Sunday, May 27, 2007

Summer Reading List: Double Your Pleasure

So my brother doesn't know this yet, but in return for playing keys in his band, I was going to make him help me write a YA book about the punk/hardcore scene--one that didn't characterize punks as kitschy sidekicks or drug-addled dead-beat dads (see Beige by Cecil Castelluci or Born to Rock by Gordon Korman). But then Rachel Cohn and David Levithan beat me to it.

There are already enough books by author-voyeurs who have no real love for punk--who just use it as a hook, a backdrop, a jacket cover. But Cohn and Levithan aren't pimping youth culture. They're tangled in the back seat making out with it.

Basically, the plot of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is this: two teenage music whores spend all night in the city trying to get to third base, get over their exes, and get a ride home. The prose is headlong-she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not-stream-of-consciousness. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Nick and Norah, and the whole story takes place over the course of about 10 hours, max. You feel everything they feel: the taxi screeching to a halt, the blood rushing to their body parts.

And I really appreciate the Virginia Woolf-esque attention to detail, because it allows the authors to distinguish between the many styles of people living in the wake of the first few waves of punk. Which leads me to my next rant:

People who write about punk for YAs often focus on the commercial tailspin, which reminds me of the way some people identify hip-hop exclusively with its worst excesses. Before punk was a category like "easy listening" or "gospel," it was a phenomenon, a movement, a whole community of people to whom the phrase "mainstream success" was an oxymoron. But now, punk has an evil twin: the H&M version of itself (see Avril Lavigne). And the two are not always easily distinguishable. But focusing on the commodified part of punk culture is misleading in two ways:
  1. It overlooks the diversity of expression that characterizes the phenomenon (i.e. it's not just music: it's art, dress, dance, technology, code of honor; and it's not just tight pants, patches, and mohawks: it's Loretta Lynn in a floral print dress and bouffant);

  2. also, it validates the corporate-appropriated acts rather than the pioneers. (If you think Blink-182 is punk, please don't ever write a book about the punk scene.)
Cohn and Levithan's characters aren't purists. They're straight-edge; they drink Starbucks; they don't care what people wear; they notice every one's accessories; they claim that nothing's more punk than jazz (18), except maybe elevator music (29); they wear pleather; they love their exes; they make ironic comments about "product endorsements by Nike and IBM" (125); then they endorse iPods, Ben and Jerry's, Tiffany windows (69), CVS (71), Oreos (92), Jagermeister (132), Manolo Blahniks (151), and Pepsi (161).

But here's what I really love: they don't think punk is dead. They consider themselves responsible for keeping it alive. They were, like, seven years old when Green Day sang "Do you have the time to listen to me whine ...", but they aren't nostalgic for simpler, purer times. They're active in a current scene. Nick is the only straight musician in a queercore band with no drummer. I'm not sure that's technically possible, but it's absurdly, existentially true-to-life.

But here's what you, as a reader, care about: Nick and Norah are two parts witty to one part cheesy. When they try too hard, it only sounds more authentic ("She's hanging onto the guy ... like she's auditioning to be a pocket on his jacket" (22).). And the supporting characters reveal themselves as philosophical, canine, flirtatious, obtuse. My favorite is
Toni, a cross-dressing burlesque theater bouncer in a priest's costume. In fact, I'm going to close with some relationship advice from this ulikely oracle: "There's no such thing as ready ... There's only willing" (62).

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Wish you were here

So lately I have been seeking inspiration from the mesmerizing fish tank at Jacky's Galaxie, my favorite Asian take-out place. (You can get a lunch combo with crab rangoon, chicken wings, fried rice, and nime chow for $5.) And it occurred to me while staring into it today that I should reflect on what I learned by stalking PPL through all those community meetings.

Otherwise, how will I ever talk other people into attending these kind of meetings? Most people thought the poster sessions were meaningless window dressing or face-saving last ditches. They told me that a) this happened, like, all the time, and it wasn't like this time was different or anything would ever really change or the libraries would actually be closed, and b) the meetings weren't about listening to the public--they were about telling the public what to think.

And I'm not saying they're wrong. But by attending those meetings, I learned that there are ways to subvert, redirect, disrupt, and transform them. And there are definitely ways to learn from them. So this is why I can honestly say, wish you were here. Because these are the techniques I observed and plan to use in the future:

  • Change the seating arrangement. I learned this from the senior citizens who insisted they weren't about to risk their knees, ankles, and hips traipsing up to those easels. They demanded chairs and as soon as they got them, they demanded that the PPL reps come to them, and soon the whole meeting went from cocktail party to sit-down dinner, and it was a lot easier for people to listen to each other.
  • Don't tell anyone who you are. It makes you harder to dismiss by categorization (i.e. oh, she's one of those people). If people see you actively approaching others and talking to them, they're going to start to wonder who you are, what group you represent, etc., and you'd be surprised who will come to you.
  • Ask questions of the wrong people. And by "wrong," I mean anyone who didn't organize the meeting and expect to mc it. This could be a random bystander or another member of the organization who hasn't been groomed for the cameras.

  • Dig up old documents. Like mission statements. Anything that will help you hold the organization accountable to its own principles or expose idiosyncrasies in the way the organization interprets them.

  • Speak your own language. Obviously, I'm thinking of the people who spoke Spanish, but that's only one example. The point is not to let the people who organized the meeting choose the vocabulary you use. Call it like it is. Make them translate.
  • Bring children. They ask the best, so-simple-they're-impossible-to-answer questions and make adults who refuse to answer them look like storybook villains.

  • Introduce yourself. You can usually pick out the politicians and trustees by their shoulder pads, but they often don't introduce themselves. It's great fun to shake hands and ask them what brings them to such-and-such-place tonight. (This may seem to contradict #2, but what I really meant above is that you shouldn't ally yourself with a particular group--don't make yourself too easy to categorize--I didn't mean that you shouldn't tell people your name.)

  • Ask what you can do. At the risk of sounding like JFK, I'd like to point out that it's really disconcerting to people in power when you show them that you didn't just come to criticize. You came to be involved. It's a way of saying, this isn't over when you leave tonight.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Resisting puns about the blind v. the visionary

Last night's grand finale featured cameos by Peter Mancini, Lisa Churchville, and others. The articulate and well-informed audience as if by mutual consent raised one essential question: Why is PPL so committed to the main library and so ready to abandon the branches?

They eventually got a good answer. (Answers like this make you wonder why PPL passes up opportunities to make allies out of the public as opposed to enemies--and maybe enemies is an overstatement, but the first few meetings certainly didn't engender much goodwill--why is there so little communication between the private nonprofit and the people it serves?) The answer was that the city wants its money to go to the branches as opposed to the main library, so the current structure--with PPL funding the main library and public funds going to the outlying branches--is as much a product of city priorities as PPL priorities.

The problem remains that the branches are no one's priority, but now it looks like the branches will remain open. It's "services" (read: reference librarians) that are going to be cut.

I had to leave early--in the middle of a lively debate about the Springfield model versus the New York City model (for combining public and private funds to support public libraries)--but I did learn alittle about the Board's interpretation of its mission statement, and no, it includes no specific commitment to the branches. But there is one line I like: "We constantly reassess our services and methods and try to see ourselves through the public’s eyes. " So how do they see themselves now?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

West Side Story

Well, you have to give PPL credit for improving their game. Since Knight Memorial, they've had a Spanish translator all their own, and at Smith Hill they actually got to use him. They had the Spanish-speaking crowd on one side of the library and English-speakers on the other, and the only drama of the evening came when someone from the English side of the tracks wandered over to Spanishville, and the translator apparently thought he'd only been hired to translate one-way.

Dale had a pretty receptive audience of people who admitted that before they just hadn't understood the unique arrangement between PPL and the city. They professed themselves now prepared to take the issue up with their city council people. However, one woman flummoxed Dale by asking if there was some way people could be involved in the current contract negotiations between PPL and the city. Dale reflected and decided that no, there really wasn't any way the people could be involved in telling the city what level of library services they wanted.

There was also one precocious kid with a crew cut (circa age 8) who sipped coffee from a styrofoam cup and, after informing Date that he read the newspaper every day and was therefore in the know, inquired as to the fate of his beloved branch. Dale told him no one was talking about closing the branches. I tried to give the kid a sympathetic look, since I know full well that no one in this cold, cruel world takes you seriously if you look to be under the age of 20. Even if you're white, male, crew-cutted, and drinking coffee.

Ultimately, the question is, who will advocate for the branches if neither the city nor PPL considers itself responsible?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

That 3.3. mil

Here's what PPL proposes to do with it. Looks like the city and PPL are going to have a contractual relationship.

Good Knight and Good Luck

I suppose it was inevitable, but it was honestly unplanned. Usually I rehearse my impassioned speeches in the bathroom mirror and make sure I'm wearing something other than a t-shirt and flip-flops when I deliver them. But there I was, talking to one of the immaculately dressed trustees, feeling crestfallen by the tiny turnout at Knight Memorial Library, and when she asked me what I thought about fundraising strategies for the branches, I momentarily teetered on my imaginary soap box and told her what I thought.

But let me rewind. When I walked into the Knight Memorial meeting, I was greeted by a woman I hadn't seen before, who made small talk, offered cookies, and steered me toward a carefully selected PPL rep. You'd think I'd be tired of talking to Tonia and Dale, but I learn something new every time.

This time I learned (or realized, because it should have been obvious, but wasn't) that all of PPL's proposed "options of continuing branch services" separate city-and-state money from PPL money. What PPL is offering is to let the city (and/or representatives from the public) manage city-and-state funds. What PPL is not offering is to let anyone besides the trustees participate in what the private nonprofit does with its funds. And apparently, what the private nonprofit wants to do with its funds is channel all of them into the downtown library. So all of their solutions cut the branch libraries off from the main library--and from the precious endowment.

So fastforward to me and the trustee. She said she thought that fundraising for the branches would have to be done separately from fundraising for the downtown library. And that's when, right hand atremble, I said (or thought I was saying, because of course I don't remember exactly what came out) ...

...that I became a librarian because I wanted to equalize access and remove disparities in society, and by funding the downtown library and excluding the branches, the trustees are choosing to reinforce disparities. They are priveleging people who can access the main branch and cutting off families and many working people, and most of all children. And if fundraising for the branches is done separately, then the wealthy communities will have better resources--and that's obviously already true, if you look at Rochambeau--and then libraries will just be part of the process of cacifiying socio-economic differences and dividing us and depriving people.

When you say things like that, that you really believe, you do it in sort of a glow of embarassment and earnestness, and later the memory is a little fuzzy. It doesn't help when the trustee tells you that you look about sixteen, which is probably your own fault for coming in flip-flops, but you were on the phone with your friend from Alaska until just 8 minutes before the meeting.

Anyway. I also learned that the union has the list of 53 employees PPL is planning to let go. The union is holding on to the list rather than issuing pink slips because they hope no one will actually have to go. But I should know about my own fate by June 1. As I left, the trustee wished me good luck. As though she had nothing to do with what happened. Which seems to be what everyone at PPL thinks: that it has nothing to do with them.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Summer Reading List: Boys will be

As I told my lil sister on the phone last night, it's been a bad week for men. The next elderly gentleman who comes into the library and calls me "honey," "sweetie," or "girl" is going to get it. Except not now, because I read a book that perfectly captures the y-chromosome cluelessness and kinda makes it seem endearing again.

Imagine that two years after the end of Because of Winn Dixie, Dunlap Dewberry declares his love for India Opal Buloni. That's the feeling I got from The Summer Sherman Loved Me, by Jane St. Anthony. It's not quite as gothic as Kate DiCamillo's work (if you haven't read her 2004 Newbury acceptance speech on darkness in children's lit, get your hands on a copy of the July-August 2004 Horn Book and flip to page 395.), but it has the same smoky southern charm, eccentric neighbors, and percocious first-person narrator.

But what I really love is the awkward way Sherman shows his ardor for Margaret: cruel practical jokes, filched roses, gluey kisses. But the clincher is when he names his pet baby squirrel "Little Margaret." When Margaret first witnesses the creature's circus tricks, she thinks:"The squirrel was cute, in the same creepy way that a dressed-up mouse in a book can be cute ... Was Sherman insulting me? I couldn't be sure. I didn't want to care" (69-70).

There's something about this scene that is exactly right. Boys seem puzzled about how to express their feelings, and for some reason the result of their brainstorming is often absurd and a little predatory. But we give them a break because it's such a cry for help. Or maybe because we want to be loved, even if we would like to give them a little coaching on how best to love us.

But don't tell the kids all this stuff. Just tell them about the rule-breaking midnight bike rides, near-death experiences, Jell-O snacks, and relay races. Tell them how Margaret's best friend, Grace, nick-names Sherman "the vermin," and how Margaret is forever offering her twin sisters to other parents. Tell them that reading this book is the only way they'll find out what an "eye ball cleaning party" is. (Guesses, anyone?)

Friday, May 11, 2007

From glorious to glamorous

So at Olneyville I met (although I didn't realize it) the gentleman in charge of the library show at Firehouse 13. There's not a ton of info on the website, so here's the call for artists' work that was on the RISCA blog (although the deadline was April 13). I was first informed of this show by someone who wanted to know if I could get bootleg library cards for people from out of state--since the ads say you have to have a PPL card to get in. Very VIP. Anyway, I thought a gallery of library artwork was deliciously kitchsy, but now that I know it's also in support of our glorious cause, I thought I'd plug it, too.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

El poder de la palabra

At Olneyville, the PPL reps tried the same strategy of setting up easels with the four options for branch services and inviting people to ask questions. Unfortunately, none of the PPL reps spoke Spanish. This proved problematic, since all of the community members in attendance spoke Spanish first and foremost. (I speak a few words of Spanish, so I admit that this is pot=kettle=black. Still, I could say "nombre" and "numero de telephono," so I did get the contact info of the most vocal community members.) Fortunately, one of the Olneyville librarians spoke Spanish, so the entire meeting was channeled through her.

Sadly, the cocktail atmosphere was completely disrupted by the fact that all the people who showed up for the meeting couldn't possibly squeeze into the teensy meeting room in the back of the library. Everything overflowed into the space in front of the circulation desk, and no one was able to enjoy the delicious decaf coffee. Dale Thompson was forced to personally answer questions about everything from fundraising to handicap access to why the library was spending so may dollars on those fascist, newfangled computer machines (???).

There was strong representation from the community (circa 30 people) and a real push by at least one woman to provide people with a petition to sign, or at least some formal way to show their support for branch libraries.

Word is that the PPL financial committee has crafted a tentative budget (subject to approval by who knows how many groups and individuals) that accepts the 3.3 mil from the city. The discussion now has to do with whether they'll cut people or branches to stay in the black. There's some formula for dividing the overhead costs by the different branches and calculating the price tag of each branch. This budget would probably involve 10-12 layoffs rather than 60, so that explains why no one (to my knowledge) has actually received pink slips yet.

What do PPL community meetings have in common with the 4th of July?

You'll have to bring your lawn chairs if you want to sit down and watch the show.

Apparently, Providence Public Library wants its community meetings to have the ambiance of 1950s cocktail parties. They have four representatives standing next to easels explaining the four options for continuing branch services. Dale Thompson invites "the people" to come up and ask questions. There aren't any chairs set up, so everyone has to sort of mingle. I guess it's easier to deal with people one-on-one than in an angry rabble.

In other words, these aren't meetings. They're poster sessions. With cookies, flowers, and coffee. Decaf, of course.

I went to the first poster session on Monday at Mount Pleasant Public and people were pretty frustruated because the easels, handouts, and socratic convos with PPL reps didn't actually make the situation any easier to understand. People want to know who's responsible for keeping the branches open. PPL says its the city; the city says it's PPL.

Michael Solomon and Joseph DeLuca, the city councilmen for the neighborhood, were in attendance, but there was no chit-chat between Thompson and the gentlemen. The standoff continues. I'm going to Olneyville's meeting tonight. And I'm really looking forward to Monday's meeting at Knight Memorial, because I have high hopes that South Providence will represent itself well.

And if you're wondering about that angry rabble, check out

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Defying Categorization

If you're looking for the handouts and bibliography for the presentation I gave at the Massachusetts Library Association Conference on Thursday, click here, and thanks for attending.