Monthly Archives: April 2008

Some housekeeping

[Update: 0) A few people will be arriving at this page in the next couple days because I’ve suggested they look here for samples of my writing. The desert writing can be found here, and the pieces that I’ve decided best represent what I can do in general are sorted here.]

1) In a month I move out. I don’t know where I’m moving to.  There’s a good chance I’ll actually be homeless in the month of June, except that I will call it “camping.” I’m tracking down writer-in-residence gigs, volunteer opportunities with housing involved, rental of desert shacks and the like, but since I don’t know where I’m moving to, I don’t know whether I’ll have internet access on any kind of reliable basis.

This will make running a blog difficult. I’ve been thinking about how to address this: the community here has been so valuable to me, and there’s a little income from the blog ads that it would be a shame, though not fatal, to forsake.

If I can be assured of regular internet access, on the order of once a week, I can upload a week’s worth of short posts and set them to publish one at a time. This doesn’t allow, though, for comment moderation, and I’m not willing to let abusive or spammy or troll comments stand for a week. And shutting off comments, or moderating them with a week’s wait, would squelch the good conversations.

2) In a month I move out, and I have a household to split up and packing and giving away and sorting and address change forms and house search and truck rental and Jeep registration and smog inspections and long serious conversations to accomplish, and that’s not gonna allow for much blogging time, even if I ignore getting any book writing done.

3) The personal life blogging has proven to be a bit of a negative issue these days, and perhaps fittingly, I will not go into details here except to say that the number of times the word “div*rce” has popped up in the search logs for this site is kinda ooky. I know I brought that on myself, but it is not just myself onto which it has been brought. And at some point I hope to have a social life, and a social life free of ook is a thing worth having. So this paragraph is very likely the last Relationship item that will be appearing here. Thanks for understanding.

4) I’m trying to get work published in non-self-published dead tree form. Some of the work I want to try that with has appeared here. This is an impediment to publication in many journals. So there will be an increasing number of 404s here as I turn posts off and take them down. I apologize for the inconvenience.

5) In a month I move out, and I am not taking the creek with me. I am still mulling over the whole “blog name” issue as a result.

6) Given all of the above and my resolve to get book writing done, big changes are in store here, with continuing publication of short science essays, nature observation, poetry, and occasional political pieces limited to environmental politics — which is what I do best and is thus probably the most effective politics I can indulge in online — at the “continuing” end of the spectrum, and reformatting of into a writer’s portfolio and book sales links and updates on the Joshua tree book’s progress at the “ending the blog” end of the spectrum, with resolution likely by July. In between, there’s gonna be a lot of crickets here, and you may want to avail yourself of the RSS feed so you can avoid fruitless mouse clicks.

7) Some of those desert observation naturey pieces will also show up at DesertBlog, which you should check out.

8) Anyone know of a shack for rent in the Mojave? Wi-fi would be a plus but not necessary.


The tracks come up out of the earth at Peralta, rise above the houses on brutal concrete pylons. Metal wheel scrapes metal rail as the train heads north. For a few blocks the tracks run above a linear park, an old right-of-way. The old Key Route took this path before the oil and auto companies bought up rail lines across the country, plowed them under.

At Solano the old right-of-way narrows. Houses press their backs up against the verge. From there north you can look down from your seat into the backyards of a thousand neighbors.

If I lived in one of these houses I would imagine my privacy uninvaded. The trains pass quickly, the passengers near-anonymous blurs in the windows preoccupied with newspapers. A whoosh of engine and a scrape of wheel on rail, and we are gone and the residents enjoy their yards in peace. I have been riding this line, though, for a quarter century, and a quarter century of daily four-second glimpses adds up. My time riding this train has been a reel of film, each pass by each yard a still frame.

I have watched the neighbors’ lives through the train’s lens. The new plastic toy tricycle left in different corners of the yard fades in the sun, is supplanted by a series of bicycles of increasing size. Trees are planted, grow, bear flowers and fruit, are pruned, succumb to blight. Roofs deteriorate in each winter’s storms. The signs go up, the house is sold, the paint goes on and fades and the grass grows unkempt and brown and possessions are removed in separate trucks and the signs go up. A second story is framed and roofed and finished and then I forget there was a time it wasn’t there.

An odd intimacy, this, a knowledge of people whose shadow on the earth I have not once seen. An odd affection, this, for the yellow-leaved lemon tree people, the pile of old lumber people, the purple stucco and peace sign people, the turquoise ‘67 Malibu under a tarp people. Their lives flit past as flickers on a screen, and though they are immediately and warmly familiar the train rounds a curve and slows for my station, and they pass out of my mind until the next commute.


the wind will shift, run fingertips
through the long grasses, combing them
in feathered, cat’s-pawed fields.
I will plant trees, an orchard
at the forest verge, will feed the deer
on mast, will prune the watersprouts
for kindling. A cultivated wild,
a sweet disorder carefully distilled
and in spring the wind will shift,
will drive fallen plum blossoms
before the livid dawn.

Is a humane online politics possible?

The Internet and real life are different.

More specifically: political discussions, or for that matter discussions about any contestable topic, differ greatly in their online and offline dynamics.

Here’s an example. Say you’re talking with some friends at a café. One of your friends overhears a conversation at another table, gets offended, and starts arguing with the folks at that table. So far, not an impossible thing in real life. I imagine we’ve all overheard things in public places that got our blood boiling, and perhaps even regretted that we didn’t confront the racists in the corner booth, or whatever.

But it doesn’t end there. The conversation at your table starts to shift course, so that now you’re talking about the people at that other table, whether they’re right or wrong, and your friend that started the cross-tabular conversation is now standing near their table, arguing. He beckons to you to come over and join him. If you’re reluctant, he comes back to your table and quotes inflammatory material said at the offending table, and points your way over there.

At this point, you’ll pretty much have decided, if you’re like me, that your friend is an asshole.

Of course, maybe café tables aren’t the best metaphor for blogs. After all, most blogs at least theoretically welcome newcomers, while café tables are often inhabited by people who just really want to talk among themselves. Maybe the better metaphor is a set of bars with closed-circuit televisions, and exhortations to go to the place across the street and join the barfight already in progress. Or an Episcopalian congregation leading an insurgent raid on the Latter-Day Saints Temple. I’m sure there’s something better.

The point is, what would be looked at as an act of aggression in real life is taken as standard operating procedure in the blog world.

It’s not even necessarily seen, or intended, as a hostile act, this rousing of people to go over and join in a conversation somewhere else. I know I’ve done so with nothing but sterling and benevolent intent in the past, aiming various firehoses of traffic at threads whose owners weren’t expecting so many guests. That practice has a name: “linklove.” It’s the strength of the web, after all, the core of the whole concept, this linking.

And I’m certainly not for a second suggesting that linking to good things ought to be seen as destructive. That’d be silly. How much have I learned from other people’s links? Reading people like Kevin, like Dave, like Lauren and Jennifer?

But there’s something about the widespread practice of negative linking that seems inevitably to lead to dog-piling. It makes sense. People are much more likely to take the trouble to write something when they’re upset. How often do you see letters to the editor praising the paper for their coverage of an issue? Factor in the relative ease and speed with which links propagate throughout the web, and you have the Atrocity Of The Week phenomenon.

And sometimes, you know, the AOTW really is atrocious. Sometimes the negative links direct attention to things that need to be addressed, to offenses that would have flown under the collective radar in offline life, and sometimes the mass uproar that follows educates people who would not have been reached by position papers. As a glorified phone tree to alert people to actions that need to be taken to combat short-term horribles, the net is a wonderful thing.

It’s just that it seems to me that there’s a threshold of linkage beyond which political discussions, as opposed to political alerts, become less than useful over time. I’m not suggesting any hard and fast metrics, but I do know that some of the most useful, challenging, rewarding and worthwhile conversations I’ve read online have taken place among regular readers of the blog in question, and I know that I’ve seen outside linkage derail more useful and enlightening conversations than I can count.

All this said, it’s not really the links that constitute the problem. They just facilitate it. The problem is the kind of behavior that is, advertently or in-, rewarded in the blog world, and the people that exhibit it, myself included on an embarrassingly frequent basis. With enough links to form a critical mass, a discussion becomes a target for the drive-by bombthrowers, the narcissist derailers, the wounded arrogant martyrs and their sycophants, the one-liner snarksters, the social-climbing blog-pimps. Not a single online demographic fails to possess most of these types, from racist reactionaries to radical women of color to shallow A-List mainstreamers and their toadies to misanthropic dog-and-desert nature poetry bloggers.

These people exist in real life too, and chances are that the net factor merely exacerbates an existing condition. I know I’ve been the annoying joke guy in real-life situations far too often, for instance, and I only pick that trait because I don’t really want to think about how many times I’ve also been a narcissist derailer.

But here’s the thing I’m thinking, and tell me if you think this seems too far off: in real life, such behavior is tolerated.

Online, it’s rewarded.

It’s rewarded, and combined with the dogpile dynamic, it creates conditions in which no forward motion is possible. A discussion of the Atrocity Of The Month becomes an argument, and not an argument among two or three discrete positions, but an argument in which hundreds of distinct positions are grouped into two or three rough tendencies, with each of the arguments in a tendency undercut by its putative allies. Anyone wanting only to win an argument rather than to engage need only pick out the most extreme statement on another side — and there will always be one — and either cast it as a ridiculous statement that represents the entire spectrum of the arguer’s opponents, or as the only real question being discussed.

Which means the people who stomp around doing actual harm, who commit actual lies and theft of words and ideas, actually enriching their status at the cost of making their prey’s lives smaller, get to excuse their actions by pointing to the misstatements of a few overzealous people on the other side.

Nuance is lost in the shouting. The crucial subtleties that characterize actual politics in the real world are ignored, when they are not actively dismissed with the call of “which side are you on?” Broad statements are set in opposition to one another, and the notion that both could be true — to take a recent example, the notion that the statements “Islam as often practiced is a reactionary ideology responsible for the brutal mistreatment of Muslim women” and “Anti-Islam sentiment in the US is usually odiously racist in nature” might both be equally valid — that kind of complicated thinking is dismissed with a wave and a snarky comment.

And so I wonder. Is a humane online politics possible, where reasonable differences of opinion are respected, where the goal is to exchange viewpoints and learn from one another and move forward? If so, is it necessarily restricted to venues where the traffic firehoses don’t reach? Is a humane online politics the stereotyped Mesozoic mammal always hiding in the underbrush while the Snarkosaurs and Sitemetrodons rampage out in the sunlight? I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise by any optimists among CRN regulars.

Lichen on pallid manzanita

lichen on manzanita

There are two places in the world to which this manzanita, Arctostaphylos pallida, is native. One is a small part of the Oakland hills in and near the Huckleberry Regional Botanic Preserve. The other is where Matthew and I hiked yesterday, on Sobrante Ridge.

I haven’t been there in so long.

The species’ habitat is mostly protected from development, though some of the Oakland Hills stand is on private land, and a few got cut down to the ground by utility right-of-way brush clearers in 1992. (I found the amputated limbs lying by the roadside a day later. I don’t think anyone ever paid for that particular crime.) But a couple good fires with bad recovery conditions following, or a five degree increase in average temperature combined with more summer precipitation (a strong possibility on the coast) and these plants could be in serious trouble.

Those are possibilities, though. We sat beneath the current reality yesterday:

Pallid manzanita berries
Seeing new growth and a new potential generation on an endangered species: a good feeling.