Invisible dishwashers

Still on my hippie history kick, I just read T.C. Boyle’s novel Drop City and with it, Peter Rabbit’s rambling little history also called Drop City, which is in theory “a novel” but which I would instead call “some bullshit”. Tim Miller, a religious studies prof at the University of Kansas, has also written a bunch of stuff about Drop City and other utopian community experiments – web pages, papers, and books.

As I piece together the different histories it looks to me like the early Drop City functioned pretty well at first and was not as half-assed as the fictional Drop City in Boyle’s novel. At least not until they became a waystation and recovery center for dropouts and fuckups. The tyranny of structurelessness gave them a lot of trouble though. Burning Man folks seem to have gone to considerable effort to have learned from all these lessons, with good success.

Rabbit, or Peter Douthit, published Drop City in 1971. In his book, he tells entertaining hippie stories and is clearly a complete asshole. Everything is about his own enlightenment while “fucking chickies” and having total freedom to screw around exploring art or something. But not really, since he also says that he spent 10 hours a day answering mail and talking with journalists. Every story seems to start like this, “Then we woke up and had pancakes and all wandered around in the woods freely and came back and had lunch and smoked a lot of DMT and our minds exploded and we had dinner and felt completely free and were freed some more to become total geniuses!” If you can’t see the flaw in these stories you have a hole in your consciousness the size of a planet and have never washed a dish or cooked three times a day for 20 people. So much for the revolution! I’m sure some of the dudes washed the dishes and didn’t act like jerks, or Drop City never would have lasted as long as it did.

John Curl’s Memories of Drop City: The First Hippie Commune of the 1960’s and the Summer of Love from 2008 frames Peter Rabbit as the villain:

. . . a self-absorbed figure who lived in a small dome and failed to do his part in building the others. Instead, he wrote. He styled himself a leader of the leaderless commune and sent out dispatches from Drop City, soliciting the attention of the underground and mainstream press. Time and Life magazines published photos of the domes in the desert. Curl tells us Drop City’s inhabitants were deeply skeptical of this attention, at least until Drop City could really show some success. Ultimately, the massive pressure that was thus invited upon this one plot of land, rickety domes and nonexistent infrastructure, was what caused Drop City to implode.

One amusing inconsistency between Curl’s and Douthit’s histories is that Douthit talks constantly about chickies and he also insults gay men quite a lot. Curl on the other hand describes Douthit cruising the dives and back alleys of nearby Colorado towns in search of anonymous gay sex. There seem to be no lesbians in any of the histories, which is wildly unlikely!

The best story from Rabbit is of a trip the Drop City hippies took to Washington DC to go to a conference of college newspaper editors at a fancy hotel sponsored by Newsweek and The Washington Post. They were invited by an Englishman who I think might have been John McHale but it’s unclear. Alvin Toffler and Buckminster Fuller, artist and futurist Magda Cordell, Phyllis Yampolsky, and a lot of “chickies” including Gypsy Loo, whose role (as described by Douthit) you can guess; a great scene with Eugene McCarthy freaking out on stage confronted with a coffin full of his own campaign buttons and Jerry Rubin, the Drop City hippies putting up a projector with footage of children dying covered in napalm in Vietnam and audio of screams and bombing and gunfire — NLF propaganda movies brought by Ray Mungo — at which point the cops or the FBI or someone showed up to confiscate the movies and arrest people as the college kids freaked out and cried. Douthit claims a bunch of the editors dropped out of school and the ones who were left organized their newspapers as co-operatives. Anyway, despite my lack of respect for the gender politics of these jerks, I have to admire the splendid disruption of this academic conference, and I spent my teenage and young adult years doing stuff like that; unfortunately not on such an epic scale.

There are also a lot of scenes where the Droppers play Indian. Some of them were Native American, like Nani. But most weren’t. They’re always drumming and chanting stuff they just made up to be at one with the land. Rabbit in particular seems very into singing to the deer and so on. In his own descriptions of this he sounds pretty hilarious. In John Curl’s descriptions it goes even further beyond ridiculous Pretendianism into just sad.

Rabbit would leave for the mountains with great fanfare, headband always tied in place around his forehead. He’d always spout the same story he told when I first met him, claiming to hunt by asking permission of the animal; that is, when the deer was ready to be killed and eaten by Rabbit, it would come out of hiding and let him shoot it. This was his version of a Native American custom.

That entire fall he never came back with a deer. Rabbit bemoaned his string of bad luck. No deer seemed ready to die for him.

One day his luck finally broke. He had gone out hunting alone before dawn. Toward dusk he drove back in, honking, yelling “Cacahuate!” out the window, a large animal draped over his fender. It turned out to be a horse another truck had hit down the road a few minutes before he passed by.

In moments of triumph he always yelled, “Cacahuate,” which he claimed was a warrior’s cry that a Taos pueblo man had taught him. I never had the heart to tell him that it means “Peanut” in Spanish.

The way other sources blame Peter Rabbit for his stepping up their local thing and making it a national news phenomenon made me think of the Riot Grrrl discussions of the media blackout. News media just mentioning “riot grrrl” no matter how badly they framed it or how much they sexed it up meant that young women all over the place were declaring themselves chapters of Riot Grrrl and having meetings & starting zines & doing really difficult conscious-raising work. I then started thinking of some of the bands – say, Tribe 8 – who were living in a more or less communal way as squatters and wondering how to keep telling that history which is mostly told in documentaries & in some novels like Lynnee Breedlove‘s Godspeed. I would love to document & get on the web some of the history of the co-op communities I lived in in Austin in the 80s. I also certainly thought of the radical faeries and what happens when people start to document the Far Out Shit in fringe communities. I’ve turned a documenting eye on WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention, as well. I love to document things and want them documented and I love history; but I also saw how the Far Out gets exploited and packaged up and sold & people’s need to make a living and/or become a counterculture pop star tangles things up. So if you are running around naked in the woods having your own community Experience and some rich dude from L.A. comes in and starts filming it while throwing money around? Bad news! Who am I to say, though? I mean, to say that “my” community is not someone else’s interesting history.

I’m also thinking about the feeling that all the interesting things happened yesterday and what we’re part of is only a pale echo or an imitation. Have you ever been part of something and realized, Oh, this isn’t *just* some goofballs acting like they’re super hip artists because they read some stuff about Paris in 1920 or something, though it partly is, it is *also* the real actual bohemian artists of now and this is what’s happening now. Possibly realizing that, or realizing it and immediately documenting it while you’re doing it, is a sign of being kind of a douche.

I had the impulse this morning to collect the names of the people involved with Drop City from 1965-1971, do a little googling, and draw some connections. Where are they now? I also have trouble keeping it clear who’s who while reading the histories. The 60s communes: Hippies and Beyond was a particularly good source book! I get particularly interested in the ways that the men’s philosophies and names and motivations and actions get recorded, while the women’s stories are elided. One consistent pattern is that women don’t stay in the story unless they’re one of the dudes’ wife or girlfriend. Once they’re not, they kind of shimmer out of the picture. At least out of the dudely picture. Curl did a pretty good job with including the women in Drop City’s history, though. But I’d like to see a memoir from any of the women involved with Drop City! Here’s my cheat sheet of the cast of characters…

* Clark Richert (Clard Svenson ) Painter at K.U.
* Gene Bernofsky (Curley or Curly Benson) Studied psychology at K.U. aka Eugene V. Debs * Betnovskovitch
* Jo Ann Bernofsky (Drop Lady) (Curley’s wife) Artist. (the Bernofskys left in 1967)
* Mary Bernofsky – Curly’s Mom (Mommeleh)
* Richard Kallweit (Larry Lard aka Larry Laird)
* Roberta Started the original farm with Curley
* Poly Ester aka Raggedy aka Bones
* Peter Rabbit aka Peter Douthit (left Drop City in 1968)
* Princess Soft Shoulders (a child?) (Kaitlyn?)
* May (another child – Jo Bernofsky’s)
* The Wop (Alteresio Smith) (Charlie DiJulio )
* Flippen (female)
* Jadal (Lard’s girlfriend)
* Snoopy (Lard and Jadal’s son)
* Reardon
* Fast Eddie
* Ishmael (John Curl)
* Peggy Kagel – Miss Oleo Margarine and her daughter Melissa Margarine aka Frinki (and her two daughters)
* Luke Cool. Taught the droppers how to chop the tops off cars. aka Steve Baer (a dome builder from Albuquerque) aka Luke Bear.
* Burt Wadman
* Susie Spotless (local from Colorado who married Richert)
* Nani
* Crayola (Alteresio’s wife) (plus some children) aka Carol DiJulio
* Patsy Pie (Speed?) Ishmael’s girlfriend.
* Ivan Peacock Rhodes (Orval Teen)
* Albert (The guy from Harvard)
* The President (guy from Chicago)
* Lennie (The President’s horrible rapist cousin)
* Belinda
* Indian Frank
* Bringer of Victory (makes the drugs)
* The 16 year old chick with crabs
* Otis B. Driftwood (The Digger guy from San Francisco)
* Billy B. (the rich guy)
* Maggie
* Jasper
* their kids, Lump and Lori
* The Holy Ghost
* Ed the Fed
* Bipple (folk singer college kid)
* Tom from Kansas
* Karen from New York
* Fran the cripple (aka Star) who magically gets up out of her wheelchair and can walk from taking lots of LSD (I’d like to read her memoir!)

More links as I find them:
Drop Everything (article from 2009)
The Ultimate Painting Brief history with a photo of The Ultimate Painting.

Thanks for the help

While I have plenty to say about my minor difficulties as a disabled person with parking spaces, being stepped on in crowds, and dehumanized at airports, I’d like to mention a super nice interaction I had with a woman at the grocery store the other day. I had stopped off on my way to work and walked from my car into Trader Joe’s with two canes. Someone else was using the motorized scooter, so I sat on a ledge and waited. My options were:

* wait for the scooter user to be done
* just leave and go to work without lunch
* walk to the back of the store to get my salad and fruit and back and wait in line standing up
* go back to my car and get out my wheelchair and wheel through the store to shop

I am lucky to have that variety of options, obviously!

Walking means pain in my knees and back and leg, and exhaustion, but getting out the wheelchair is also tiring as well as being hard on my hands which lately are in a lot of pain too. So I figured I’d sit for a minute or two and if the scooter user was taking too much time, I’d leave and go to work. Both walking the length of the store and getting out the chair once I was already in the store weren’t worth it. “It” being the price of arriving at work at 9am already wishing to go back home to bed and take painkiller and cry.

As I sat there a nearby checkout clerk, a lady maybe 60 years old, came over to ask me if I was waiting for the scooter. I said I was and didn’t mind waiting and was fine. But she offered to get me the groceries I wanted. “You can just tell me a list, or I can write it down.” The store wasn’t busy, and it would be no trouble for her to do. I was incredulous. While all that was true, her fundamental niceness in bothering to notice I was in (minor) difficulty that she could easily alleviate — well it amazed me. That almost never happens, even with friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.

I’m not shy about asking for help, though I don’t much like doing it. The thing is, I already have to ask for help enough. And I enjoy being able to do things. I’ve had enough moments of having to ration out my requests for help into asking for water, food, and help to get to the bathroom. Now I’m up and around and don’t have to do that. But… If it isn’t crucial, I don’t want to ask. I would rather be a little frustrated and continue to feel independent. Both because I don’t want to try the patience of able bodied people around me, as if they are a bank or participants in a zero-sum game, and I shouldn’t *use them up*. Even if I won’t need anything major from a clerk in the grocery store, a stranger, or a friend, I think of them as a resource with finite patience and attention not only for me but for whoever the next person who asks for help might be. The other component is certainly my pride. Am I going to ask a nearby stranger or a barista to bring my coffee to a cafe table when I’m on two crutches and can’t carry it? That depends on a complicated internal equation of pain, ability, and pride. I can usually manage it okay on one cane or none, but sometimes “can do it” is tangled with “will hurt, unnecessarily”. I understand on many levels that “independence” is a lie for all of us – for all people. None of us are independent. Dependence, and help, and asking; everyone has to do that, whatever the style of it and whether it is backed with money (as it is every time you pay someone to do something for you.) But I fight it hard on little things sometimes. It’s complicated and weird and I process it internally, a lot. Even when I ask for help, I have a hard time accepting the help. I prickle up like a cactus. I don’t want to be in any situational pattern where someone has power over me.

With that sort of thinking as my background, I said yes with some embarrassment and diffidence to the nice Trader Joe’s clerk. I was actually kind of stunned and going “Are you sure? That’s okay? Because it’s okay really.” She was determined to help out and not gross or weird about it. I asked her for a salad and some packets of dried seaweed. If it had been a whole grocery store list, I just wouldn’t have been able to ask it of her even with her kind offer.

She got me my lunch, rang it all up, and brought the bag out to the car for me. Outside she said that her brother had polio so she understood it might be hard to walk across the store. She looked at my wheelchair there in the front seat and asked if I was going to work. She assumed I had a job… she didn’t act like it was weird I had a car. All very rare. She must be a good ally to her brother.

Disability aside, people are usually a bit extra judgey because I’m a little scruffy and have purple hair so they assume I am kind of a privileged brat (and they’re right on that count) and/or some kind of drug addict teenager (I’m 41, and not, but even if I were, would still be disabled and in need of help sometimes) and thus not worthy or deserving of help.

walking in to pick up milo at camp

I drove to work actually crying… I know, first world moments and all… A bit ridiculous.

I was driving away wishing that as that lady in the Trader Joe’s gets older that other people are as considerate of her in small unnecessary moments as of course I also hope they are in the larger and necessary ones in her life. Since I have no way to guarantee that, I guess I’ll always try to get into her line at the store and say hello, will look at her nametag, and will figure out how to contact the store management to say an anonymous thank you.

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

The Collected Works of Marita Bonner

I’m reading Frye Street & Environs: The Collected Works of Marita Bonner. Marita Bonner was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance who graduated from Radcliffe in 1922, moved to Chicago, and wrote a series of stories about a street of immigrants and African-Americans and their social dynamics. The short stories are pretty great, though very depressing, as the characters mostly come to bad ends; jail, the electric chair, social diseases, suicide, murder, soul-crushing poverty, rape, prostitution, adultery, boyfriends and husbands killing cheatin’ women, heart attacks from overwork, and a lot of babies who don’t get very good babysitters & grow up on paregoric syrup. They’ll definitely stick in my mind.

Here’s a list of the stories and plays:

On Being Young–a Woman–and Colored.–The Young Blood Hungers.–The Pot Maker: A Play to Be Read.–The Purple Flower.–Exit, an Illusion: A One-Act Play.–The Hands: A Story.–The Prison-Bound.–Nothing New.–One Boy’s Story.–Drab Rambles.–A Possible Triad on Black Notes.–Tin Can.–A Sealed Pod.–Black Fronts.–Hate is Nothing.–The Makin’s.–The Whipping.–Hongry Fire.–Patch Quilt.–One True Love.–On the Altar.–High-Stepper.–Stones for Bread.–Reap It As You Sow It.–Light in Dark Places.

I didn’t so much love the plays; not my thing. But it was interesting to read her stage and casting instructions which depend so heavily on casting someone of exactly the right shade of dark or light or bronze to express their character. A lot of the characters would fall into the category of “tragic mulatto”. Basically if you’re light with blond hair and violet eyes in a Bonner story, you’re out of luck and probably have several Social Diseases along with your silk dresses and bath salts (for the women) or handsome chiseled features and natty suits (for the men). Bonner tells stories about black people criticizing and fighting with other black people over social class and education, keeping her harshest criticisms though for people who are trying to be up and coming but who mistake expensive stuff for the way to do it. Other characters like Lee in “Hate is Nothing” have a sense of aesthetics balanced with their education and morals. Lee, like so many of Bonner’s characters, wants some excitement and escape. She goes driving off into the night to the nightlife of Tootsville, but instead of meeting a bad end she gives a ride to a lady in distress, helps bail her daughter out of jail, and comes home to hash out some of her issues with her husband and mom-in-law. Lee likes “nice things” but they’re presented by Bonner as being refined and artistic — silk cushion covers and a fine china tea set from Lee’s grandmother. I was relieved that Lee got a happy (if melancholy) ending.

“Black Fronts” tells two stories of social class from three different points of view. in Front A an extended family struggles through the depression by going on relief, having three families under one roof plus taking in a boarder, while one of the sons tries to keep up his status of being a lawyer along with his partying wife, Rinky.

You know Rinky. The skin of civilization which covers the black worlds has been erupting her type for years…. no back – no middle – all front… Rinky was one of those still so bedazzled with their own fresh varnish of diction and degrees that they cannot discriminate between those born to the manor and those born to the gutter.

Bonner just cannot stand poor Rinky and her husband and their pretensions but she has some sympathy for their worries as they lie awake at night thinking over how they just spent their last $5 on a bohemian party for their friends with sandwiches and booze – how will they eat, or live, and what happens when their creditors demand to be paid up in full? Rinky frets awake about how to send a dollar home to her mother down south (though even as she worries it’s more about her social position in dispensing largess than about responsibility or concern.)

Front B has a top and a bottom story. The top is in the voice of a maid, Mrs. Jones, ironing some napkins and needling her employer for not being as generous or having as nice stuff as another lady she works for. As she irons she is abusive to the children she’s there to babysit and plots out how to steal some napkins and sugar and vanilla (for the church and baking for the preacher!) while seething internally with resentment at her employer for not being a white lady, for not taking care of her own kids and doing her own dirty work. Mrs. Jones thinks of it as shameful to work for another black woman. The bottom of Front B is the middle class black woman who employs Mrs. Jones on the phone with a friend and in her internal monologue, frustrated and trying to carve out a little time for herself in the day (and failing). She especially hates how Mrs. Jones criticizes her for not having enough nice things, then steals the nice things she *does* have. Front B was one of the best stories in this book, with the internal and external monologues of each character perfectly set and perfectly mixed.

The hard workers and penny pinchers don’t fare any better than the social climbers, either because they die from overwork, their babies die, they get raped by their white employers, or because while trying to save their kids from poverty, they interfere with the course of true love or hold their children back from ambition. Or if that doesn’t happen, their children grow up to be slutty teenagers who frequent pool-halls and then there is inevitably a knifing and someone fries in the electric chair.

I also admired “Drab Rambles” which has a short preamble on the basic damage to people of color in the U.S. done by racism. “I am hurt. There is blood on me. You do not care. You do not know me. You do not know me. You do not care. There is blood on me. Sometimes it gets on you. You do not care I am hurt. Sometimes it gets on your hands — on your soul even. You do not care. You do not know me. ” “A check-mated Hell, seething in a brown body.” The story is told in two unrelated portraits. The first is of a 50 year old coal shoveller, Peter Jackson, at a clinic because of his bad heart. The second is of Madie who is trying desperately to keep a job while she has a little baby (also named Madie) to look after. Problem is anyone who will employ her for more than 5 minutes wants to rape her.

Madie second was black brown. The baby was yellow. Was she now going to go job hunting or have a sister or brother to keep with Madie second?
Cold perspiration sent her shivering in the alley.
And Madie cursed aloud.

I can’t say I exactly liked “One Boy’s Story” but like the others it will stick in my mind. The little boy Donald lives with his mom who takes in sewing from the white women of the town. The local doctor, white, has an affair with his mom, which everyone but the boy knows about. At some point she tries to end it and another man shows up, who looks to be her previous boyfriend or sweetheart, but when he figures out the doctor is Donald’s father he freaks out and leaves. The doctor comes tomcatting around again while the little boy hears his mom freaking out. He hits the doctor in the head with a stone and then while hugging his mom and crying afterwards, the pin of her brooch goes into his tongue AND HE GETS GANGRENE AND HAS TO HAVE HIS TONGUE AMPUTATED and everyone is a little bit glad that he can now never tell what he did and how he killed his dad. The end? Man that was gross and depressing.

I’m curious now to read more about Bonner’s life and to look at the work of her and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “S Street Circle” of writers. I felt a bit sad that she stopped writing and publishing in 1941. I respect how she didn’t just write about the problems she herself faced as a fairly middle class woman with an Ivy League education. She dove into all sorts of intersectional problems of race and gender and social class. Her stories are eloquent and masterful in language & character expression, definitely worth a read.

I got this book out of a free box outside a little branch library in West Oakland along with a lot of other cool classics of late 19th and early 20th century African American literature and felt a bit sad too that the library didn’t have room to keep these works.

HTML Markup for Amazon Kindle and ebooks

I have two awesome interns for Tollbooth Press right now, with the agreement that we’ll blog about what we work on or learn. Both are friends of the family; former volunteers at the local history museum bookstore; and fierce readers, thinkers, and writers, just starting high school. I gave them both a long list of ideas for projects, research, and work that might be interesting. Ellie was most interested in electronic book publishing, while Julia, who is pretty handy with spreadsheets and data analysis, thought Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools sounded good. I’m hoping to get a little bit of (paid) help from them too, in visits to Stanford’s Green Library, xeroxing and writing up bibliographical information for some of my translation research.

Today Ellie and I looked at how to set up books for sale on Amazon for the Kindle or other electronic formats. I thought that running through a very simple example would open up some possibilities and new ideas. Then we can work on marking up one of Tollbooth Press’s printed books. Also, I expect that Ellie may take the idea and run with it, since she’s a promising fiction writer, has friends who write, and might enjoy editing.

We played the accordion a little bit first off. I had to laugh. At first try, Ellie was already better than I am at playing the accordion, reading my sheet music and picking out the Lord of the Rings theme by ear. Then we each made sample html files, me on a Mac in TextEdit and Ellie on her PC in Notepad, to demonstrate basic HTML markup and how to change a file and reload it in a browser.

We started out with just a few lines in this file, then expanded it to have multiple pagebreaks and paragraphs, saving it as plain text with the .html file extension and reloading it in a browser.

Then we both made accounts on Amazon Desktop Publishing. It has a very clear path to follow in order to create a new book. We basically filled out a form with the book title, language, and some other information, then uploaded our files. After the files are uploaded, but before they’re saved, a new button shows up on DTP to preview your book on a simulated Kindle in the browser. Trying this button gives a very good idea of how your book will end up. We tweaked our html files and uploaded them a couple of times. We then used a longer text of Ellie’s, saving it as HTML from Microsoft Word, and re-opening the resulting file in Notepad to see what the markup looked like. It was cleaner than I expected, separating out the styles into pretty decent CSS and not putting terribly too much cruft into the body markup. But I think it was important to start from plain text and mark up a simple file from scratch.

As we finished the setup process we ran into a problem – Amazon requires an address and taxpayer ID, because they also require you to set a price and take royalties as you upload your book. With permission from Ellie’s dad we did this setup. Within a couple of days, her sample writing should be available and I’ll certainly buy, download, and test it.

I showed off Thoughtcrime, Sumana Harihareswara and Leonard Richardson’s recent anthology, and its appendix “How To Do This and Why”, which explains how to make an anthology.

I had to pull her out of Facebook chat a few times, but that’s okay since I was on the #geekfeminism IRC channel in another window myself. Plus, I was very amused to see her and her friends using Google Translate to chat with each other in various languages. This cleverly evades the casual Facebook observer’s understanding while not being uncrackable or really difficult to engage it. It raises the bar of attention and results in some cool side effects, like learning a bit of Swahili with your friends.

Ellie then showed me the first bit of A Very Potter Musical, which looks brilliant and funny, and I showed her the somewhat more lowbrow Usher vs. Goat YouTube doubler mashup.

She wrote up a short post to describe what we worked on, which I think is a good exercise. It will show that my interns learned interesting skills and do good work, and the internship isn’t just resume-padding. It seems only fair that I write something up too.

It was a fun afternoon. I look forward to going further into HTML, CSS, book layout, editing, and the nitty gritty details of small press publishing. I like the idea of transmitting some of my zine/small press art book skills and background, but also the idea of giving smart ambitious people the keys to immediate wide distribution, publishing they can do for free, without scraping up money for xeroxing, printing, or binding — and without being doomed to carry boxes of unsold zines and books around with them for their entire lives. As I’m doomed, until I someday digitize all those back issues of Composite and Ratatosk and the Punk Paper Dolls.

back of the zines-by-me shelf

I had some more wise advice to give about the importance of managing your accounts across various services, your account names, remembering your passwords, and so on. That particular pompous lecture will have to wait till next time. That’ll surely come back to haunt me since both my interns are organizational geniuses compared to my slovenly sprawl.

Links for reference: Dave Raggatt’s Introduction to HTML; Amazon DTP guide to HTML markup; Introduction to CSS; Accordion Apocalypse.

Intern Log Stardate 10/3/2010

Today, we explored very basic html, and publishing to Amazon for Kindle. I managed to upload an article I wrote a year ago on the history of buildings in earthquakes, on sale for $.99. Apparently, one cannot upload articles/stories/whatever to amazon without getting royalties. *darn…*

I have plans to eventually upload an anthology, a book, etc under fuzzy dice books. And profit. Then rule the world.

-Ellie, Intern #1, your future overlord.

How to bind an inside-out book

After looking at David Merritt’s little hand-bound recycled books I started trying various ways to make my own. Tollbooth Press books have ranged from xeroxed and stapled booklets to printed perfect-bound books to hand-sewn books with stiff textured Tibetan lokti tree paper covers and transparent inner leaves. This year I’ve made all Tollbooth’s books with recycled book covers in my experiments with cheap, no-fuss bookbinding.

I will explain below at length how to recycle and re-bind a book. But here’s the short version: Rip the cover off an old book, turn it inside out, and staple the new book inside it. It’s very easy!

You will need some hardback books that deserve a merciful end. Self-help books from 1982, old business textbooks, third-rate airport novels, and tattered, foxed library discard reference books are excellent candidates for recycling. I get mine from the ends of garage sales, from the free shelves in my marina’s laundry room, from books being thrown out at Noisebridge, and from the free box outside Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights. As I often liberate books into the world by putting them into cafes and other free shelves, the net effect is more and better books in the free book ecosystem. It freaks some people out to think of destroying a book. But if you go to the dump or recycling center, you’ll find dumpsters filling up every day. How much better to give an unwanted book new life!

Anyway, to start binding a book, you must first cut up the old one.

cutting up a book

Here’s the much more detailed how-to.

Take off the dust jacket if there is one, and open the book. Take a look at the hinge. You need to cut through the thick end paper which anchors the block of the book — its pages — to the boards, hinge, and spine, which form the book cover. The hinge will be hard to cut through, as it is probably backed with some of the net or mull that goes over the book’s spine, which you’ll see as a sort of cheesecloth fabric or little bits of threads. The trick here is to cut the block of paper out of the covers without cutting through the spine. If the book is tightly bound, it will help to widen and try to tear the endpaper’s connection to the boards.

the inside of a book's spine

Now you have the boards and spine and hinge as the sort of shell or husk, separate from the block of pages. Tear the end papers off the block and tear out or clip anything else interesting in the book. You might want to use them later for new endpapers or decoration.

Turn the book cover inside out. Work on the spine to make it flexible, by creasing it in all its parts in its new direction. I like for the new book’s spine to be rounded and flexible, not pointy and cracked. The papery inside bits of the inside-out spine may tear and flake off. That’s okay. The entire aesthetic of the book can be messy.

You will need to make your own block of paper now. For a blank book, this is super easy. Get some paper and trim it to a size to fit inside the inside-out book cover. The paper should fit fairly snugly up into the new inside-out spine. You may want the edges of the paper to be perfectly trim with the book, or to protrude outside it like lacy petticoats peeking out of a dress, but in the traditional way to bind a book you’d trim the pages to be shorter than the covers all around, so that they fit inside without showing. It’s up to you. Trim the paper, and then staple the left edge together in two or three places, with about a 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch margin. If your book is thick, you can use a heavy-duty stapler. A normal stapler binds about 20 – 25 sheets of paper. If you don’t have a heavy duty stapler, then staple around 20 pages together, then lay the next 20 pages on top and staple again in a slightly different place in the margin. Repeat as necessary and stagger the vertical placement of your stapler. Now you have a book block!

If you have your own text to bind, you’ll need to lay it out nicely. The most important things in your layout are the margins. You need the text to fit on the page, and it’s especially nice to plan for a wide inside margin so that the text doesn’t unreadably run into the binding of the book. Since you will have a fairly random assortment of book cover sizes, it’s hard to make your layout precise. But there are two standard sizes I encounter. The bigger size is 9 1/4 x 6 1/4. The medium size is 8 1/2 x 5 3/4. The very large, very small covers and the ones wider than they are tall, it’s best to save for blank books or one-off projects. If you lay out your books for the big and medium standard sizes, with generous margins, that will work well. Trim the pages to the size you need, book by book, with scissors, exacto knife, or a paper cutter. Or take them to a copy shop and ask for them to trim a giant block of pages all at once. This is usually inexpensive.

Tall, thin children’s books or coffee table art book covers make great drawing pad blank books for kids. You can make one in a minute or two before you go on a trip or to anywhere you might need to entertain some children and keep them quiet. I’ve spent hours drawing and telling stories with various children in blank books.

To make really nice feeling books, buy special paper. I love to go to Kelly Paper and browse around. Check your local paper store and its shelves of discontinued paper if you’re looking for a discount – you can get a $30 ream of paper for $5 if you’re lucky. Bond is smooth and the most basic bond paper is what you usually put into a printer or copier. Laid paper has some texture to it with ribbed lines. Wove is smooth, but has more of a square weave pattern than bond. Vellum is usually smooth too but has a bit of translucency. Linen basically looks how it sounds – like fine cloth you might use for sheets, with some tooth (finger-detectable rough texture) to it. I like linen or laid in a hand-bound book, and think that vellum makes great semi-transparent title pages or fly leaves.

You now have a block and a cover (inside-out). Hold the block tightly inside the cover and staple the hinge with the book facing up. A line of three staples down the book’s spine is probably enough. Flip the book over. Did the staples go all the way through? If so make sure the points of the staples are not protruding too sharply – fold them over with a screwdriver or a butter knife. If the staples didn’t make it all the way through the block and back cover, then put in another three staples from the back side.

Note that the spine has a hinge and, before the stiff boards start, an indentation called the gutter. You can staple close to the boards, right in the gutter, but I like to staple just a bit behind the gutter so the book cover lies nice and flat.

You can also wedge the book block tightly or more loosely into the spine before stapling. A tight fit works well for thin books but for thicker books, leave some room for the spine to curve and lie flat when the book is open. Here you can see a detail of the stapled inside-out spine of the new book. The torn edges of the original endpaper and bits of mull stick out in a pleasing feathery way. The

detail of edge of inside-out book

You may want some front matter on the inside cover of the book rather than bound into the pages. Right now I’m gluing printed paper into the front inside cover with the name of the press, an ISBN, and the date of publication. I think that standard stickers would work well for this, better than glue, with a blank spot for the month and year to be stamped or written in.

inside front cover of a book

For some books, I glue fancy endpapers from the book cover’s inside to the first (blank) page of the text block. This can look really nice but is a bit laborious. It is important to use nice, archival-quality, acid-free glue if you’re going to do this, or the book will yellow and rot in a few years.

For the front cover, you can print labels and glue them, handwrite, use stickers, or print with rubber stamps and ink. You can custom order rubber stamps with a title from most office supply stores, very cheaply. I’m copying David Merritt here, in part, by using alphabet block rubber stamps for the front cover. But the title of the poem here was too long to stamp out, so it’s a printed label.

front cover of an inside-out book

My alphabet rubber stamps were about $15 at an art supply store that had a scrapbooking section. They came in a neat metal box with a small ink pad. You can also get them at craft and sewing stores or order them online in various fonts. The metal box doesn’t absorb the extra ink from the stamps, so I’m going to look for a wooden box or a thin wooden shim to put under the stamps. While I don’t mind getting inky in the process of bookbinding, the metal box is out of control! The box is super handy, though. I keep an exacto knife in it for help in cutting up book covers. I’ve also thought it might be interesting to modify a small, thin briefcase or some cigar boxes to hold alphabet stamps neatly like a printer’s type drawer.

Here are some examples of experiments with flyleaf paper in books with a single poem.

Thin, stiff, translucent striped paper:

Rumpled, hand-torn yellow legal paper:

Flyleaf of rumpled yellow legal paper with a coffee mug stain:


Finally, here is an afternoon’s book binding result. I can do a batch of about 10 or 15 books from start to finish in a couple of hours. I generally give them away to people but am not above taking a dollar or five from people who want to donate.


Once I print out some texts and put them in folders, the whole “small press” is portable. The folders of papers, extra end papers and blank sheets, stapler(s), glue, scissors, exacto knife, rubber stamps, and ripped-off book covers, all fit neatly into a backpack. At home, I have a saddle-stitch stapler and a heavy-duty stapler for big projects. For the portable press-in-a-backpack, a tiny stapler works fine.

Enjoy your bookbinding projects! I hope you create marvelous and satisfying books!