Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Price of Gas

I received a call from a friend yesterday, and for the third time this week, I found myself listening to someone who bitched long and loud about the high price of gas, the greed of the oil companies, and the latest bumbling in Washington. I’ve heard so many friends parrot this same spiel that I’d like to throw my $0.02 out there.

Yes, the price of gas is taking a huge bite out of everyone’s pocketbook. Not only at the pumps, but goods on the store shelves are escalating in price because it is more expensive to transport those goods. Whether you blame the White House, the oil companies, or the American consumer, the result is the same: the price of gas is not coming down until you, the consumer, force the price of gas down. How? Stop driving!

I don’t need my B.S. in Economics to understand this issue is a simple problem of supply and demand. Neither the oil rich nations nor the oil companies will lower the price as long as they can sell their entire inventory at these inflated prices. That’s simple business. As long as consumers guzzle expensive gas as fast as the oil companies can produce it, the price will remain high.

Think about it, if everyone in America cut their driving in half, what would the results be? When demand goes down, supply goes up. Elementary. Within a week, oil inventories would double, causing the price to fall. If consumers are smart, and continue on half-ration driving, within a month, the oil companies would be drowning in too much supply. The cost per gallon would free fall to half of today’s prices.

The real problem, of course, is that no body wants to cut back on driving. No one wants to be unconvinced. We want life in the fast lane and we want it for pennies. Well guess what, those days are long gone. If you want gas prices to drop, then you, everyone, must be inconvenienced to some degree. We can’t bring prices down without a little pain. Cutting your driving in half could be as simple as taking the bus or carpooling to work, rather than driving. Or just sitting down at the beginning of the week to plan the week’s driving, examining where tasks can be combined to two or three tasks in one trip. Perhaps postponing that driving trip and spending more time close to home. And by all means, park that humongous gas guzzling SUV until hell freezes over.

People in America as well as other countries are suffering because consumers continue to drive without a thought, no matter what it costs, thus driving the price so high that poor people have to go without basic needs.

How long will people continue to suffer before we stop rewarding the oil companies with windfall profits? How painful must it get before you, the consumer, cuts back, to actually deprive yourself of that night out on the town or the Sunday drive to your mother’s house? How many families will suffer before we, as a society, say enough, and revert to more conservative driving habits?

This is an issue that involves us all, and it will take all of us to solve it.

At the risk of sounding superior, which is certainly not my intention, I can say that over the past year, my lover and I have indeed cut our driving in half. We never drive the car for just one errand, choosing instead to combine two or three errands each trip we make in our car. And where we use to drive into the city -- a 60 mile round trip -- three or more times a week, we now limit ourselves to once a week.

If you agree with me, please, let people know, get people talking about it. It’s time for our nation to act, each and every one of us. We, individually, can make a difference. It’s good for the poor, it’s good for our own pocketbook, it’s good for the country, it’s good for the planet.….

Monday, March 17, 2008

Are Gay Bookstores Going the way of Vinyl Records?

A gay novelist friend of mine, knowing that I have a debut novel coming out in July, emailed me the following article:

Baltimore: End of a Bookstore; Beginning of a Bookstor
===From Shelf Awareness, February 15, 2008===
Lambda Rising Bookstore is closing its Baltimore location in the near future. Lambda has stores in Washington, D.C., and Rehoboth Beach, Del. It closed its Norfolk, Va., store in June 2007.
Lambda owner Deacon Maccubbin blamed the Internet and chain stores for declining sales over the past 10 years at the Baltimore store. According to Maccubbin, support for specialty bookstores like Lambda Raising, which caters to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, has been waning.
"I'm afraid the glbt community in Baltimore just has not been supporting the store as they used to. The downward trend in the past 12 months has been sufficient to convince me that it would be unwise to continue," Maccubbin said, adding that he was very proud of the Baltimore store, which has been in business for over 22 years.
The store originally occupied 300 square feet in a local glbt community center. By 1989, Lambda Raising had expanded to 1,200 square feet and was the hub of many glbt cultural activities in downtown Baltimore.

Unfortunately, for the majority of independent GLTB bookstores, this is becoming an all too common occurrence. In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, these bookstores were not only the one place gay and lesbian readers could buy gay books, but these stores also served as community hubs where gay and lesbians gathered to socialize and organize. They helped to give the whole community a sense of identity. But over the past ten years, a fairly larger percentage of these bookstores have either closed or are hanging on by a thread.

For years, gay people have been quick to blame the big chain bookstores for the death of GLTB-owned bookstores, and that sounds like the most viable answer. But is it? If you check the shelves of Borders or B&N, you’ll find at best, an anemic selection of GLBT titles to choose from, whereas the GLTB bookstores have several thousand titles. They are clearly not serving the same market.

I would like to suggest that there are a few other issues that are twisting the knife in the independent GLTB-book retailers’ bellies.

The first has to do with a fundamental shift in reading habits that affect all book retailers, including the big chains. According to an article in the December 24, 2007 New Yorker, in 1982 56.9% of Americans said they had read a work of creative literature in the past 12 months. That number fell 20% by 2002. Between 2001 and 2006, books sold per person in the U.S. fell from 8.27 to 7.93. Finally, in 1995 an average of $163 was spent per household on reading materials. That average dropped to $126 in 2005. My point, obviously, is that people in general are reading less. Book sales continue to decline in the U.S and elsewhere.

A more important issue is that books don’t play the same role in our social conditioning that they did a few decades ago. In the seventies and eighties, books played a major role in shaping the gay experience. Books were the only media that exposed gay life and gay people, and were, in a sense, the place we all learned what being gay was all about. Many of us old-timers remember that the first place we went after coming out were GLTB bookstores, places like Outwrite in Atlanta, Obelisk in San Diego, and A different Light in L.A. and San Francisco.
Teens and twenty-somethings today are exposed to different media that contributes to the contemporary social fabric. They explore the gay experience via the internet, movies, television, plays, and gay celebrities. It is these elements of the tech culture that show young people a world they can inhabit as a GLBT person. We had The Persian Boy and The Front Runner, young people today have Brokeback Mountain, Big Eden, gay-positive blogs, gay artists downloaded to their IPod, and YouTube. Not to minimize the importance of books in today’s culture, there are just so many other media outlets where gays and lesbians can see themselves.

Another reason for the declining number of GLBT-owned bookstores, and bars for that matter, is that, decades ago, they were our only “third place” for GLBT communities. Third places are the institutions outside the home (first place) and work (second place) where gays and lesbians could feel a sense of community, where people, activists, and community leaders congregated. A friend from Texas recently emailed me that the Dallas gay-community paper lists more than 50 spiritual groups and churches, 36 social organizations, 4 political groups, and 24 sports associations made up of hundreds of teams. I won’t even try to list all the online communities on Myspace, blogspot and others. The choices for socialization that are available to gay people today are staggering. Gay people have come out of the closet and are integrating into the larger community. And in doing so, they no longer use those bookstores for socializing.

Finally, I would like to mention the cost savings and convenience of shopping online. To buy books at the closest GLTB-owned independent bookstore, I have to drive sixty miles round trip and cross over the Golden Gate Bridge. That costs me a $5.00 bridge toll, $12 in gas, and two hours of driving time. With what I save in bridge toll, gas, Amazon’s cheaper prices, and no sales tax, I can buy an additional two to three books. On Amazon, I can buy used books and at a fraction of the normal bookstore cost. And not just books, but also GLTB movies, TV series, CDs by queer artists, and much more.
The internet continues to change the business models for sales of ANY item. Without a storefront, online sellers have vastly reduced expenses and are therefore able to give deep discounts. Customers often want to pay the least amount possible for an item, and who can blame them? Everybody wants a good deal.
Most independent bookstores can’t offer the competitive and attractive financial breaks on the cost of books that the big chains and Amazon can, so unless they change their business model, they are looking at a very grim future.

For the GLTB independent bookstores to survive, two key questions must be answered:
The first question the independent-store owners must ask themselves: What can they offer that the online sellers and superstores don’t have? A few options are: give fantastic customer service, have frequent book readings by queer authors, take an active role in the GLBT community, strive to become a community gathering place once again, sell online as well, and/or sell products and services other than books. The person who successfully answers this question is the one who could very well save the GLBT bookstores from extinction.
The second question needs to be asked by the gay community in which these stores are located: Is it important for the gay community to preserve these stores, as places that add value to the gay community and give a sense of identity to gay people? If the answer is yes, then the gay community -- all gay people -- need to keep these places alive and flourishing by frequenting these stores and buying their merchandise. It is up to the gay community to act, with their dollars. So what if it’s $1.39 cheaper at the mall or easier online? If we allow these stores to go under, we will have lost something valuable to our community, and something we probably will not be able to bring back.
Keep in mind that the big corporations are not interested in promoting gay and lesbian authors like the independents do. For queer authors, it is very difficult to arrange book signings and readings anywhere except the independents. And try getting Borders or B&N to display a gay-authored book anywhere except some dark corner in the back. So by supporting the GLTB bookstores, your dollars also go to support queer writers and queer-friendly publishers. Now, isn’t that worth a few extra dollars?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Book Review - Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Brian Lackey, age of eight, is at his little league game one minute, and the next thing he knows, he’s in a crawl space under the stairs at his home. He lost five hours that he can’t account for. Years later, through a series of events, he begins to believe he was abducted by aliens during those five hours. He begins a search to find out exactly what happened to him, and he finds that Neil McCormick is the key to unlock his mystery. Neil McCormick is a teenaged male hustler, who played on the same little league team as Brain.
This novel presents two story lines about two boys who experience a series deeply disturbing events. The boys are affected in radically different ways, and both are driven in unimaginable opposite directions. But these two paths, born of the same horror, must converge at some future point in order for these boys to confront their past. The two story lines are recounted in the first person by each boy. The alternating perspectives of the boys drive home the sense of how alone they are, and that they can’t share their experience with anybody but each other.

Mysterious Skin is not a story for the morally squeamish. It deals intelligently with a subject not often encountered in literature. It presents graphic sex scenes which could disturb the faint of heart, but they are needed to present the greater theme of people victimized by situations out of their control, and how that damage expresses itself in later life.

The characters are chillingly believable. The descriptions are often intimate and beautiful. I must say that this is one of the few times I’ve enjoyed the movie more than the book, and I think that is because I waded through a lot of description that didn’t add much to the story, where as the movie cut all that out.
Another issue I had with the story is that there are more narrators than the two boys. The boys are the central narrators, but there are others, done in first person, which seem more annoying than confusing. My feeling was I wanted to get the story from the boys, and the other got in the way. Those minor issues aside, I do highly recommend this disturbing, thought-provoking, and worthwhile read.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Gay-marriage ban in the hands of key justices

We gay couples in California have been biding our time, waiting for public opinion to shift in our favor. We know that eventually, the state’s ban on same-sex marriage will be lifted, but many gay couples, activists, and lawyers are tired of waiting. They are pushing for change now, and they are taking a calculated risk.

By pressing the state Supreme Court to strike down the laws banning gay marriage, they are gambling that the voters who are slowly coming around to our side, will not retaliate because of a court legislated overturn. It’s not clear if the court will strike down the ban, and if they do, what the straight voter reaction will be. But one thing is certain, we will soon find out.

Last Tuesday, the seven-member court heard the case, and they appear to be closely divided. Two or three justices seemed to be in favor of overturning the ban, the same number appeared to lean towards the status quo. So it seems that the fate of same-sex marriage in California now rests in the hands of a few fence sitters.

The arguments are pretty straightforward. The gay lawyers argue that there is no difference between same-sex marriage and mixed-race marriage, and no one would dare to go back to the days of outlawing mixed-race marriages. The opposition, lawyers for a conservative Christian group fighting to preserve the status quo, argued that overturning the ban would undermine traditional marriage, and create a system that would no longer be recognizable as marriage.

It is difficult to comprehend why the legal union of two people who love one another would undermine marriages between men and women. It seems to me that the opposite is true, that the proliferation of unwed partners undermines the institution of marriage. This argument is clearly a veil that covers the true motive: straight people want to pretend that they are somehow superior to gays, so they are fighting hard to not give us equal rights under the law. It’s sad, really, the effort by some Christian groups to maintain at any cost this illusion that they are in any way superior to others. It seems to me that if Christians spent more energy adhering to the teaching of their savior, then people the world over would have equal status under the law, hunger and poverty would be wiped out completely, there would be no need for military action, and no child would go unloved. But of course, that’s not the case, because so many Christians prefer to feel superior, rather than act in a superior way.

There are some justices who seemed troubled by the idea of the court intervening in what they suggested might be an issue better decided by the electorate or the Legislature. And if they hold to that position, then the court may very well preserve the status quo.

Another possibility could be that they strike down the entire ban and force the Legislature to create new laws from scratch, which would most likely legalize same-sex marriage. It could also open up another avenue: the privatization of marriage. Marriages, after all, are simply contracts between individuals that the state has determined deserves special consideration under the law. We could best avoid the entire debate over traditional vs. gay marriage by leaving the decision of how to structure marriage to the people involved -- and leave the government out of it. That is, have the state only recognize civil unions, and not marriages, for all couples, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. For couples who feel the need to be “married” they can still go to the church and perform that ritual, but the state would not recognize that service. That takes the government out of the business of deciding who, and who can’t, be married, and leaves the decision to the individuals.

But that is, undoubtedly, too much to hope for.