Saturday, April 30, 2011

Looking at a Neighborhood Bookstore's Closing in a Different Light

A Different Light, the Castro's LGBT bookstore and an important cultural institution (and purportedly the last LGBT bookstore in California) is closing.

And I don't think that's entirely a bad thing.

I've been thinking a lot about this closing, because I am a book lover (of actual books—with paper inside), a longtime Castro denizen, and someone who believes in supporting local businesses. I have a history with A Different Light (ADL): The store hosted me for an author reading when my book was published in 2004. (I also participated in a group reading there when a short story of mine was published in Modern Words, a literary journal, in 1999.) And, of course, I've been shopping there since I arrived in the Bay Area, more than 20 years ago.

But recently I've also been thinking a lot about change, and about how difficult it can be to accept change as one gets (ahem!) older. That's why, at first, I found myself agreeing with the lamentations of some people in the Castro (and the wider LGBT community): ADL's closing is a sign of the "Decline of Reading," the "Decline of Community Involvement" and the "Decline of the Castro."

And I hate change! I hate it when the businesses I frequent close. When I found out that the Eagle was closing, I mourned. I wished I could go back in time and spend more Sunday afternoons there—an eternity of warm Sunday afternoons on the Eagle patio, drinking my second beer. ... Maybe that's what Paradise will be like.

But back to the Castro. I know that ADL's closing negatively affects the livelihoods of many people, and for that I am very sorry. But looking past that, I think that this closing is probably happening at the right time, and that, although I love nostalgia (I wallow in nostalgia), lamentations are out of order.

The Decline of Reading
When we moan about the "Decline of Reading," what we're saying is, basically, "We are the last intelligent generation. Society is getting dumber. Learning is over. Civilization is doomed!" And people (mostly old people like me) have been saying that since history began. Yes, sure, sometimes a generation does stupider things than its predecessors, but when you take a broad view of history, education trends in a decidedly positive way. Studies that "prove" reading's decline are usually skewed, heavily favoring the printed page. People aren't reading less. They're reading differently. People aren't getting stupider. They're smart in different ways. That's how civilization progresses. We old folks have to deal with it.

Computers and the Internet are changing how we read and how we interact with books and the written word. My last visit to ADL was a few months ago. I was looking for a copy of Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, to give as a gift. The store didn't have it. It didn't have anything by Isherwood, even a copy of the story on which a very popular film had just been based, A Single Man. So I had given ADL a chance to sell me something, and the store didn't have it. (The store did have lots of homoerotic calendars, but every store in the Castro has homoerotic calendars, even Walgreen's.)

Twenty years ago, a youth looking to educate himself about this important writer could have ordered the book, gone to a library, or maybe taken a class somewhere. Now, he can go home and get online. And he'll find Isherwood galore: histories, quotations, essays, and so on—a curious young mind with limited resources is in much better shape today than 20 years ago, even without ADL. There's a lot to read on the Web.

People aren't reading less; they're reading (and buying books) differently.

And I read a lot on the Web: articles and essays in far-off or minuscule publications that ADL could never have exposed me to. And then I am able, with a few clicks, to share what I've read with other people. This is what ADL was all about: sharing ideas. The Web is, I think, doing that better.

The Decline of Community Involvement
The Internet may have doomed the neighborhood bookstore, but I think it has been a boon for our community—whether you define community as LGBT people in general, those in the Castro area, or a smaller subset. From my point of view, it seems that a bookstore (as lovely as a bookstore is) is available to too few people: that is its problem. A desperate, lonely gay youth in a small Minnesota town in the 1980s had no way to get to ADL. Now, he doesn't have to. He can find like minds on the Web, in online communities large and small—so the Web is where he stays involved.

I have no way to prove this, but it seems to me that there is always a certain percentage of people who "get involved" in their communities (the rest just live there). Whether they do it by putting up a poster or by sending an email, I'd say the number is about the same.

Twitter has proved to be a far better way to mobilize a community than a flyer in a bookstore. Through my online community, I'm exposed to new ideas and new causes (and new books) in a way I never was before. The Internet has made me a better, more active member of my community.

The Decline of the Castro
The Castro was here before us, and it will be here after us. From Irish neighborhood to gay enclave to ... maybe something else. And that's how neighborhoods tend to work. As a center for gay culture and social life in San Francisco, the Castro replaced Polk Street when Polk Street's "seediness" no longer aligned with our mainstream aspirations. And now those mainstream aspirations are poised to take us out of the Castro—out of all our gay neighborhoods—and into mainstream society, into a world where we can live in any neighborhood and feel that the men and women (gay, straight, or whatever) who live on our street can be our neighbors and friends, and even our brothers and sisters.

I think that's what we wanted.

I'm being a bit facetious when I say that, because I'm not not at all sure it's what I want. I often opine that I liked some parts of being gay 20 years ago: the feeling that my affectional desires gave me instant counterculture credibility, for instance. Then again, there was also a lot more open discrimination and violence against gay men and women 20 years ago. It's hardly worth the thrill of feeling "a little bit naughty."

I'm talking myself through this (sort of thinking aloud here) because, as I said earlier, I hate change at a gut level. I miss the Castro of my younger days. I miss the Detour. I miss Pozolé and its gorgeous tank-topped staff. I miss that used bookstore on Castro between 18th and 19th, where I bought my first vintage etiquette book.

And I'll miss ADL. And the Eagle! Fond farewell to thee. I heard that they are going to put condos where you once stood, and I groaned ... before looking around and realizing that I live in a condo, and that something was here before I was, and that someone probably misses it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


This post is a bit off-topic for me, but I'm trying to cook at home more, and I've been experimenting with kale.

So, kale has recently been touted as a superfood (joining all those other superfoods they've been throwing at us in recent years: blue-green algae, broccoli, blueberries, açaí, and on and on they come). I don't pay exceptionally close attention to counting calories or measuring nutrients in my diet—I just try to eat healthily in a general way and hope things work out all right (despite my predilection for fatty cheeses and other bad-for-me things).

I'm training for a half-marathon (for charity), so I've added glucosamine supplements to my diet (for my old knees), and I've been eating a bit more, both proteins and carbs. But I think my higher consumption of kale is really making a difference in my energy levels.

OK, so here's what I've been doing with it:

I've been making Bobby Flay's sautéed kale.

I've been doing my own "quick kale": I fill a frying pan with hand-shredded kale (stems removed), sprinkle the leaves with olive oil and low-sodium soy sauce, and add a couple of tablespoons of water. Then I just sauté until the water evaporates and the kale is tender (a few minutes). It's a great side dish.

I've also been pulverizing a mixture of kale and lime juice in my food processor (a couple of loosely packed cups of leaves without stems, and the juice of about half a lime), mashing that mixture into an avocado, and adding some cumin and a bit of sriracha (which deserves its own blog post) to make a sort of guacamole that I use on burritos. All you really need is that and some beans to make a delicious burrito.

And I've been supercharging pesto by food-processing kale, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a little bit of olive oil, and then adding one part that mixture and one part pesto sauce to pasta. It's so good!

I like raw vegetables, but kale is a little tough and stringy unless you grind it up or wilt it a little bit.

Kale. It's what's for dinner.

Part 2
After I'd sent out this post, my father's wife, Maureen, was kind enough to share a photo of the "incipient kale" in her garden.

She says, "This is a bit blurry but you can see that the stems are very white and the little leaves are sweet and round. Kale at this stage looks a lot like kohlrabi, which is growing on either side of the kale row. We really like kale. It grows well, looks pretty, and can be eaten as you have pointed out in many ways. I like to make pesto with it because if you add enough garlic, parm cheese, and walnuts, you don't really miss the basil. And because the kale has been steamed a bit first it whirs up nicely without adding much oil at all, so is lower in fat."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I read with interest a recent review (from a New Yorker blog) of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible. In this new version, the translators and editors have tried to use gender-neutral language—for instance, replacing the word forefathers with the word ancestors.

And they've tried to tackle English's pronoun problem. Although it's a wordy language, English lacks one word that would be very useful: a gender-neutral single-person pronoun.

As our society has moved toward gender equality, we've found many ways to express those changes in our language. For instance, writers sensitive to the issue might use the word humanity instead of mankind. Or when a person's gender is unknown, we use mail carrier instead of mailman, businessperson instead of businessman, and police officer instead of policeman. Some language purists (and some sexists) mock a few of these new terms. Fisher (for fisherman) is a good example of a word that sounds, to many, farcically "politically correct"—even though it is, in fact, not a new word but an old word recently revived.

But we haven't found a new word to fill this gap: "Whenever you see a soldier, smile at _____."

If we were speaking casually, we might say say, "... them." That's how we get around having to say "him or her" and "he or she" every time this happens when we're talking. But many grammarians (and I) don't like using they this way in print. One reason is that they takes a plural verb, so antecedents get fuzzy—and this, in writing, makes for odd sentences: "When I see a soldier, I smile at them, and they smile back."

Many reputable usage guides—such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Usage, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage—recommend the "he or she" solution if you're unable to rewrite your way out of the problem.

But I find that, if I put some thought into it, I'm almost always able to rewrite my way to a gender-neutral solution that doesn't call too much attention to itself—and that's good, because "he or she" can seem clunky when it's repeated a lot (I decline to discuss "he/she").

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, "'[H]e or she' may be used as a last resort to avoid an unwanted assumption of maleness or femaleness in a general reference," adding, however, that "preferred solutions are those that spare the reader all traces of a writer's struggle." It suggests plural constructions ("A good soldier always does his duty," for example, may be changed to "Good soldiers always do their duty"). Alternatively, you might rewrite the sentence so that no pronoun is required. ("A good soldier always does what's required.")

The second example is an intrusive edit, and the first, too, changes meaning slightly (it may suggest more of "a singleness of mind in the group," according to A Dictionary of Modern Usage). In longer writing, when I have multiple gender-unknown single-person pronouns, I sometimes switch back and forth between male and female pronouns: "The hiring manager may think she's being helpful. ... And when you speak to the HR person, ask when you can expect to hear from him."

More from A Dictionary of Modern Usage: "The traditional view, now widely assailed as sexist, was that the masculine pronouns are generic, comprehending both male and female." Some wordsmiths do still see this as true, but "he or she" as a construction is not new; it appears in English as far back as the early 1800s.

So why bother with this? Well, there's the whole clarity-in-writing thing. Also, I think it's important for readers (and therefore for writers and the the publications or brands they represent) to see themselves in writing and the media. Inclusiveness is the right way to write.

Hungarian, just as a side note, is one of the languages that doesn't have this problem. It has one singular-person pronoun,
ő, which means both "he" and "she." If you're at all familiar with Hungarian, you know that its speakers have earned this small simplicity in their beautifully complicated language.

Part 2
In a new blog post on, I continue our conversation about pronouns.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Self-Editing Tips

Writing and editing are, I think, very different activities—the first involves creativity, and the second is more about applying logic and making sure you're following "rules" (not only simple rules of grammar but also complex rules of style and readability).

That's why, in an ideal editorial situation, one person writes and another person edits. But I don't live in that perfect world. So with important documents, if I have time (and especially if I'm writing something long), I try to write and edit separately. This is my self-editing process:
  1. I write: trying not to self-edit, I finish a draft.
  2. I let some time pass: even a few hours can allow me to read with fresh eyes.
  3. I print the text and review it with a colored pencil: I'll often find things on paper that I won't find on screen, and removing myself from the writing environment prevents me from slipping too far back into "creative mode."
  4. I implement my revisions (and repeat steps 2 and 3 if I did heavy rewriting).
  5. I read the document aloud: even if I just whisper, this helps me ensure readability—and I often uncover sneaky typos at this stage.
  6. I run a spelling checker: I leave the spelling checker off while I'm writing; I find that it fades into the background if it's on throughout the process.
When I was the managing editor of Macworld magazine (where several editors and copy editors worked with the writer or writers of each piece), we employed some further tips that might help self-editors:
  1. Read the first and last lines of each paragraph to check transitions.
  2. Turn the document upside-down to check formatting: this allows you to see the document without reading it.
Are you a self-editor? I'd love to see your tips in the comments section.

Image: dan /

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pigs in Space

When I was a child, my family and I lived for a brief time near Washington, D.C.—in a Maryland suburb. My parents divorced when I was 9; my mother, sisters, and I moved away from Maryland, and I hadn't been back to D.C. until last weekend, when I visited for a conference.

I have a very distinct memory of being in Washington D.C. as a child. It is of being on the D.C. Metro with my family. I don't remember where we were going, but being on a subway was a novel experience, so my sister Sarah and I were in high spirits. (If Emily was there, she was an infant.)

At the back of D.C. Metro cars is a little glass partition in front of two "semi-private" seats. So here is my distinct and vivid memory: sitting in those seats, in the last car, with my sister Sarah, and playing "Pigs in Space" while watching the track recede behind us. Playing "Pigs in Space" entailed shouting, "Pigs ... in ... Spaaaaaace!" whenever the train accelerated.

You're familiar with "Pigs in Space," right? It was a recurring sketch on The Muppet Show.

This memory makes me happy. Isn't memory strange—the little bits and flashes that get recorded deep in your psyche? This long-ago outing is surely part of the reason I have such a fondness for public transportation. Thanks, Jim Henson, Miss Piggy, Link Hogthrob, and Dr. Strangepork.