipster San Francisco Poetry

As I was reading up on the controversy about Blue Bottle Coffee putting a generator-drive truck with espresso machines into Dolores Park, I came across this mock documentary by “Kenita Burns” about the battle between Ritual Roasters and Blue Bottle coffee hipsters in San Francisco:

The quote at the end about Joan Baez and the song for the closing credits were the funniest parts to me, because while I love listening to boomer hippies tell stories about the olden days and I admire their many accomplishments, they’re really fun to parody.

I came into reading about Dolores Park and the coffee controversy from Chicken John’s giant rambling rants on his mailing list. A Blue Bottle employee wrote to him and he went into a full blast of rhetoric on the subject. You know who else promised us solar power? GEORGE BUSH. And probably Hitler. I liked Annalee’s suggestion that Blue Bottle power its espresso machines by bicycle. Earnest park-goers would pedal away helpfully and the company could also hire bikers to generate the power necessary for expensive coffee. This would turn the whole concern from a PR debacle into a total PR win and Blue Bottle would end up beloved of all (except for people who notice, like Chicken John, that it’s still an incredibly bad idea to sell off public park space to private businesses.)

Annalee and Claire Light and Charlie Jane and Annalee’s friend Lynn sat there for hours in Cafe Petra working quietly, reading, writing, and coding. I was messing around with some problems in Drupal for work, while I think everyone else was writing their novels or blogging for their day jobs. Later that night I read one of Charlie’s stories which blew me away completely. Timmi wrote me really nice email about my long essay about the connections between women writers and thinkers, which made me swoon with happiness.

Yesterday I also spent some glorious hours reading about Drop City in Colorado, Zome which started as a dome construction thing and has morphed into alternate power systems and Zometool toy construction kits; the Hog Farm and Black Oak Ranch, the Whole Earth Catalog folks, and other utopian movements in Northern California, inspired by my visit to the geodesic domes of Oz Farm (former utopian commune home of SF State computer science professor Lawrence Kroll). Tim Miller seems to have written some interesting books on utopian communities. I ordered some of his books, the TC Boyle Drop City book, and Peter Rabbit’s book which sounds like a very DIY zine style “history”. It is difficult to find much mention of the women of these communes and they often go by pseudonyms and then change their names a couple of times anyway, as with much of my research into women doing — well, pretty much anything. I will be making a list though once I have some books to go on. The web sources suck for figuring out who the women were in these movements and what they might have been thinking. Certainly they were thinking some bitter things about dishwashing.

dishwashing in the domes

As I read and researched I thought over some of the poems I have cooking. I’m still on a long-poem kick after 10 years of thinking about long poems and what can be done in them with ideas. I still like short poems, but am not the sort of poet who sits down to look at a lake and writes a poem about a lake. How dreary!!! How middle class! I despise most poets’ aesthetics. They can take their gardens, their analysis of their relationships with their dead parents, their constipated little emotions they applaud as they’re finally pooped out, and their glurgy thoughts about bombs, and shove them.

Enough with the cranky poet. Here’s what I’m thinking about.

Anyway, it was pleasant to swim around in the shape of the unwritten poem, with words and phrases popping into my head and going onto the page. The big idea and combination or juxtaposition of ideas and images and things starts to take form. Oddly – this is almost a non-verbal process. The shape or form or echo or feel of the poem, as a poem, forms before there are words to go into the poem (or while there are only a few words or a phrase as the keystone or touchstone.) Poems begin to separate out from each other as it becomes clear what ideas go with which other ideas and how they all interrelate. So before I have much of anything, I know that I’m writing a long big poem about daylighting a San Francisco creek, with a hefty dose of wistful critique of eco-liberalism; or about the Whole Earth Catalog’s history, utopia, the Internet, broken skeletons of dreams and the homes they morph into, Alia and the God Emperor of Dune, and the torturer Autarch Severian and the way we treat (and eat) information and cultural memory.

The stuff I’m writing now and have been writing for the past couple of years is part of a slowly evolving book called “Unruly Islands” and while I know mostly no one else cares what a book of poetry is “about” or how its elements are related, I care deeply about the meta-narrative of a poetry book as a thing in itself.

The alchemical process of distilling language out of this inchoate stuff puts me into an ecstatic trance. I feel a little bit insane. It’s hard to turn off. It’s hard to switch gears back into real life, real language, and linear thinking. That switching gears is part of what I feel I’ve learned over the years to let me have a fairly comfortable life in society and still stay a poet. Of course the sleeping pills also help.

inside the domes

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More on process and poems

Again relating to Quickmuse. Man, this is the sort of neoformalist stick-up-the-butt work that makes me crazy, even when I also kind of like it. It makes me crazy how same-same it all is. They all sound like each other, and like they’re tallking only to each other in the same melancholy formal register. How can people write like that all the time and not be aware of the profound unoriginality of voice? And consider that the only path to “quality”? Where is the newness? What’s getting broken and remade? (Nothing big, that’s for sure.) It’s like watching someone in a box extend a tiny feeler outside the box and wave it around in an elaborate encoded handsignal. Even if I understand the meannig of the handsignal and its beauty and the history of the tentacle-waving from inside a box art form, I’m so dissatisfied! Yes, there is a place for the muted expression of things… I can’t put my finger on what makes me so FRUSTRATED when I read poems like this. It’s like being a volcano and having someone try to make you sit down and listen to a reasoned argument about how you need to brush your teeth. They are right, and it’s fine for them to expect you to listen quietly, but when their speech is over, you’re still a fucking volcano. I want big poems, and I want to be surprised, and mind-fucked, and taken on a trip, and pleased by something that goes somewhere I don’t expect. I want MORE.

Ideally, I suppose, watching someone else’s process makes one frustrated, and just frustrated enough to run off and write a BETTER poem. Just like retranslation, where you love a work, and respect a translation of it or have special nostalgia for it, but it does not match your own vision and so becomes a constant pebble in your shoe until you do it your own way. Inspiration by way of annoyance. God, people! Get out of the box! Would rather see something, anything that isn’t like everything else, and definitely that isn’t “workshopped” or “polished”.

Maybe the toothbrushing is not quite the right example. They’re like small, perfect, formal gardens. I like them, but I want fucking terraforming — that’s big and vulnerable.

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