Friday, April 13, 2007

Axes, organizing, Connecticut colleges and train station tunnels

The event at Yale is different than the others because it’s a conversation between me and two other authors, T Cooper (Lipshitz Six, Or Two Angry Blondes) and Felicia Luna Lemus (Like Son) -T, Felicia and I have become great friends who share not just the writing life but wacky/biting/dry senses of humor ( I know “senses” looks weird, but it’s not one sense -- okay?) + a lot of other things -- watch for a future collaboration on the subject of “drawing.”

But anyway, the three of us are driving up from New York together in T’s truck so of course we’re stuck in some terrible traffic on the highway and last night was absolutely the worst night of sleep I’ve had in weeks -- first I couldn’t fall asleep, then I kept waking up thinking I’d slept past the time when I was supposed to be ready-- so anyway, I’m demolished and edgy and we’re on the highway, actually we’re all kind of exhausted -- even T and Felicia’s dog I think, they’ve brought him because he doesn’t do well when he’s left alone for too long. So it takes us longer than we expected, but not dramatically long or anything + we have some hilarious interactions at rest areas, I’m sure you can imagine. I like the woman who asks me: did you just slip into that? Or no -- she doesn’t use the word slip, what word does she use? Something hilarious.

When we get to New Haven, first we meet some administrators/professors and students for dinner at a Thai restaurant -- I like it when someone asks me and T if we get nervous before events and T says no but I say always, but the worst is if I’m in a separate room beforehand -- I’ve learned to discreetly sit in the audience ahead of time. Well, maybe not discreetly. Somehow the conversation turns to axes -- Yale students who get drunk and periodically drag their furniture outside, chop it up with an ax and burn it; a girlfriend who took an axe to all four tires of the car -- where are all these axes coming from?

Our event is in the Sterling Memorial Library, this huge building that looks like an old Gothic church, which is what a lot of the buildings in the Yale campus look like. Luckily the room we’re in isn’t too overwhelming -- it is churchy, but filled with chair desks that look like they came from someone’s high school, kind of strange. T points out that all three of us talk about dead or dying parents and our work, dying fathers is what I noticed. T tells this hilarious but horrifying story about the Italian edition of his most recent novel, Lipshitz, where he gets a copy of the book only to find out that they’ve used a picture of Felicia as the author photo, printed full bleed on the back cover (T and Felicia are lovers, and there’s a random photo of Felicia inside the novel as part of the blending of fiction and autobiography) -- not only that, but the publisher made the insane gesture to add T’s female-sounding birth name (spelled wrong) as part of the crediting -- and this is one of the largest publishers in Italy!

I like the part of our conversation where we start talking about the horrors of the publishing industry, niche-marketed garbage, the nightmares of trying to hold some kind of consistency (integrity?) in our work. I also get some great questions about radical queer activism, and afterwards find myself in a pretty in-depth conversation about the perils of “nonprofit” organizing and the possibilities (and lack of possibilities) of creating defiant outsider challenges. There’s an interesting exhibit of queer zines and propaganda in the lobby, my favorite is from the Gay liberation Front in Washington, DC--a flyer for a 1971 protest that declares, “we oppose gay people who discriminate against gay people” -- actually it’s something clearer and smarter than that, reminding me of the kind of activism I’m doing.

Did I mention that the dog starts barking during our event, moving around in its no-longer-discreet carrying case? No one seems to mind.

After the event, T, Felicia and I can’t resist getting some great photos with Yale as the backdrop, if we just had a live bear or something we could send them to Abercrombie, no wait Yale is Abercrombie therefore not exotic enough of a setting for Abercrombie -- apparently it’s pledge week for the secret societies, which don’t seem so secret, but it’s quite hilarious watching all of these drunk Yale students wandering around either dressed in formal attire or clothes that are supposed to look weird -- a rainbow Afro, a pink wig! -- the students are like caricatures of what Yale students are supposed to be .

The next day I’m off to Wesleyan, getting on the train from New York again I randomly run into Owen, who I know from San Francisco! He lives in New York now and we have a great conversation on the train about urban farming (his work) and San Francisco, (closeted) queer teachers in high schools and the perils of academia, it’s so much fun-- then I even get a ride to Wesleyan with Owen and his mother, what a lovely surprise!

Jean, who lived in San Francisco for a summer and who I worked with in Gay Shame, is the person who organized the Wesleyan event and it’s fun to see her on the other coast, then we’re off to the building where the event is taking place which is supposed to be a student organizing center except that you need to go to the security office to get the key. We go to the security office, and they can’t find the key. But then a campus security person lets us in, I’m not sure what could be very valuable in this space -- most of the buildings around us are quite fancy like you’d expect at an elite liberal arts college like Wesleyan, but this building doesn’t look like it’s been renovated since the ‘70s except for the new sofas -- maybe someone could take the sofas. Apparently the building was a concession to student demands for an organizing space, but no one knows about it so it isn’t used much.

I’ll admit that I’ve gotten used to using a podium, standing when I talk, so I’m slightly disoriented by sitting in a circle, plus worried that I’ll hurt my hands by turning the pages but it turns out that that doesn’t matter because I barely need to look down -- pretty much everything is in my head. Even though it’s a small crowd, it’s different than at Yale where there was a small crowd in a large room so it seemed quiet -- here the crowd fills the room, and everyone is loud right away which makes me immediately comfortable. They are especially engaged for the last part of my talk, where I’m talking about all the ways I was required to pass in order to bring Nobody Passes to fruition -- usually, I can’t tell for sure whether people are enjoying that part, but this time it seems to work out well. Did I mention that Jean's mother is there too, since she's now living with Jean -- a welcome addition to the crowd!

It’s so funny how, right before beginning my talk I’m totally exhausted and then as soon as I start speaking it’s like I have a different voice. I can’t help preferring this feeling over that drained overwhelm.

There’s a lot of discussion about how to create radical or challenging work and not have it be consumed as a vapid product, or rather how not to shift your work into that vapid product so that it can be consumed -- or both, really. Conversations about how to do trans organizing that isn’t only about assimilation or “mainstreaming.” Also questions about how to empower people who are stuck in thinking that liberal reformism is the answer. A lot of talk about universal healthcare and how this can connect a lot of the threads -- talking about people’s basic needs first, addressing the needs of people most marginalized instead of the trickle-down theory by which you supposedly start with easier goals for people with more privilege and then eventually it works out for everyone (is there any example in history when this has actually happened?)

What I like about this conversation is that it makes me make connections that keep my mind going -- I would tell you those connections, but right now my mind isn’t going so well -- 2:55 a.m. and I should be getting ready for bed, just want to post this beforehand.

On my way out of Wesleyan, more crazy drunk students! This time it’s a throng heading towards buses -- it’s called Senior cocktails or something like that, the university actually takes the Seniors to a bar, but they don’t want anyone driving there so they don’t tell them where it is beforehand.

A group of students drives me to the train station and I’m off again, after a great hug from Jean and a walk through the strange circular metal tunnels from the station to the platforms -- I like these tunnels, on the train I’m a zombie for a while -- even while talking on the phone -- then I pick up a bit before Grand Central, all of these cities have such beautiful train stations and I can’t help thinking that San Francisco has none at all -- they make you take a bus out to Emeryville for no apparent reason really except that they tore down the station in San Francisco, now they’re building a new one but it still won’t include Amtrak. Why is this what I’m writing about at the end of my entry? Okay, bedtime.


grantatee said...

i miss owen! how nice that you ran into him by chance.

so, what secret society are you pledging too?

James said...

Mattilda - I enjoyed meeting you at the DC book signing! Thank You for Hugging me!!.
The book I am reading now is titled, "The Great Good Place" subtitled: "Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and other hangouts at the heart of a community" by Ray Oldenburg.
This book relates to your comments about gentrification and talks about how new sections of town (the suburbs) and rebuilt sections of old parts of town leave out the "third place". [the first two places are 'home', and place of 'work'] The third place is where a diverse community of people hang out. The third place is important for a thriving community!
The book has a good bibliography and list of notes of sources at the end of the book.
The chapter I read last night was 'The American Tavern'. Some interesting comments : "While per capita consumption rates for alcoholic beverages in the United States changed little since the end of World War II, the proportion consumed in public places declined sharply. One report describes a drop from about 90 percent to about 30 percent from the late 1940s to the present. ... Some count the decline of the tavern as progress, a step in the right direction. Yet Americans drink as much as when the taverns thrived, and the decline of public drinking may be more lamentable than encouraging. While avoiding few, if any, of the problems surrounding the use of alcoholic beverages, the nation is losing the socially solidifying rituals of public drinking within inclusive and democratic settings. ... Why should a nation of drinkers arrange their municipalities such that drinking and driving are frequently and almost necessarily combined? 'Gasoline and alcholol don't mix,' says the American slogan. Of course they do. Our urban planners mix them all the time and in great doses. See the zoning codes for confirmation. "

mattilda a.k.a. matt bernstein sycamore said...

Skull and Bones darling, please -- that's no secret.

Love --

mattilda a.k.a. matt bernstein sycamore said...

James, it was great to meet you -- and thank you for hugging me! Would have loved to chat some more, but I was a bit exhausted after the reading and I think you were heading to Pennsylvania -- hope that went well!

I like these thoughts about the "third place." Also makes me think about how in so many cities public transportation shuts down way before bars, also of course facilitating drunken driving...

Love --