Armchair BEA 2012 – Day 4 (catching up) – Beyond the Blog

Yesterday was a bit nuts, but I am determined to catch up today.

Yesterday was day 4 of Book Expo America, in which I am participating virtually via Armchair BEA.  Today’s (yesterday’s) writing topic asks us to look beyond the blog for opportunities or tips to expand one’s writing to other communities online or in print or to expand one’s blog to be a source of income.  “Have you done any freelance writing?  Are you monetizing your blog and how so?  How do you make connections outside the book blog community on the Internet?  If none of these apply, we’d love for you to share a fun aspect about your blog or life that may be completely separate from books!”

I write and edit all day long as part of my job, but I don’t imagine anyone would be all that thrilled to hear about the number of business letters I have occasion to write.  The editing I do is even less sexy than writing business letters.  Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy taking a whole bunch of crazy and transforming it into standard written English, but that’s me.  I’d be happy eating oatmeal every day.  I’m just one of those people.  Given that the non-blog writing that I do is generally uninteresting, that I am not monetizing my blog, and that I have few connections either within or without the book blog community on the Internet, I figured I’d tell a cautionary tale about writing, editing, and managing difficult interpersonal relationships and about how I’ve failed at all three over the years (but in a fun way).

When I was in high school, I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper and the sole contributor to the opinion page.  I wrote some crazy nonsense, and I still can’t believe that the school was willing to publish it every month and distribute it to all the students.  My favorite regular column was the advice column, “Dear Wildcat.”  In the first month, I couldn’t get anyone to submit questions, so, lacking patience, I decided to scrap the idea to answer real questions from students and just made up my own questions to answer.  I was 17 and writing both sides of the conversation… you can probably guess how that went.  All told, it was a great experience, but I learned that I’m best at humor writing, so a career in serious journalism was never in the cards for me.

During my stint as editor-in-chief, I also learned that I am a terrible manager.  I’m pretty much like Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I micromanage and am convinced that I can play all the roles, simultaneously, better than anyone else.  It’s a problem.  When I discovered that the other students had no talent for writing and didn’t understand even basic English grammar, my natural response was to write all of the articles myself and just give writing credit to the other students, because that was easier than trying to manage the process of editing and collecting final drafts (that were often still not quite written in standard American English…).  The students who wrote for the paper were terrible writers, for sure, but I was so much worse as a manager than they ever were as writers, sentences like, “The Akil has improve is by working harder” notwithstanding.

Even when I’m not in any way responsible for the material that gets published, it still drives me absolutely batty to come across published material that could have been written by a monkey.  About a decade ago, a guy who knows my dad purchased a community newspaper and tried his hand at publishing.  He had grand plans to transform the newspaper into a community information hub for the San Gabriel Valley area of LA County, but his newspaper was so terrible!  After the first edition, I wrote a letter to the editor requesting that he hire a copy editor.  He ignored me and proceeded to publish another edition that was full of grammatical crazy.  I wrote another letter to the editor that referenced the number of grammar and spelling (!) errors and begged him to hire a copy editor.  He ignored me and published another edition.  I, full of 22-year-old righteous indignation, took a red pen to his newspaper and mailed it back to him.  He ignored me.  I kept it up for another three months until he called my dad (!!) and asked him to tell me to stop sending him proofread copies of his newspaper.  At that point, after six months, I finally realized that he didn’t care about the quality of what he was publishing, and I was fighting an unwinnable battle.

I’m ten years older now and a lot more mellow.  Even so, it drives me wonky when I read a book, even a free one, and encounter truly stupid errors, but I no longer ride out on my steed of grammatical justice to defend the honor of the English language every time I read a book that was published without the benefit of a competent editor (every other time, maybe).  So, yeah, I’ve mellowed, but I still have a tendency to be very critical of what I read.  I suspect that the hyper-criticism that comes naturally to me could be off-putting to many (particularly authors and publishers).  But I’m not really writing a review blog here, so maybe it’s moot.

Days off in Monrovia – perfect weather and grilled cheese with bacon

I just had a three-day weekend.  I didn’t exactly go anywhere or do anything amazing, but that one extra day of sleeping in and loafing about made a profound impact on my Monday morning outlook.  I feel sanguine about the coming week.  I will accomplish everything on my to-do list.  I will remember to smile and laugh  more often.  I will be a better person.

Counter and menu board at Monrovia's The Market Grill

Perhaps it’s ridiculous to attach so much importance to one extra day off.  Even without the extra day, this past weekend would have been great.  On Saturday and Sunday, I painted my nails, bought new bras (that alone is enough to impact my outlook on life), spent time with family, enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance of a full processional on Palm Sunday (it was glorious…), took deep breaths of after-rain air, and had chocolate pie!  That’s a great list of weekend accomplishments, but the day before the weekend officially started, I got to sleep in and then I went to my favorite burger joint (although I had the grown-up grilled cheese–with bacon!–rather than a burger) and, after that deliciousness, went to see a movie with my honey.  I know I’m belaboring a stupid point, but my weekend was simply 33% more awesome than it would have been otherwise.

The view facing north, across the street from my parents' house. Overnight rain plus Santa Ana winds equals beautiful weather.

Yesterday was a beautiful day in Monrovia.  I always get excited whenever the clouds cast shadows on the foothills.  I call it El Greco weather, because it reminds me of one of my favorite paintings, View of Toledo by El Greco.  It’s a bit silly that I have this mental connection, because Monrovia doesn’t look a damn thing like El Greco’s Toledo, but the dappled effect of light and shadow in the one view always reminds me of the other.

View of Toledo, El Greco - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Where we are (and where we were) informs who we are.  I simply can’t look at Monrovia’s foothills with objective eyes, because when I see them, I see not only what they look like now but what they looked like every time I looked north in the twenty years I lived there.  All those pictures overlap in my mind, creating a sort of mental collage overlay through which I see their current incarnation.  And, strange as it may seem, El Greco’s View of Toledo is one of the layers of that odd overlay.  In my interactions with the world, I wonder how much of my perception of the here and now is influenced by my recollections of the past.  When I look at a friend, am I ever able to see who he really is today, or am I blinded by that overlay of everything I thought he was before?  Of course, that’s assuming that the overlay is a negative thing, an obscuring thing.  I’d prefer to think that it enables me to see the world (or portions of it) in greater detail than would otherwise be available. Instead of blinding me to the present, perhaps all those accumulated perceptions help direct my attention to nuances that may help me to understand both the current picture and all the images that came before.

For example, in the case of the Monrovia foothills, my overlay of recollections enables me to recognize changes wrought on the foothills by time, weather, land development, etc.  Those foothills are not exactly as they were twenty years ago, and I would not be able to appreciate that fact in a personal way if I did not have my recollections to serve as a comparison.  There are, of course, historical photographs of these foothills, documenting the changes in an impersonal way, but when I stand on the sidewalk outside my parents’ house and look north, I am able to perceive not only the changes wrought by time in the foothills but also in myself.

I suppose it is the same in the example of the hypothetical friend.  If we take a moment to be still and look at one another and see the image proffered by the present day as well as all of the images that came before, we have the opportunity to struggle to differentiate between all of those different images of the object of our attention (the hypothetical friend) and to determine what those images might tell us about our own selves.  It means something that when I return to my parents’ house, I take a moment to stand out on the sidewalk and look north at the foothills.  It means something that when I look at a friend, I notice certain details rather than others.

My husband would say that I’m thinking too much (he’d be right).

Elizabeth and Hazel – a follow up with thoughts on education and race

I’m a wee bit behind on my reflections and analysis.  I took a vacation to New York City (lovely) and have been on a mental vacation ever since, perhaps recovering from my vacation, perhaps recovering from the strain of living every day.  At any rate, I haven’t been in any position to write coherently about anything.

The final meeting of my workplace book club was on March 7, and, since we had already finished discussing the book, we met to watch an HBO special, “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later”.  The documentary was a good companion piece for the book because, rather than focusing on the picture and on the microstory of Elizabeth and Hazel, the documentary focused on Little Rock Central High, how it had changed in fifty years, and what still needs to change.  Frankly, by the end of the book, I was done with both Elizabeth and Hazel, so I welcomed the related but different subject matter.

I was able to watch only the first fifty minutes of the documentary, so I can’t comment on the entire thing, but the portion that I watched focused on the disparity between the success of desegregation and the failure of educational equality.  Central High’s racial demographic was, in 2007, approximately 60% black, 40% white.  If one looks only at that percentage, one could smugly assume that desegregation was successful, that black students won, so to speak.  There are, after all, more black students than white at Central High.  The thing is, percentages don’t really mean anything because they provide quantitative information rather than qualitative.

Here are some other figures.  In 2007, the racial demographic of remedial classes was 95% black, and the racial demographic of AP classes was 95% white.  This figure, of course, doesn’t really mean anything on its own.  One could conclude all sorts of awful things: are the black students at Central High simply unprepared, are they deficient in some way, or does it have more to do with wealth than with race?  What influence does culture have on the educational outcomes of black and white students at Central?  And (here’s a big question) do the black students at Central actually receive a better education than they would have gotten from a segregated school?

The documentary features interviews with students (white and black) and teachers (white and black, AP and remedial) and parents.  It follows students from their neighborhoods, the wealthy ones predominantly white and the poor ones predominantly black, to school.  It discusses some of the social problems that plague black students (poverty, teenage parenthood, nowhere to go, etc.) and discusses the difference between the goals and aspirations of the poor students (nearly all black) and the wealthy students.  The wealthy families presuppose success for their children, which, as with most self-fulfilling prophesies, tends to result in success for wealthy students.  Poor families tend to assume that their children will continue in a like condition, which tends to result in exactly that outcome.

Anyway, why do I care about Little Rock Central High?  I’ve never even been to Arkansas.  The thing is, when I was watching the video, I was strongly reminded of my own high school experience.  My family is not particularly wealthy, but I was privately educated through 4th grade, and my parents certainly had expectations of success for me and my sister.  When I entered the public education system in Monrovia for my 5th grade year, it was immediately evident to the educators that I was one of the smart ones, so I was whisked into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program then in use in the district (no idea if it’s still in use).  From 5th until 8th grade, I benefited from the best teachers and the most challenging curricula.  It was natural that I would enter the honors track when I arrived at high school, and it was inevitable that I would take AP classes and go on to college.  So there you go: my entire educational trajectory was decided in Kindergarten when my parents scrimped and saved and sometimes starved in order to send us to the private school.

The other interesting little factoid relating to my educational experience: in my GATE classes in junior high, I think there were 3-4 black students, 2-3 Hispanic students, and the rest of the 30 or so students were white.  The neighborhoods from which my junior high pulled students were either predominantly white (north of Foothill Blvd) or an even mix of black and Hispanic (south of Foothill).  The Asian population was negligible in that area.  By the time I got to the high school, even though the populations of nonwhite students dramatically increased (being from the entire city rather than just the northeastern portion), I recall fewer than 5 black students overall in the honors program (9th and 10th grade) and only 1 black student in my AP classes (11th and 12th grade).  So Little Rock Central High might be really far away, but the educational outcomes from that school mirror those of Monrovia High in sunny southern California.

I don’t know what it means, really.  It’s impossible to look at recollections and form firm conclusions.  Recollections are just too nebulous.  Maybe it means that household wealth is a strong determinant in educational success.  After all, that 1 black student from my AP classes was from an extremely wealthy family.  She went on to do undergrad at Johns Hopkins and is now a lawyer.  Maybe it means that there is a combination of racial preference at an early age and household wealth.  After all, my parents were not wealthy, but I received the full benefit of the best education possible in the Monrovia school system.  Maybe, if I’d been black or Hispanic, the administrators at the public elementary school to which I transferred in 5th grade would not have noticed or recognized that I was GATE material.  Who the hell knows?

I feel extremely grateful that I received such a good education, considering what little I’ve done with it.  When I think back on all that occurred, I feel a sense of sadness and helplessness.  I would wish everyone, regardless of race or gender (or anything else), to receive a good education, to experience the freedom of knowledge and critical thought.  It saddens me that so many people are taught only to follow directions, not to think for themselves.  It is depressing that there are adults who make it through the school system without mastering literacy.  That feeling of helplessness results from the reflection that my own excellent education largely derived from my separation from all the normal folk.  By taking classes only with other smart kids, I was able to learn how to think, how to speak intelligently, how to question accepted norms.  Would I have been able to learn those things if education were more egalitarian?  Does that make me a terrible hypocrite for wanting other people to have had a similar opportunity but not at the cost of my precious educational elitism?  It may be that there is no answer to that question.