Happy. . .

Oh, what were you doing, why weren’t you paying attention
that piercingly blue day, not a cloud in the sky,
when suddenly “choices”
ceased to mean “infinite possibilities”
and became instead “deciding what to do without”?
No wonder you’re happiest now
riding on trains from one lover to the next.
In those black, night-mirrored windows
a wild white face, operatic, still enthralls you:
a romantic heroine,
suspended between lives, suspended between destinations.

–from “Turning Thirty” by Katha Pollitt
(want the full text? Google it. . . I have just enough respect for copyright that I’m not quoting the full thing here, but it’s available about the fifth result down, with a little digging)

I’ve been thirty for two weeks now, and so I’ve been thinking a good deal about this and that, about the poem above and Abbie Hoffman and dead rock stars, although they mostly die at 27.

It’s funny to be born near the end of the year–it means always thinking to yourself, “well, 1991–I turned 16 that year, but I was 15 for most of it.” I have always been a stickler about ages. I never said I was going on 16 (or 17, or any other age, for that matter). Perhaps this is because I have always been pegged as being a very different age from the one I am. When I was in high school, people routinely thought I was in college or even graduate school. Now that I’m three quarters of the way through my second master’s degree, people always seem to think I’m a teenager. I know I’m supposed to find this flattering, but I don’t–I end up wanting to go up to them and pull out the three white hairs I’ve sprouted and say, “Look! I have white hair, dammit! I’m 30!”

Now it’s New Year’s Eve, and thus I’m struck doubly with the cultural imperative to ruminate upon time’s passing. What have three decades taught you? What has this last year meant? Where are you going, and where have you been? That sort of thing.

I am not much given to obeying cultural imperatives–or at any rate I would like not to be. I was, after all, inordinately pleased to get flowers on my birthday and jewelry at Christmas. (And sweaters! Thanks, Mom! Your mother is so pleased to see me wearing a pigment!) But I find at the moment that whatever Great Thoughts I had when I sat down have vanished. I shall perhaps return to them shortly–although, as my friend Greg points out, “Obviously, shortly sometimes means ‘in seven months.'”

A happy and peaceful new year to you all.

Down the River

There are a few things you can do in American literature. You can escape the provinces for New York City (and you may or may not be able to go home again). You can go out West. You can stay in the South. Or you can go down the river.

When she was pregnant with me, my mother spent many hours of each day reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Her dissertation was an authorized edition of the book, and in order to make it, she had to go through all the extant versions looking for discrepancies, and then she had to decide whether Twain meant to use a comma or a semicolon, whether he mean to use “blackness” or “darkness,” whether he preferred “school house,” “school-house,” or “schoolhouse.” Sometimes I think I must have been rather bored as a fetus.

But something about it must have rubbed off on me, because even though I’ve never read the whole book myself and have never seen anything of the Mississippi but the bits of it in Iowa and Minnesota (and Illinois and Wisconsin), have always imagined floating down it, floating lazily through history and story and song, and ending up, of course, in New Orleans.

Natural disasters have never affected me particularly, either physically or emotionally. In 1993, when huge portions of the Midwest flooded, and some of my friends who lived down near the river lost their homes, the only thing I really remember was an epic bicycle ride Sara and our friend John and I took one night to Donutland from my high school. Under normal circumstances, it would have been 10 minute ride, but that night, because of the flooding, it took us an hour and a half–but it was more of an adventure than a hardship. My good friend Felicia lives in Miami and has been through many a hurricane and lost some things along the way. Just this past summer, my friend Ned was leaving Mumbai about the time the incredible monsoons hit.

But for whatever reason, it is the hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast that has gotten me–gotten me so that I can’t listen to the news and also can’t stand not to, gotten me so that I find myself in tears when I think I’m just going about my business, gotten me so that I’m writing about it.

I don’t know anyone who lives in New Orleans or along the Gulf Coast. I’ve never been there. But the place looms large in my imagination. Easy Rider. “Me and Bobby McGee.” On the Road. “City of New Orleans.” “House of the Rising Sun.” So many songs by Lucinda Williams. And in this song by Greg Brown, which is both about my hometown and about escape from it:

Find some long river and follow it down
Where our old sins have washed up in New Orleans
Greg Brown, “Spring and All”

I’ve read a lot of American literature and listened to a lot of American music, but I don’t know what happens when you get to the end of the river and it isn’t there anymore. I don’t know anyone who’s written about that. I’d hoped that no one would ever need to.

welcome. . .

to anyone who may have stumbled over here by way of EFF (and, for that matter, to anyone who has stumbled over here at all). It seems that my last post won “Best Overall” in the EFF Blog-a-thon, which is such an honor I can hardly comprehend it. But sometimes that’s what happens online–you put your your little piece of whatever it is, and, through some weird alchemy of algorithms, people find it.

Sometimes, of course, those people are totally random. My friend Felicia does a periodic “Top 10 Searches to Find This Blog” post, and I have to say, the people who end up at her blog are searching for funnier things than those who end up at mine–though someone did once get to me by searching for “playboy centerfold”–I hate to break it to you, but this is all they found. But sometimes people come to you in weird and wonderful ways, or in quite ordinary ways, and it’s quite extraordinary.

For a long time, if you typed “John Crossett” into Google, the first thing that came up was an old lecture of his that I included as part of The New Rambler No. 5 (old version here; retroblog version here). John Crossett Jr. was my father, and he was also a professor of Classics at a series of small colleges. He studied with a bunch of A-list profs (Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, Werner Jaeger [A-list if you’re a classicist]), but he never was one himself. He published almost nothing, and he ended up at a small college in the Midwest. But every now and then, in a Long Tail-ish way, someone will be sitting in their office and something will remind them of John Crossett, and they’ll type his name into a search engine, and then I’ll get an e-mail, saying something like, “Hey, I was a student of your dad’s, and he was one of the best teachers I ever had. I still remember. . . .” My father died when I was five and a half, so those e-mails mean quite a bit to me.

I first heard of the Electronic Frontier Foundation a few years back when I asked my technologically inclined cousin Matt for his opinion on file-sharing, and he said, “Well, you should check out this outfit called EFF and also this guy named Lawrence Lessig.” Some years later, I’m halfway through library school. A few months ago, the American Library Association, EFF, and friends won their challenge to the broadcast flag.

I am still far, far from being any kind of expert on digital rights, but I’m glad, through this odd set of connections, to be part of the fight. And one last connection I’d like to mention: I probably wouldn’t have entered the blog-a-thon if it hadn’t been for the suggestion of my friend Mitchell. He does a weekly radio show on WHPK in Chicago. If you live on the south side, you can hear it there on Thursday afternoons. If you’re reading this, though, you can catch it online at his web site, www.szcz.org, where it’s also available as a podcast.

The Medium is Not the Message

Blog-a-thon tag:

In the first week of April 2000, I wasn’t thinking about my digital rights. I didn’t have a blog–it was a bit before their time–though I did have a very basic web site. But I wasn’t thinking about my web site, either. I hadn’t slept more than three or four hours a night in days, but I wasn’t thinking about how sleepy I was, either. Mostly I was just thinking about whether the woman tapping her foot at the end of the basement of Jessup Hall was spying on me as I pulled the phone off the wall jack, plugged my modem and laptop in, and waited for the 28.8 dial-up connection.

It wasn’t a totally unreasonable suspicion. I was in the basement of Jessup Hall, the administration building at the University of Iowa, after hours because I was involved in a sit-in protesting the school’s refusal to take a few simple steps in the fight against sweatshop labor. It was the fourth or fifth day of what turned out to be a six-day sit-in–on the sixth day, we were arrested–and negotiations were at a standstill. The protest had started with fifteen people sitting down on the floor of the President’s office. At five p.m., security arrived and carried them one by one (or, in the case of Ned and Tye, who were joined at the hip by a bicycle lock, two by two) into the hall, where we were told we’d be allowed to remain. We spent our days holding teach-ins and our nights holding meetings in that hallway, and I spent the few spare minutes I had writing up little anecdotal updates on my PowerBook (a 1997 model with a long alphanumeric name) about what was going on. I was down in the basement that night because there was a public phone there, and I wanted to use it–or, more precisely, the jack into which it was plugged–to make the free local call to my ISP so I could send out the latest of these little updates in an e-mail to the hundred-odd people then on The New Rambler mailing list.

So the well-groomed woman tapping her foot at the other end of the hall had some reason to be suspicious of me. I was one of those protesters. I was not groomed. And I was doing something funny with the phone.

There was a little sign by the phone noting that it was for local calls only and exhorting users to keep their calls under 5 or 10 minutes. It generally took no longer than that for me to unplug the phone, plug in the line that connected to my modem, which in turn connected to my lap top, plug the modem into a wall outlet, turn on the modem, open the laptop, dial up Avalon, my local ISP, hit “Send Queued Messages” in Eudora, disconnect, and then unplug and replug all the appropriate pieces of equipment. It didn’t seem to me that there was a damned bit of difference between my using the phone to get online briefly and my using the phone to make a regular call, but I wasn’t at all sure that the woman at the other end of the hall saw it that way. It didn’t seem to me that I was doing anything wrong, or illegal, but I was beginning to think that the woman at the other end of the hall thought differently.

I don’t remember if it was that night or another, but at some point when I was in the middle of one of my quick dial-ups, she approached me.

“Do you need to use the phone?” I asked, as I did everyone who approached while I was connected. “I’ll be off in just a minute or two.”

“No,” she said, “but what if I did?”–implying, somehow, that I was interfering with her right to universal access.

“I’m just about done here,” I said, because I was, and I quickly disconnected, plugged the phone back in, and held it out to her, dial tone humming sweetly.

“Hmm. Okay,” she said, pursing her lips, turning on her heel, and walking away.

I went back up to where my friends were camped out and told them about the encounter, telling them all the things I hadn’t told her, like, “Hey, isn’t it after regular business hours?” and “Uh, don’t you have a phone in your office?” And, most of all, “Is this not a public phone? Is it not within my rights, as a member of the public, to use it to communicate and exercise my First Amendment rights? And so long as I am not violating the terms under which this phone has been made available–so long as I am making only local calls and using it for only short periods of time, should it not be as permissible to use it to send electronic communications as to send oral, auditory ones?”

As I read news reports now, five years later, about bloggers getting in trouble for their writing, I’m reminded of that moment in the basement of Jessup and of the inability, or unwillingness, of the woman at the end of the hall to see electronic communication as equal to oral communication. The attempts to say that bloggers don’t have the same rights as journalists stem, in part, from a belief that electronic print is not equal to hard copy print. (Such beliefs stem, of course, from a number of other things, perhaps most notably the belief in the power of institutions over individuals and the ideology of the center.)

My father owned a printing press–there are pictures of me at four years old, perched on a high bench, pulling the blue-black cast iron lever and printing out my name, which my father had set for me in various typefaces. He was fond of saying (quoting A.J. Liebling) that the only man with freedom of the press was the man who owned his own press. My father was an academic who published only a few things in the fifty-eight years of his life, and he printed little on his printing press beyond poems and Christmas cards. But I believe he liked having a press and knowing that he could use it as he wished.

He would not, I suspect, have had much respect for the bloggers of today–he was also the sort of academic who thought all writing ought to be put in a drawer for ten years before publication to see if it would hold up–but I believe that today’s bloggers share with him the satisfaction of knowing that they control their own words and their own publishing. A couple of years ago, Blogger’s front page still bore the slogan “Push-Button Publishing for the People.” That line has since disappeared, I suppose because it sounds too populist for something owned by Google (or, perhaps, because it sounds a bit too much like “Greetings to the people, this is Tania”), but it’s still how I think of blogs in particular and the Internet in general. And it was certainly the way I thought of the Internet sitting on that basement floor in April 2000.

Late one night a few of us would leave Jessup and head over to the computer center to make up flyers for the next day’s teach-ins, and Heidi, who was on the national USAS listserv, checked her e-mail. There were actions going on at over a dozen other campuses that week, and we read their names–Kentucky, Tulane, Michigan, Oregon, Yale, Wesleyan, Purdue–and their calls for action on the screen. Chills ran down my spine–the good kind. All over the country were all these people taking action, all moved by a shared belief and now all connected through these intricate webs of code that turned into words on the computer screen. It sends chills down my spine still. Who would ever have guessed that political action could take such a form? And who would have guessed then that electronic activism would take off in the way it has now?

Electronic communication was vital to that campaign, but my ability to access the means to electronic communication via that basement phone was also vital to my sense of myself and my rights as an autonomous, thinking human being. Like many people, I found a voice online, a voice I hadn’t had before, a voice I’ve never had talking on the phone, but one that, suddenly, a phone line gave me access to. And that moment, sitting on that basement floor, with a woman tapping her foot down the hall, was the first time it dawned on me that any kind of access to speech was another kind of access that someone, somewhere, might try to take away.

There’s a show on VH1 (MTV, but without the edge, you know), called something like “Before They Were Stars,” whose purpose is to dig up embarassing footage of people who are now rock stars, so we can see what they looked like when they were just starring in their high school musicals or performing in local talent shows. Okay, blah blah, nice concept–celebrity humilation (especially of strong women–I’m trying hard to avoid a digression on Katharine Hepburn here) goes over pretty well. What fascinated me most, though, was an early clip of Paula Cole (of Lilith Fair and Dawson’s Creek theme music fame) singing “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in a high school production. The show then cuts to a modern interview of Paula Cole, saying “Oh my God, that awful song!” and discussing how sickening she thought it was that she was helping reinforce all these negative gender stereotypes. I was literally stunned. She thought “I Enjoy Being a Girl” (a song favored by drag queens and given a rocking remake by combat boot clad folksinger Phranc) reinforced negative ideas about femininity? Somehow, this strikes me as awfully strange, coming from a woman whose first album contained a song about a hopelessly unrequited love, in which the girl sings to the guy, “And she is your Holy Mary, and I am so ordinary, and you can use me if you want to,” without a touch of irony. I like that song, actually, but when it comes to positive messages for young women about their femininity, I’ll take “When men say I’m cute and funny/As round and around we whirl/It goes to my head like brandy/I enjoy being a girl!” any day.