Did someone say the R word at a school board meeting?

The rounds of meetings for the school district’s NCLB plan have been very interesting. This meeting had a fairly low bullshit level and the speakers were persuasive. Around 25 parents and teachers were there.

Some background: Last year several more schools in the district flunked under NCLB. The district as a whole is under “PI Status“. Unfortunately “PI” doesn’t mean we get to throw pies at each other or become private investigators. In September, all parents got a letter saying that we were in PI status. I had no idea what that meant. It meant that someone had to write a Plan… Meanwhile, I think before PI Status was declared, I went to a community meeting at my kid’s school where the new Superintendent spoke and impressed me a fair bit with talk about process, feedback, communication, and other fuzzy warm things.

Then a few days later we were all in PI status and were freaking out. What did it mean? At that point all it meant to me from my point of ignorance was that a 5 year countdown was started, and a scary one. And that drastic changes were probably going to happen.

(Let’s point out here I had the luxury and privilege of being ignorant about it all, because my kid was going to a “good” school, admittedly one that was recently and marginally deemed “good” or up and coming, but still; if I didn’t live in this “good” neighborhood then I would not be guaranteed a spot in this school. Parents and teachers and kids on the east side of town have been dealing with this for years now, since NCLB passed as law. My point is, I want to reject that luxury and privilege of ignorance; the philosophy that enables people like me to live in little enclaves and then do “charity”. That’s segregation and it’s inherently wrong.)

Then a lot of fighting happened on the school level and the incompetent weaselly creepy principal got replaced. I was reassured. I kept going to all the EL meetings (English Learners).

(Anglo parents were asking me questions like “What do they talk about in the EL meetings? How they can start learning English?” Ouch. How can white people be so dumb?)

THEN in early December we got a handout at several meetings that summarized the Plan. The Plan started in February (2 months away) and made what to our school looked like major, major curriculum changes as well as laying down how a large part of the day had to be spent. This jacks up the very schools that are passing and surpassing the tests and that are “working”. A week and a half went by with gossip, emails, meetings, and rumors building to a head. Teachers and parents were upset and confused. There was a meeting called quickly by the district (at our new principal’s invitation, I think) at which the Plan administrator told a roomful of parents that there was no room for feedback or change and this was the plan that was happening.

I was pissed off because after all that talk about community input and process from the Supervisor, this is what we got? No communication, no asking for feedback? I heard that other schools also had no idea this was happening or what the plan entailed.

What is at stake for the district is their own jobs. If the district fails in PI two years from now, if they haven’t implemented NCLB in good faith, then they could lose their jobs and the state takes over and replaces them.

So I felt extremely suspicious and angry, very mistrustful, as did many other parents at my kid’s school. You can see where I got cynical. I was so angry I didn’t talk about it on this blog.

Fireworks! More meetings! Massive meetings! A packed school board meeting where we all held forth with our best demogogue suits on.

The Plan scared the pants off me. To me it sounded like taking a barely adequate (for my child) program and changing it to be “cookie cutter” and making everyone study from the same page at the same time. The sticking point for me was the 90 minutes per day of on grade level uninterrupted language arts from a state-mandated textbook. With the teachers basically told what and how to teach, so that everyone in a grade gets the same thing. It was presented as being extremely inflexible.

At the meeting tonight it was spun a bit differently. The training for teachers was emphasized not as something punitive but as something that could be useful and good. (I have my suspicions because the curriculum itself doesn’t look very good.)

But the thing that came through was that the district views itself as fighting institutionalized racism. The English learners are treated as if they are several grade levels behind, when they aren’t. This new plan guarantees that they are all exposed to the grade level material, as well as getting extra EL help.

I was mollified by hearing that it would not be everyone doing the same work for 90 minutes no matter their ability. Instead, the schools can actually split the kids at grade level up however they want. There will be several levels within a level and the curriculum somehow allows for “two grade levels ahead” work. (I’m sure it’s lame, but at least it tries to be there, and the hope is that all the professional development for teachers helps them come up with ways to implement it in ways that don’t suck.)

You can see how my knee-jerk reaction was to be upset that my kid would be bored by the grade-level material, when the reality might be that many kids in his grade in the district never see anything as complex as that material. (Can it be true!? But that’s what they said.)

The Super also talked about her disagreements with NCLB and its treatment of special ed students. She said she thought that would be the first thing to change in the law when it’s revised in 2007.

The EL director talked about many things that were amazing and cool; one was that in her view the district focused on only the EL students (“still learning”) and not the Spanish speakers who were classified as proficient in English. Out of 8000 students in our district, 5200 of them speak more than one language. Their new plan tries to emphasize helping all of them keep their proficiency and develop it. (I’d like to see how, but, at least they seem to have a good philosophy.) She sparked a meeting by personally calling and inviting all the EL parents at a school to the meeting. And she outlined what they came up with (and what the EL committees) came up with for what they wanted to see happen. Their points were: parent resource libraries available locally, more tech help on a local level to help with digital divide issues and make communication better, explanations of the American and California school systems as opposed to those in Central America and Mexico; more trips with parents and kids to college and university campuses, and more cross-school committees with parent representatives.

So much for the numerous people (really!) who said that because our district has so many Spanish-speakers who are used to a different system and who don’t question authority, (so inaccurate of an assumption!) it is a waste of time to try to get their input. (I’m still appalled at this viewpoint but I have heard it time and time again. There are some reasons why white upper class women might not hear the opinionated moments of women of color, i.e. power differential; not some kind of inherent cultural meekness. Argh!)

The superintendent wants the school day extended at the schools that have shorter days. Her mantra is “I want any parent to feel comfortable and happy about sending their kid to any school in this district.” Actually, I can’t argue with that.

I really liked the substitute teacher who spoke up to talk about her perceptions as a person who went
from school to school all throughout the district. She had a lot to say. I was sighing with relief that she pointed out that if “enrichment” happens during the EL time, then the EL kids will be missing out on it and it is insane to make the genius spanish speaking kid who just got to this country miss out on the Lego robot programming class (if we had such a thing, which we don’t – much) to sit in remedial kindergarten English phonics. Hear hear.

Our school’s great dance program was mentioned as something the district wants to preserve – and to spread. Of course, we only have that great dance program because our neighborhood gentrified and then the dot com crash happened and then none of the yuppies could afford private school, and also we were radicalizing a bit online to do public on purpose and to Be Involved, and thus our PTA was able to raise 50K for a dance teacher, and on the other side of the tracks they don’t have that 50K. Instead it was a big deal for them to raise $3000 in donations of materials for their school garden. I feel horrible whenever someone points to the Fabulous Dance Program at my son’s school because all it does is emphasize the basic inequities in our school system. No – we don’t want to destroy them or to punish or stifle or drive away the creative independent-thinking teachers – Well, if we don’t then the district had better scramble fast to undo the damage done by leaving those teachers out of the information loop and the planning process.

The superintendent mentioned with a somewhat evil leer that she put the special ed autism kindergarten at Roy Clod (previously the school all the uber rich yuppies fought to get into) to level things out and to make them have to deal. (Unlike the previous district policies which were deliberately concentrating the special ed and “problem” kids at Fenry Horde. And while I’m mentioning Fenry Horde let me add that they had the best poetry in the poetry contest that I judged last year. So much for the “bad school” myth.)

This is all too long and I’ll have to make another post to go into the details.

But, I felt like a bomb thrower by using the words “institutionalized racism” at all. I also suggested that some of the education that needed to happen was education the Anglo/English speaking parents about what “institutionalized racism” means and looks like. Oooo… I said “racism” and suggested we need to have some community discussions about how it gets swept under the table.

My feelings after this meeting are that NCLB still sucks. But the district’s ideas might be good. I still want my kid in the gifted/talented school as it stands. And yet I’m conflicted, because I want all the schools to have excellent gifted/talented programs and would also like all the creative education and fun projects and depth of learning and connection NOT to be just for the g/t kids. (Who perhaps need them least.)

I feel like my brain just got hijacked by subversive maoists, unexpectedly, where I thought I was dealing with incompetent ass-covering bureaucrats. They are revolutionaries and idealists and if a bit of my privilege and my kid’s gets axed in the process, is that such a bad thing in the long run? I want my kid to grow up with peers who have good educations, and who are not discriminated against, more than I want him to program a lego robot when he is in 4th grade.

Misogynist stereotypes on Valleywag

I don’t care what S. Littlefield is actually like; I don’t know her, and I’ve never met her. Also, I am not intrinsically fond of superwealthy society people. Who knew that “Gentry” magazine even existed! Not me! Gentry. Wow. Weird. Lifestyles of upper class philanthropists; really beyond my comprehension – they’re like aliens.

Anyway. Gossip is fun and I love to hear it. Dirty gossip is great. I would love to see Dirty Friendster with all the possible totally sophomoric sex gossip charts of who slept with whom and who just made out in the conference room.

That said, I think that Valleywag’s post on Littlefield deserves to be called out on its misogynist rhetoric about Ms. Littlefield. The article says she “used to go to tech conferences in search of husband material” and, worse:

She’d arrive on her own and return on someone’s private jet. She is absolutely gorgeous in person, but I don’t think it took people too long to figure out she was a gold-digger.

I’d like to look at what stereotypes this gossip plays into and what reactions it can possibly evoke.

Here, who a woman sleeps with or marries is used to throw her competence as a tech executive into question. It is strongly implied that she is not a real geek, or maybe has no “real” skills at all other than her looks. When an article like this gets written, it also by association casts aspersions on all women in tech. Would this article be written about a man, a senior executive? Would there be any equivalent way to devalue and slander and ridicule a man?

It’s very strange because while men are always whining about reverse sexism, and how everything should be genderblind and we should all just be human and be judged on our skills and not our gender… Then they whip out this sort of rhetoric and use it against women. The stereotypes are built in and waiting, ready to be used against any woman, from the most successful and visible to the least important. As women, none of us are immune to being objectified by exactly the sort of rhetoric used against Ms. Littlefield.

Notice the way that the quote above suggests that Ms. Littlefield habitually went to tech conferences alone and then left with different rich guys – and that she went to the conferences solely for the reason of wanting to pick up rich geek guys. And also implying that’s how she got her jobs – by being a jet-set slut.

Again, I’m no expert on the upper class. But don’t quite a lot of rich people work off their personal networks and backgrounds and friendships? The woman has an MBA from Harvard and she speaks five languages. What’s so odd about her getting a good executive job? Didn’t like 5 gazillion MBAs descend on Silicon Valley during the boom? Why shouldn’t one of them be a multilingual cosmopolitan Guatemalan beauty queen from Harvard?

But no… instead Valleywag points to Littlefield’s past achievements as a beauty pageant winner and the fact that she’s from Guatemala as something further to objectify and sexualize her. Then they make fun of a newspaper article quoted on her homepage that calls her a “Latina who defies stereotype.” (See Common stereotypes of Latinas for more explanation.) Hey, if you are a Latina who defies stereotype, and you’re a successful senior executive in high tech, and a VC person and a bigshot international philanthropist, why not be proud of it? Valleywag evokes a stereotype in response, and stuffs her right back into it.

Waaah! Women in tech are toooooo sexay! That sucks! It ruins our whole homosocial male bonding geek guy thing! Get them out! Or, quick, give Sandy a reverse makeover, a pair of glasses with electrical tape on the nosepiece, and some penny loafers!

Everyone needs to keep in mind that when women sleep with geek guys, it might just be because they like geek guys a lot. Sleeping with geek guys doesn’t invalidate one’s geek credentials. It’s not like they have to be *rich* geek guys and the women have to be brainless bimbos going after their money. Trust me, geek guys, you are often super cute all on your own. It’s the devastatingly sexy unhealthiness caused by hours of late night hacking, and how you get all passionate about open source, and the way that you probably got pushed around by those jock dudes in the locker room long ago. We love it. It gives you a mysterious aura, like consumptive bohemian poets from 1890 who smoked too much opium and thought they were in touch with the Divine. Heterosexual nerd chicks go for that kind of thing. It’s completely natural.

Anyway, Valleywag tries to preempt any criticism by saying they don’t really care, and they don’t think Littlefield is “evil”. Just mockable. Misogyny is automatically funny. Sexy women are automatically dumb golddiggers. We’re supposed to read that post and laugh and nod knowingly… as if we know the type. Do we really? Or do we know them from the idiotic stereotypes made up by and perpetuated in Hollywood movies?

It’s not uncommon for writers to evoke sexist and racist stereotypes for a cheap laugh. But not all of us are laughing when we read that stuff. Instead, we’re pissed off and alienated. Or we might respond by laughing at the writers for their cluelessness.

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Gender and genre in blogs

In her paper on Gender and genre variation in weblogs Susan Herring and her team hypothesized differences between male- and female-authored blogs. I haven’t read the paper closely enough to get the detail, but the gist of it is they expected women to say “I” more and refer to women more, and men to write more impersonally and refer to “he” and “you”. Instead they found that personal blogs, male or female, show the characteristics that had been predicted for women’s writing, according to, I think, other studies and sources like the Gender Genie, based on grammatical analysis by Argomon & Koppel. (I have to say, when I messed with the Gender Genie I thought it was just annoying…) While filter blogs, meant to give information on a topic, have the characteristics associated by the Gender Genie with men — whether they are written by men or women. Herring et al.’s findings contradict Argomon & Koppel. She suggests that genre itself is gendered.

I agree with this, which matches what I found in reading women’s poetry from 100 years ago and in reading the criticism about that poetry. The gendering of genre appears to me to happen over time as a way of valuing or devaluing the quality of the writing. Entire genres would become (simultaneously) “feminized” in order to devalue them, or as they became devalued they were described as feminine, or as women succeeded in the genre, it was considered less important.

Many factors contribute to this and one of them is that women at times do the less important things or write in the less important genres because there is less backlash for doing so. And when they do enter the male-dominated genres where power is considered to be located then there is a strong backlash and the entire genre is at risk of being devalued.

When women in the 19th century succeeded at Romanticist poetry, for example, they were hailed as being unusual exceptions, virile, oddly masculine, at the same time perhaps kind of slutty or of questionable and abnormal sexuality. And when women began to dominate the genre to the extent that they could not be ignored and tokenized, then the entire genre was disempowered over a period of years – it became girly, uncool, dumb, awkward, not cutting edge, old-fashioned. When it was clear that women had mastered it, it didn’t matter anymore.

In short, there is a pattern of the “pink collar ghetto” in literary genres as in other professions. (I just looked online for something to link to, to explain pink collar ghetto and did not find an adequate explanation. Yes, it refers to jobs with a high concentration of women. But it further refers to a process: as women enter a high status profession, the pay for that job goes down, and there is a tipping point where the profession itself becomes devalued because women have entered it and succeeded. I remember going in around 1991 as a fledgling tech writer to a meeting of the Society for Technical Communication, and hearing a lot of incredibly depressing but realistic talk about the pink collar ghettoization of tech writing.

Anyway, back to literary genres; the same pattern becomes clear as I do further feminist research; If you have read much Dale Spender as well as Joanna Russ then you can see a lot of good evidence.

I point to this as something that bloggers should be aware of & consider.

(I am using the word “genre” here but may be talking about some more vague category, literary movements or styles or subgenres, like “Romanticist Poetry” or “Western novels” or “science fiction” for example. )

In fact – a short digression – consider science fiction and how as women write in the genre, there is a scramble to define the part of the genre that only men do, or mostly only men do, or only men do well. Why is it so important to prove that, for example, “hard sf” or “cyberpunk” is so masculine? (Of course in the face of any evidence to the contrary.) Hmmm! Could it be a backlash to preserve the perceived literary value of a formerly male-dominated genre?

Back to Herring. From about page 15 onwards Herring & co get into the nitty gritty of some excellent questions:

Diary writing has traditionally been associated with females, and politics and external events, the mainstays of filter blogs, have traditionally been masculine topics. Furthermore, previous research shows that females write more diary blogs, and males write a disproportionate number of filter blogs (Herring, Kouper et al. 2004; Kennedy, Robinson and Trammell 2005). But what is the direction of causality, and where does gendered language fit in?

In conclusion Herring points out that the gender differences are in which genre a male or female author writes in, much more than any essential difference in grammar or writing style, and that:

Social and political consequences also follow from this
distribution: Men’s blogs are more likely to appear on ‘A-lists’ of most popular weblogs (Kennedy, Robinson and Trammell 2005), and to be reported in the mainstream media, in part because filters are considered more informative and newsworthy than personal journals (Herring, Kouper et al. 2004). This recalls the traditional stigma associated with ‘gossip’ and women’s writing (Spender 1989), and reminds us that genres are socially constructed, in part through association with the gender of their producers.

Oh look, she just referenced Spender. Right on… No wonder I like this paper.

Anyway it’s a good paper – go read it. I’ll read Herring’s other papers and I look forward to printing it out and giving it an hour or two of more close and serious reading and note-taking & reaction. Oh – and in good blogging and gossiping tradition I should mention that I came across this paper after reading Managing ‘Trolling’ in an Online Forum, which is amazing and excellent; I got to that from Wikichix, which I found because I was bitching about the lack of good feminist content on Wikipedia and a few weeks ago, some dude commented and told me to check out their talk page on Systemic Gender Bias. Since I am involved with some feminist wikis and ticked off whenever I try to engage with Wikipedia, Wikichix sounded great. If you are a wiki editing woman or would like to be, then sign up with Wikichix and add to the discussions there. There’s a mailing list and an irc channel as well as the wiki pages. & on alternet recently there was a brief article that talks about the Wikichix, Wikipedia vs. Women? with an interesting comments thread.

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Five things you probably don't know about me

I got tagged for this meme by Chris Carfi of The Social Customer Manifesto. It was interesting reading Chris’s 5 things and following some of his links. I also came across The Blog Tag Tree which traces a bit of this meme’s geneology. Though – I first saw it a year ago or maybe longer, on LiveJournal.

“Write down five things about yourself that others probably don’t know, and pass it on.”

  • I lived in a 100-person co-op house (21st St. Co-op in Austin) for 5 years, and at different times held the positions of menu planner, dinner cook, dessert cook, and “cookie monster”. From this, I know how to cook a fancy meal for 200 people and how to boss a crew of helpers, as well as how to go to endless community meetings.
  • I can move my littlest toe on each foot independently of the other toes. Try it!
  • From age 14 to 17 I worked in a dry cleaners in Houston, way out near Tomball. Conditions were disgusting and inhumane. Don’t buy dry-clean-only clothes, if you can help it.
  • I played 5 bells in a handbell choir in a church in Allen Park, Michigan, when I was a little kid. The bells were huge and shiny, and had special fancy cases lined with velvet; we wore white gloves. In regular choir I sang alto and sometimes tenor. It was a good choir, and I liked wearing the robes. Once I got to be a ceremonial candle-snuffer, which was fun even though I was an ardent atheist.
  • Secretly I often like to pretend I’m someone else who has switched bodies with me. Usually they’re people from books I’ve just read – either fictional characters or people from history. What would they be thinking? How would they react to being in my body, doing whatever I’m doing? And what would I do if I were in their body and time? Now you know. You might be talking with Genghis Khan, Ayla, Ataturk, the Continental Op, or Laura Ingalls.
  • Tag, you’re it:

    * Ellen Moody from Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too
    * Vim from Screamything
    * Minnie from Screamything
    * Gabby De Cicco from Pont des Arts
    * Prentiss Riddle from Aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada

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    Trivium, twittering, gregarious behavior

    Originally uploaded by Liz Henry.

    Some rambling thoughts on twitteration, or twitteritude:

    Twitter is fun. It’s a microblogging site; your entries are strictly limited to just a couple of lines of text. You can friend people and get their twitters on a web page, on IM, or on your cell phone. Sign up, watch the public stream go by, friend people who strike you as interesting.

    Now you have 10 imaginary friends, tamagotchi who need feeding, your loneliness is assuaged, and you feel important and hip and cool as you’re standing in line or sitting in a boring meeting and you get texted on your cell. Shallow me! And shallow you if you like it. You must not be very important. You must not be busy enough. Listen to the mean ol’ grinches who love to hate Twitter! Broadcasting the trivium of your day! It’s almost like social conversation, gossip, small talk. It’s almost like the glue that holds relationships and people together. It’s not important enough to blog. It asserts the importants of daily life. It forces the compression of your own evaluation of your life into two lines a day. Are you twittering too much, to people who already have too much of an information feed, and they’ll drop you?

    The more in-the-corners and unimportant you are, the more fun and important a twitter or a myspace becomes.

    Maybe it isn’t a productivity tool. Or, with more focus, with groups and channels, it could be made into one. Why slam it for being what it is? Why not take the idea and run with it, tinker with it?

    I had a strange moment at Writers With Drinks, when I was introduced to a guy named Yoz and realized 10 minutes later why his name sounded familiar, the sort of thing that used to happen from orkut or friendster, a familiar moment to anyone on a social network. It was because he’s the last person on the friends-badge list of a bunch of people I “know” on Twitter.

    I appreciate social media’s enabling of fun webstalking, of course.

    But that’s not even the interesting part.

    It’s the potential for literary forms to evolve with technology. I see particular people who have immense Twitter charisma, who are more interesting in that venue than they are on their blogs or in conversation. Shouldn’t that be okay? If we are abandoning objective standards for quality, then it’s good to look at what’s good in all media. It is pointless to bemoan the fact that people like to do stupid things. Instead, look at the mass of stupid things and pick out the best of, according to the standards of that community and not just according to the standards of dominant culture or dominant literary forms. It is possible that the great internettian novel is being written right now on Twitter, or will be written next year.

    Or we’ll get a bunch of poets on there and do renga. No, wait, I forgot, that might interrupt my productivity! Chatting, fun, and art: bad for productivity… of course…

    It isn’t useful for some people, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something interesting going on under their radar.

    If everyone in a nursing home right now had phones with Twitter, or something twitter-like and the knowhow to use it, think how cool that would be. Loneliness is not to be sneered at. I bet we all know several lonely people who would like some imaginary tamagotchi twitter-friends. Surely, soon, we will have better two-way social networking appliances than phones, laptops, or crackberries, easier to use, easier to type on, marketed towards the senior niche. And then the great internettian novel will be written by a 95 year old former kindergarten art teacher in Modesto.

    Excellent feminist rant on being "of a time"

    I really enjoyed Ide Cyan’s “Timeless” on the Feminist SF blog; it’s a polemic on Time and social change, and was sparked by Ide’s notice of the ubiquity of the defense that a sexist or racist or otherwise annoyingly biased person was a product of their time. This sets up a framework in which “now” is seen as a product of progressive linear evolution with Now and Us ethically on top. I agree with Ide Cyan that this is a false construction, a construction in which Time stands in by a trick of rhetoric for individual responsibility and agency; a construction that is deeply harmful.

    The part has become the whole.

    It’s very, very convenient. It’s very, very easy. And it means the oppressed vanish in a puff of rhetoric.

    Her concluding paragraphs using synechdoche and the body (namely, assholes) was hard-hitting, outrageous, and deeply funny!

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    Writers With Drinks report, Saturday Dec. 9

    Writers With Drinks, at the Makeout Room in San Francisco, was fabulous again. Indigo Moor, a poet from Sacramento, read first. He was a dynamic and clear speaker, funny, warm, with a lot of stage presence, and I enjoyed his poetry; he read a poem about the violent territorial nature of hummingbirds (“hollow bones… strung together by frayed nerves”), “Trigger”, “Pull”, a poem about a hunting trip (“…the way everyone… is trapped in love”), and “Apotheosis”. I especially liked the hunting poem.

    Laura Moriarty read two chapters from her experimental poetic bizarro science fiction novel Ultravioleta. I just heard her read from it for the anthology Paraspheres and am in the middle of the book. Wyatt, one of the human characters, gets all mixed up with Wyatt Earp and there are some good romantic slashy bits about him and Doc Holiday. There’s some aliens call “the I”. Gender and love and reality all screwed up and weird. It was hard to follow the thread of the reading; while I liked it, I think it would benefit hugely from being read aloud in a livelier way. It just occurred to me that while I just bitchily wrote “It’s not like postmodernism is a language from Mars” in another context (on a Wikipedia talk page on an article on Donna Haraway, the author of The Cyborg Manifesto) actually Moriarty’s book is kind of about postmodernist language from Mars.

    Kevin Monroe, the stand up comedian in WWD’s genre mixup, was hilarious, with routines about prayer, god, and spam; Jesus’ capacity for protecting people when he wasn’t too hot on self-defense; the missing bastards of the Iraq war as compared to the Korean and Vietnam wars (the bit of race-based that made the audience the most uncomfortable, for sure), and back-alley assisted suicide. He made fun of the idea that God cares about prayers, for a minute being God, “Increase the size of your penis? What the fuck? That’s the 12th prayer on that I’ve gotten today…” leading to something that cracked me up by its outrageousness, “Fuck Nigeria. Their main export is fraud.” And then “You can’t hide an afro under a burqua.” “Malt liquor – the gatorade of street combat” and the funny bit about assisted suicide. “What? You only got 50 bucks? I hope you live, motherfucker!”

    Charlie had a particularly hilarious interlude about how we were going to have a new thing at Writers With Drinks: 2 minute dates in which we all pair up and establish who’s dominant and who’s submissive, then rotate. When we’ve figured out who ranks where, the most dominant will cook and eat the most submissive while everyone else masturbates, as is customary at a literary event. There was something in here about the vanishing middle class, but I’ve forgotten… it was funny, anyway, as I contemplated literary feuds and how so many people behave like annoying divas. As usual Charlie’s humor exposes something true and interesting in a way that isn’t mean or bitter (which is so rare in humor, especially standup comedy).

    After the break, Stephen Elliott read an excerpt from his novel Happy Baby – a guy sees a former guard or employee from juvenile hall who used to rape him and abuse him and “protect him” and follows him home on the bus while thinking of then and now and his current girlfriend. It was really good! I had a nice time talking with Stephen – had never met him before but I have a short story coming out in his upcoming anthology about sex in America.

    At some point I met a dude named Yoz who was very bouncy and fun …

    At dinner afterwards at Esperpento… (to be finished later… oops must go upstairs for jury duty)

    As usual, Writers With Drinks was well attended — crowded — despite the heavy rain that prevented two of the readers from coming. (One, Grace Davis, on the wrong side of the mountains and reluctant to come over Highway 17, and the other, Lally Winston, stuck in traffic for two hours in blinding driving rain.)

    Why I like LibraryThing

    I was trying to explain tonight to Annalee why I like LibraryThing. “What’s it FOR? Is it a book recommender? Or is it data about a book?” No… no… it’s for building a picture of knowledge and of people. When I first walked into Annalee’s house, for example, my head went sideways and I muttered off into all the rooms reading the book titles. I could see evidence of interests past and present, clusters of information, and could extrapolate meta-interests or things like “here are sets of books that indicate grad school classes very similar to ones I took or browsed.” So now I know without having to ask that she has a mental foundation or familiarity with Spivak and Bhabha, Derrida, Sontag, Delouze and Guattari (“Spavin, Babble, Dada, Snotrag, Deloser and Guitar”) and that sort of cultural studies/literary/historical theory way of thinking as well as science books, tech books, monster movies, pulp, tons of good science fiction, and the same sort of 19th and 20th century sex and gender information books that I also collect.

    When I was looking at Timmi Duchamp‘s books I wrote that it was like being together with her in a beautiful cathedral. The way she organized them was beautiful, but it was the combinations of ideas and the depths of certain areas of knowledge that were amazing and I felt happy and honored to understand some of that, and what it meant to my knowledge of her as a person and of her work as a writer and critic. Seeing someone’s books, if they are a very booky person, with their brain deeply intertwined with what they have read, very intertextual, then seeing their books gives you some knowledge. It’s not like any two people, reading the same set of books, have the same reactions to them. But because we’re in this post-Golden-Bookshelf age where we have no literary or cultural canon, it is reassuring and interesting to see someone’s (nongolden, or golden only to them) bookshelves. If it was important to have (and to destroy) the golden bookshelf, then it’s important for us that we’re developing ways to make each others’ bookshelf compositions transparent.

    Since I have read quite a lot, and in areas I can’t expect someone else at random to have read, I get very happy when I met with people whose bookshelves intersect. Right now the person with the closest books to my books on LibraryThing happens to be one of my best friends. That was a funny feeling, like confirmation of our unusual common areas of deep knowledge. I look at the people I don’t know (and I know many of them from their blogs, mostly from LiveJournal) and figure that, the way my life is going, and with tons of social software stickly spreading around through everyone I know denser & denser, I’ll probably meet them within a year. And when I search on a few of the rare books — anthologies of Latin American poetry from 1910 — and then later am searching on some incredibly hip or trashy science fiction book published last year — Then I swoon a little bit and fall in love with that person who is in the tiny club of the two of us who like those two very different books. (We don’t just own them: we gloat over them and bothered to enter them and tag them up.)

    Who has this book? Only 2 other people! I feel a new pleasure; that of snobbery and pride. I look at their tagging of that book and I learn something – and maybe go back and put my tags more in line with theirs, which might make more sense. Or I like mine better and keep them as they are. Together the three of us built something, a small consensus. Then I can look at their personal library tag clouds:

    Another pleasure is in the tag clouds. I can follow a few tags of marxist feminism and find strangers, then browse their tag clouds. (Here’s my tag cloud, but that’s only about 2% of my books.) What other tags does a marxist feminist reader tend to gather? Wandering around in that information is fun and I feel like I’m learning a meta-something from it. What, I’m not sure.

    I look for the people who have eclectic collections, and who have certain areas of depth of knowledge – who are geeky and expert about a few things, but then whose interests scatter interestingly. It’s not like I am dying to write them messages, I’m busy enough… but I feel less intellectually lonely because I know they exist. And again, odds are in the techno-bohemian world I’ll meet them at some point and then feel instant friendliness.

    I start to feel I want to introduce certain readers and LT-ers to each other; and I see gaps that inspire me as a critic, that make me see “Wait. All these people should also have A Certain Glorious Book; they’d love it, based on what they own and tag heavily.” And then I resolve to write a review, give a book as a present, or just give a recommendation out of the blue.

    It is not just social and about stalking… it is a method of creating cultural meaning.

    But that is not all of it… I’ll have to return to this thought. Meta-information structures laid in place… underpinnings of possible conversations…. people seem more real to me than they ever did… strangers hold more possbilities… It is a general feeling of hope, connection, interest, pleasure, curiosity. I think that when you drink the Web 2.0 Koolaid it’s not about believing in hype – it’s a fundamental shift in how we think about each other as people with depth, with books and feelings about them, with wishes and goals and places we want to go to or that we’ve loved (as on 43places and 43things) and with social ties laid out with at least an attempt at clarity. When novels became popular, it provided an opportunity for people to think about each other as characters in novels, as protagonists even, whose thought processes could be revealed, imagined, chronicled. I think Web 2.0 and blogging and rich social information environments, which will surely develop intertwinings more complicated than we’ve imagined, are in the beginning of a shift in the way it is possible for people to think about each other. There are of course utopian and dystopian results from that shift. But lucky for me I was born in interesting times and will not be bored, ever.

    LibraryThing has inspired me several times so far to get rid of books that I think are embarrassing, too embarrassing or dull to add to my public bookshelf. Do I want this on my shelf? I didn’t want it in my brain. Then… throw it out!

    Just as certain people are peculiarly charming and witty on Twitter, but dull on their blogs… or vice versa… I think some people’s libraries will function like registers of complicated conversation. Registers of speech or media for speaking can result in very different output from the very same person. So as a mode of self expression, art, and culture, LibraryThing and social media let us see each other saying things we might not have said, or been able to see being said, before. They provide an extra conversational layer.

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