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don’t go changing

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7th, 2011
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Driving back from the store a few minutes ago, I caught a chunk of today’s Forum show about the changing demographics of Oakland. Apparently, the last census revealed something I’ve been concerned about for a while: the African American population in my hometown has declined precipitously in the last decade. There are 42% fewer African American children living in Oakland now, and approximately 20% fewer African American adults. One of the callers mentioned the arrival of whites in West Oakland as a potential for shifting the identity of that historically troubled neighborhood; however, Angela Glover Blackwell made a good point that the problem with this group is its demographic beyond race. These are young, single people, who may arrive for a few years to live a lifestyle they can’t afford in San Francisco, but they won’t invest in the community, nor will they really do much about creating bonds with their neighbors.

All of this stirred up a bunch of mixed emotions. As some of my friends (and blog readers) are aware, I’m a forth generation Oakland native. My father grew up in West Oakland — not very far from where I now live — in the 1940s and 50s, a time when that area was mainly poor Irish, but as African Americans began to move in to that part of town, he began attending schools with them and became lifelong friends with my godfather, himself African American and part of our family. As a result of growing up in that shifting community, dad brought all of us up to believe we needed to know and love our neighbors. My mom arrived here in the late fifties to attend college at Cal, then went into a thirty year career teaching and working as an administrator in the Oakland Public Schools, one of the most diverse school districts in the US. So they raised five kids in this town, all of us attending schools where we, as white people, were often the minority. And we were fine with that. My own investments in social justice, equality, and education are all direct offshoots from growing up here. I love living here not in spite of the people who surround me, but because of them.

Around the time that my friends and I started Kitchen Sink Magazine (early 2000s), things began to change in Oakland. More and more young white people were moving into Oakland neighborhoods that a decade back they would have sneered at, because rents in San Francisco kept rising, so that dream of living in a SOMA warehouse and making art was gone for good. Lots of these people claimed to be proud of living in Oakland, but they never seemed to know their neighbor’s names, or know much about local history, or to even be really interested in learning it. Many of them seemed to stay for a few years then move on to Portland, or Brooklyn, or some other place where there was less of the crime they complained about but never bothered to try and understand or do anything about (besides complaining). It was sort of gentrification lite: come in, fix up a house, then move out of it a few years later. Come in, ride your bike around, but don’t bother to say hi to the little kids riding their bikes next to you.

I don’t want to blanket paint these new arrivals, but I do want to reassert an idea I heard on the radio today. If you’re going to move into a neighborhood historically populated by a particular ethnic community, whether that’s the Mission in San Francisco or West Oakland or Chinatown, you should not blithely ignore the people who lived here before you, build your art warehouse and not invite them in, or move in and sit there hoping and praying other people like you move in too, like some sort of human shield. Get to know your neighbors. It’s not hard. When my husband and I moved into our current home a few years ago, we left a Berkeley neighborhood full of middle-class white people where nobody ever said hello to us, knocked on the door on street sweeping day to remind us to move the car, or invited us to a party. On the day we moved into our new (rented — we can’t afford to buy) house in Oakland, five or six neighbors came over, said hi, and have subsequently helped us out in many ways. And this is a neighborhood I overheard a young person at the local cafe refer to as “really sketchy”.

It’s sad to think of this place losing that feeling. I do get why people want to leave. I’ve been robbed, had a car stolen, had homes broken into here too. But I do wish those on the verge of going, especially from the African American community that’s given this city so much culture and meaning, would think about staying and working together to make it better. I still believe in the idea that Oakland can keep its culture and welcome newcomers, but only if the newcomers are willing to listen to the people who lived here before them. Let’s hope so.

shut it

Posted in Uncategorized on June 13th, 2010
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Had a good time at the very, very hot (I mean literally — 90+ degrees in Oakland yesterday) East Bay on the Brain reading last night with my buddy Sam Hurwitt and a host of other readers. Kudos to Lauren for getting a successful reading series together. I ran one for a while, and it’s a pain in the ass but worth the effort. The night before, I did my first talk of the season at Cal Shakes, which meant two public speaking gigs back-to-back, and this after a different and pretty major public speaking gig a couple of weeks back. I was just leaving for a book tour around this time last year, which means that K.O. inc. has developed a habit of talking a lot in front of people in the summer. Which is one of many reasons why I am going on an eight day silent meditation retreat in July. I did a three day warmup retreat in January, and it was a revelation; not only is it a total relief not to speak, but being among a whole mess of people who are also not speaking, and thus being relieved of the burden of small talk, you are actually able to think.

As a person of Irish origin, my extreme verbosity is probably a given (my late father would be nodding at this idea, while talking — and cursing — a lot), but because I teach, and therefore talk to people for a living, and seem to have inadvertently developed a secondary career also involving talking, I get pretty sick of my own voice. Thus the idea that one can go days, weeks, even in some cases months and years in a nonverbal setting becomes rather appealing. Of course, the flip side to not talking is the need to express oneself otherwise, which in my case means writing, which means… more words. That’s the catch-22, I suppose. Without words, more words. And more and more and more.

egyptian lover

Posted in Uncategorized on April 15th, 2010
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I had the pleasure of hosting Dave Tompkins as a guest speaker in my class this morning. Dave’s the author of this fat new opus of a book on the history of the vocoder called How To Wreck A Nice Beach — a mishearing of the vocodered phrase “how to recognize speech”. We had a blast listening to vocoder lore and clips from everything from Silly Willy Toothpaste ads from the thirties to Kraftwerk to local hyphy legend Mac Dre (RIP). Dave mentioned that he loved hearing people’s “the first time I heard a vocoder” stories, so I downloaded some Egyptian Lover and came up with this.

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard a vocoder was in junior high, probably 1984, when I was thirteen and going to Claremont Junior High in Oakland. Claremont’s an aberration – a school with primarily African American students and teachers smack in the middle of what later became one of Oakland’s whitest neighborhoods, Rockridge. But the cutoff for the school’s district includes the much more diverse neighborhoods of nearby North Oakland, so everyone piled on the 51 bus to head south after school and all of the stores in the area were plastered with “no students allowed” placards. When I was a student there, there were about 300 kids, maybe eight or ten of them were white: me, plus two hippie girls who wore those long twirly print skirts, a shy blond girl who never talked to anybody, another blond girl who screamed a lot curing gym class, and a couple of guys who called themselves the “Jew Crew” and tried to breakdance battle some guys on the playground at recess. Cardboard sheets and punches were involved. In spite of the fact that I was physically awkward – I shot up to 5’ 10”, my current height, in the space of about a year – I decided to attempt to go to a school dance. Let me just tell you right now that I cannot dance at all. It’s painful to watch me try, but I had no idea of that fact when I was thirteen. I figured I could always cling to a wall. I walked up there from home, a few blocks away, wearing a dress my mom had purchased at the Gunne Sax outlet in San Francisco. It was pink taffeta, and had an asymmetrical ruffled hem in grey, and puff sleeves. This sounds hideous and 80s, and it was. The closer I got to the gym (a typical cavernous, peeling Oakland Public Schools type of building, probably full of asbestos and mice), the more I could hear a pervasive, low rumble that sounded like the cars driven by the older dudes – always wearing sunglasses — who’d pull up to Claremont at the end of the day to pick up the foxier eighth grade girls. I’d been told by a couple of friends that one of these girls had had sex with our cute substitute teacher in the janitor’s closet. But those cars had the same asshole puckering rumble as the gym where I was regularly humiliated during gym class when I failed to vault a pommel horse, lob a volleyball, run the track without fainting, or walk across a balance beam without getting a concussion. To be fair, I could do twenty consecutive layups at basketball.

My hideous dress and I walked into that pitch black gym and found our way to the nearest wall immediately. The noise was crushingly loud: bass bass bass and more bass. Over it there was the occasional blat blat of an overworked speaker and this disembodied robot voice talking about an Egyptian Lover. A girl I was friendly with grabbed my arm and attempted to teach me a dance called the Smurfette; eventually somebody put on some Prince (Purple Rain had just come out, and my older sister took me to see it in a tiny movie theater in the back of a shopping mall) and a guy who was probably a foot shorter than me shuffled along with me way out of rhythm with When Doves Cry. That’s an impossible song to dance to, seriously. I exited early to find my mom standing cross armed, with a pissed expression in the lobby between two massive guys from Tech – the high school down the street – who were sparking some weed. All the way home I heard the robot voice saying EGYPTIAN LOVER BABY. EGYPTIAN LOVER BABY. Later that night, I bundled the dress up in the back of my closet. That was probably the last time I ever wore pink.

Egyptian Lover, \”Egypt Egypt\”, 1984

teefs

Posted in Uncategorized on June 13th, 2009
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Other than actors and politicians, does anyone like watching themselves talking? Years ago, I interviewed my former teacher Robert Hass for my department’s Berkeley Writers At Work series of conversations, and to this day I have never watched the video, due to my extreme aversion to what I perceive as my lisping voice, insane giggle, complete lack of chin and problematic absence of teen orthidonture. But other people tell me I’m a decent public speaker, and when I do readings nice things are said about them. So who to believe?

I’ll let you decide for yourself. I sat down a couple of weeks ago with my friend Chris Stroffolino (poet, indie rocker — you can hear him on the Silver Jews classic American Water — and journalist), and we chatted about the book in front of Mama Buzz Cafe while Chris filmed. Due to the sunshiney afternoon glare, I wore sunglasses, which I think make me look distressingly hipsterish, and I really need a haircut, but, well, okay… judge for yourself at The Big Takeover, where interview clips are interspersed with an essay about the book (and other things indie).

Go Go Ghost Town

Posted in Uncategorized on June 12th, 2009
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I wanted to give props to my nearby neighbor Novella Carpenter, whose memoir Farm City got a rave review in the New York Times today. Novella and I share a literary agent (along with the great Julia Wertz), and I’m a big fan of her writing, so I encourage everyone who’s curious about how people farm (not garden — farm — she has livestock) in Oakland to check her book out.

This week I whizzed through Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards (entertaining, and he’s honest about what a dick he is, but a bit choppy), and saw a production of Romeo and Juliet at the theater company where I’ll be working this summer, Cal Shakes. John Moscone (Cal Shakes’ artistic director and the director of this show) has staged R&J in a contemporary staging with real-looking teenagers and Rhianna on the soundtrack. R&J’s one of the Shakespeare plays I’ve seen a zillion times, yet every time I see it I get really bummed out when Mercutio bites it, and this was especially true in this production, which has an excellent Mercutio and is fast-paced and pretty consistently engrossing throughout.

ghost town redux

Posted in Uncategorized on May 28th, 2009
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Yesterday I met up with a friend at Mama Buzz Cafe, located on Telegraph and 23rd Streets in Oakland,  the same block where the Oakland Art Murmur takes place. When I was thinking about how to frame the book’s introduction as a discussion of the current state of independent arts communities, it was logical to begin things there, since Mama Buzz was for a long time the informal headquarters of Kitchen Sink Magazine, a live music and spoken word venue, art gallery, and community space. In the two years that have passed since I drafted that intro (which you can download on the Oakestown home page as a PDF or read online at the book’s Holt website), the block of galleries around 23rd street has changed a lot, and my friends Jen Loy and Nicole Neditch no longer own Mama Buzz. Estaban Sabar’s gallery is gone, replaced by the new Fort Gallery space. Ego Park is also no longer around; its space is now occupied by Hatch Gallery, which is overseen by Adam Hatch, late of the Lobot performance space and gallery, where we threw many, many KS parties with bands like Rogue Wave and Deerhoof before they were, you know, famous.

Spaces change all the time in a city and we are in a nasty recession that’s had a big impact on my always struggling hometown of Oakland, so these alternative gallery spaces do tend to come and go. It’s nice that Mama Buzz appears to still be thriving as a business (packed at 3pm on a weekday), and RPS, the local crafting collective, has started to do more outreach work with kids from local schools. To be honest, however, now that I’m no longer helping to run a magazine that served as a kind of community organ for the Oakland indie scene, I feel a little bit distant from that stretch of real estate. I actually live farily close to there, but since my work takes me up to Berkeley most days of the week, I tend to spend more time in that region (the slow creeping death of Telegraph Avenue’s formerly robust independent book and record store scene is a whole different ball of wax).  Art Murmur is actually pretty fun if you like a gallery scene that’s neither snooty nor unaffordable (with free live music to boot), so I’m heartened to know that’s still surviving as well. Community is such an indespensible part of any indie arts scene, but as we all know, the tricky thing about community is figuring out how to make it sustainable. Hopefully the folks around Telegraph and 23rd have that figured out.

gladness

Posted in Uncategorized on May 9th, 2009
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Supurna Banerjee, my editor at Holt, sent me a batch of books yesterday, and they are super super super awesome looking. The book is designed by Rebecca Seltzer, and the new design has a glossy treatment on the title lettering that’s hard to see in pictures but looks great in person. People have been complimenting this cover since I first posted the images here and on Facebook. It really is a pretty pretty book. But pretty in a way boys will like too.

After no days off in a month I have the whole weekend free. Thursday night, I had the priviledge of hearing my friend Chad Sweeney read at Moe’s. Chad’s the co-publisher of Parthenon West Review and a fine poet who really, really loves what he does as a teacher, writer, and publisher — a rare combination, believe me. I was running on about 5 hours of sleep that day, however, and the weekend finds me groggy and sluggish (gluggish and sroggy). I am planning on catching up on reading (midway through two books at once and I have a backlog of about ten titles I picked up because I have impulse control issues in bookstores), cleaning the house, and visiting Tacos Sinaloa for some el pastor. Yes, it’s a wicked exciting life in the city.

Ye Olde Newe Blogge

Posted in Uncategorized on March 17th, 2009
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I’ve had a blog since 2003. It’s a rusty old no-image, no-video, text heavy wrack I keep mostly hidden from the public, but the way things are today, all blogs belong to the reader. Twitter still freaks me out — the teensy word counts seem to be antithetical to logorrheic types like me — but I’m getting comfortable enough with this new format to actually manage to post links and images without going nuts. So, internet wanderer, welcome. If cutting and pasting doesn’t kill me, I may move some of the blog entries I wrote while I was drafting the manuscript of Slanted and Enchanted over here (are you ready for a zillion tales of trying to reach musicians via their record company’s PR departments?  I also like the entry I wrote on the day Ian MacKaye left me a voicemail: “Holy Shit.” I can be succinct on occasion).

In the meantime, I’m here to write about the ever-changing landscape of indie media. Even though I was still editing the book two months ago, things shift every day. David Berman pulled the plug on the Silver Jews; Richard Nash left the venerable indie publisher Soft Skull press; Operation Ivy’s Jesse Michaels started a new band; Kitchen Sink magazine finally got some of the money we were owed by our bankrupt distributor, two years after our last issue came out. It’s too late for footnotes (though we did manage to squeeze one in about Berman), but it’s no too late to keep you posted, as much as I’m able to and as much as I can find out, via this blog.

You may occasionally also hear tales from my other job (and my other other job, which I’ll be starting this summer, giving talks on Beckett’s Happy Days and Noel Coward’s Private Lives), stories about things happening in and around my home town*, tales from the occasional poetry reading, and lots of anecdotes involving cat barf.

Pleased to meet you. Oh, and if you link to this new blog site, let me know so I can return the favor.

*I’m kind of embarrassed that Oakland only rates four stars on Yelp. People are harsh.