Author Archives: Jen

The Nine Types of Facebook Friends

Someone on Facebook recently asked, in a sweet and open-ended manner, what we had learned from using Facebook.

I was the only one who gave a dark, sarcastic answer; the other respondents reported scores of glowing side-benefits that I found a bit hard to swallow.

Really?  You’ve “never learned so much about yourself”?  Get thee to a tennis camp!

But then I started wondering how I really “knew” the people on my Facebook roster.  My conceptions of these complex human beings had been reduced to scrolling thumbnails.

I don’t want to think of people this way.  And certainly I don’t want them to think of me this way.

Maybe if I wiped the folders and categories and stereotypes from my mind by getting them out on the page, I could start to question this third-party arrangement of my brain (with which—yes!—I am complicit!).

Either that, or feel relieved when people admitted they have pretty much these exact same friends and mental friend-folders.

The Nine Types of Facebook Friends

The Rage-Addicted Radical.  For whom every microscopic twitch of reality is further evidence of another goddamned outrage sending us all straight to flame-puking hell.  Jesus do these people love social media.

I’d like to say they’ve got their hearts in the right place, but lately I’m not so sure about the heart part.  Enough righteous vitriol, and they start seeming like one more usherette in the Grand Theatre of Fist-Shaking Freakery that now stands in for a proper political culture.

The Pit Viper.  This person is just fucking angry as a sort of identity.  People are worthless assholes, life is a meaningless hell, it’s all just going down the toilet so what’s the point?

Thing is, when you meet these folks in person, they can be total sweethearts.  It’s just something about being able to instantly post and be seen by hundreds of people that pulls their worst triggers.

The Guy Who Never Quite Came Down from That Ecstasy Binge in the Nineties.  His keyboard seems to have about twelve different exclamation-points, all of which stick like the dickens.  I truly believe!!!  That if we just keep believing!!!  Then we’ll keep believing!!!  In what we believe!!!  OMG we must move forward into our vision!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Pet Owner.  ’nuff said.  Kitty pics make the world go round, but veer off into lapdog territory and you risk becoming my Hide-bait.

The Arts Angel.  Endlessly supportive and positive arts-scene cheerleader, tirelessly cheering others on in their seemingly doomed creative endeavors.  The Arts Angel makes me feel like Satan, a hypercritical troll sneering on the margins, knowing others are basking in the glory that would be mine if I could just get my ass in gear once and for all.  Darn you all to heck, Arts Angels.

The Newly Minted Lover.  Nothing personal, but if you announce a new relationship, I’m hiding you for at least a year.  Especially if you’re a dude who fancies himself a bit of an artiste behind the lens.  You’ll understand if I have better things to do than look at 254,234 photos of your girlfriend with that same sunlight-halo effect you learned in the high school darkroom.

The “I Can’t Even Remember Who the Hell You Are” Friends.  What if there were some sort of amnesty day where you could just purge your roster of people you met once at a thing you didn’t even enjoy five years ago, and who probably don’t remember who the hell you are, either?  They could call it No Hard Feelings Day.  And brand it with kitty pics.

The “Living, Breathing Smiths Poster” Friend.  Guilty as charged.  Admit it, you’ve wanted to Hide that friend who’s always soaking deep in the bummer-tub—and you’ve been that friend, too.

Yet a free-therapy concept is at the heart of Facebook’s addictive design.  Others’ easy confessions beg you to spill the emotional beans—but go there one too many times yourself and suddenly you’ve tipped yourself off the boat.  You can be authentic, but not too authentic.

Don’t fret—eventually, between carrot and stick, you will get badgered into Facebook authenticity, which will eventually get grafted onto and overtake your entire personality.  Epic, bro!

The Modern Sages.  These are folks who seem incapable of posting anything stupid or thoughtless; who present their pop-culture obsessions with a bit of endearing self-effacement; whose cutting humor is tempered with sympathy and good sense; and who can present a strong social or political point without stridency.  They are broadly informed, honest, and eager to meet others where they are.

They are Canadians.

No, I’m just kidding.

Or am I?

Seriously, the Modern Sages on my Facebook roster are, precisely, a Midwesterner and a gay man.  I’m not sure why we give these two groups such a bad time.  Would that we had more gay man and Midwesterner within!

What seems to define the Modern Sages is a questioning attitude toward the social-media platform itself, a healthy distance allowing them to see its charms and limitations objectively.

Conversely, those who live on Facebook, posting seven or more times a day, are the ones most likely to degrade both the platform and themselves.

If I could spend more time in person with the Modern Sages, then I could probably handle a barbecue with the Pit Vipers and the Ecstasy Guys.

And if everyone spent less time on Facebook, I think I could handle just about anybody.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

“Talk” Ain’t Cheap

Cover of Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz. NYRB, 2015. Photo: James Dugdale.

H’m, which books to take on your summer writing retreat out in the woods?

You feel obliged to take some heavy, Teutonic hunk o’ pumpernickel like Thomas Mann—something you couldn’t possibly sink into in the City.  You need to flex all those atrophying neural muscles going to fat from too many YouTube lunch breaks and Facebook memes.

But even the most brow-knitting wordsmith needs some intellectual cotton candy to sweeten those long hours of solitary toil.  Something fun that isn’t dumb.

Which is surprisingly difficult to find.

Enter Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk, a New York Review Books reprint of a 1968 “novel” whose technological gimmick of simply transcribing tape recordings of real-life beach chat in the Hamptons would seem to predate reality TV by several decades.

The characters of Talk, two straight women and a gay man knocking about in the lower echelons of the New York art world, could be lifted straight from a current-day HBO dramedy.  Vinnie is a sculptor, Emily is an actress, and Marsha works for Sotheby’s.

But it’s summer 1965.  What sets Talk apart as a cultural artifact is the wide-ranging content and quality of the actual chat.  It’s almost poignant to ride on the roller coaster of their literate, bitchy, hilarious, sometimes contemptible banter in an age when entire books are devoted to the fact that the joys of conversation are quickly disappearing from our midst.

But that’s half the pleasure of the read.  Delving into chapters with titles like “Emily, Marsha and Vincent Discuss Orgies,” you feel as though you, too, are lying on Long Island in blinding heat, slaked with Coppertone and whining about how there was “nobody” at Sebastien’s party last night.  Topics can switch gears instantly from the impossibility of love, to why ice floats, to food, to money, to meeting God on an LSD trip.  A monologue on the nature of reality can provoke the retort, “Hey, is there any more lemonade?”

These three erstwhile children of the night are endlessly entertaining but whether or not they’re sympathetic is a tougher call.  True, they’re self-described “pioneers” of social and sexual freedom, but they’re also unhappy, self-obsessed basket cases, each in therapy and unable to find love or success.  Others in their peer group around this time were fighting against the Vietnam War or for civil rights; the biggest struggle for this lot is securing the primo spot on the beach and trying not to pop too many pills before Veruschka’s party.

Perversely, that’s just what makes Talk such wonderful dinner-break company when you’re slogging away on a manuscript in a lonely cabin.  Of all the historical miseries, perhaps theirs were the most enviable.  Who doesn’t want to be Emily quipping:  Look, Marshie, we’re two beautiful women and we have to start making inroads?

This voyeuristic literary experiment ranks my discerning shortlist of summer-reading gold.  With Talk lying around the cabin like an eyeliner-splashing divorcée on downers, let’s face it:  that Thomas Mann is never going to see the outside of your knapsack.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

All These Weird Creatures Who Lock Up Their Spirits

Budapest shop cat.  © 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The more I see of this president, the more intelligent I’m starting to think animals are.

This is not, by association, to insult animals in any way.  Nor to romanticize them.  The animal kingdom is as cruel as it is beautiful.  It’s just that there is something to be said for a silent intelligence that can never be fully apprehended.

As this administration drags on, minute by minute, hour by hour, my ascendant urge is to sit down and talk with a housecat for a couple of hours.

There is a reason that malicious neighborhood idiots the world over poison cats.  They correctly intuit that cats, on some plane of existence, are their intellectual superiors.  Such people gleefully and repeatedly point out the fact of the cat’s peanut-sized brain, which of course misses the point entirely.  Any animal’s intelligence lives in its entire body, in its movement, attuned response, and self-inhabitation.  Cats are nature’s insult to stupidity.  Therefore idiots must destroy them.

Hunting as a moral issue makes a fascinating debate, but setting that aside, there’s something singularly revolting about the image of soon-to-be presidential sons posing with their big-cat kill on safari hunt in Africa in 2012.  The image appeared on the site Hunting Legends, was leaked to social media, and has been making the rounds ever since.

The creature draped over Eric Trump’s arm, even in death, is noble and magnificent.  He and his brother, in contrast, wear expressions that are brightly self-satisfied, yet babyish and uncomprehending.

Animal-rights advocates are often dismissed as precious, overheated eccentrics.  Yet images like this, along with our own encounters with the animals in our lives, can make even the stoic among us wonder who on this earth is truly dominant.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

This Is Japan 1965

This Is Japan 1965Every now and again, the Book Gods don’t just smile but grin upon you. This buried treasure found me at a La Selva Community Library book sale, and I snagged it for the price of an upscale chocolate bar.

If ever an oversized bookstand was made to hold something, it was made to hold This Is Japan 1965. The cover alone is a showpiece of go-go outrageousness.

Even though it weighed somewhere between 15 to 20 pounds and I had to get it home on the train, I had to have it. It was like going to the circus and suddenly realizing you need the camel as a pet.

It fits into a spectacular, blue-and-white batik slipbox constructed from what seems to be balsa wood. The producer was the Japan Chamber of Commerce; the publisher was Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s major publishing houses and still the owner of one of its major morning papers.

Clearly the objective was attractive boosterism, but what sort of heavyweight champions strolled away from conventions with these behemoths tucked under their arms? Business cards they were not!

Because the name This Is Japan is so generic, it’s hard to find any deep information on this series—there are editions aplenty on eBay, but for various years. They seem to start in the 1950s and go up to 1969.

Even the ads in this thing are incredible, exemplifying the Golden Age of Modernism, 1965—that sweet spot between elegance and attitude. Bold, simple graphics cavort on the page with minimal text and exciting colors.

More’s the charm as it all sandwiches demure listings for traditional Japanese guest- and bath-houses, thankfully lagging behind the jet-setting moment.

It was a fascinating moment for Japan. Traditional life may still have prevailed outside urban centers, but Stateside we were intimidated by their technological rise and rise.

The quality and durability of the print, binding, and casing are remarkable. Similar projects now would cost upwards of $100.

I rigged a system for strapping it to the front of my suitcase and got it safely home on the train that way.

Now I’m faced with the enviable problem of owning something so beautiful it scares the hell out of me.

Song for Europe

Budapest train

This is the train I took from Budapest to the lakeside resort of Balatonfüred last September. 

As you can see, it was a fairly bread-and-butter railway experience.  You switched on the air conditioning by pulling down the windows.  The toilet was a sort of interactive sculpture inviting the patron to lift the lid and get intimate with Mr. Trackway.  Everything about it was pleasingly non-Western, blessedly free of wi-fi and flatscreens and sound systems.  The silence was vintage and magnificent.

It was mid-week, mid-day, and the only others in my carriage were some elderfolks and a spindly student with a violin case.  It could have been 1975. 

As the capital’s suburbs fell away, the land opened up into simple farms, villages, and railway stations small as private homes.

Summer lingers through Hungary’s September, and as we rolled down into thick riverlands, the towering stands of chestnut and linden trees flying by looked still in the fierce verdure of late spring.  The slipstream stirred the humidity just enough to make it feel like an embrace.

Having just gritted my teeth through another grey, foggy, windy San Francisco summer, here at last was proper summer:  a spontaneous sense of contentment, ease, and abundance.  Out the south-facing windows, at long last the silver corner of Lake Balaton flashed into view.  It was one of those rare, exhilerating signposts of peace and contentment by which you relocate yourself after a season of wandering.

Had someone told me then that in less than a year the Hungarian rails would become the scene of such abject chaos and misery as we’ve seen this last month—that the very type of train whose simplicity I treasured would soon be dangerously, agonizingly packed with people in the most desperate of circumstances—perhaps I would have believed them, but they would have had a fair bit of explaining to do.

Then again, as Mark Twain said, history rhymes.  Hungary by nature is a gateway to the West, and these episodes have never been without their problems.

Sopron 1989 comes to mind.  At that time some 100,000 East German holiday-makers refused to repatriate and became refugees camping around the Balaton; at the same time, some 30,000 to 40,000 Romanian refugees were pouring over the country’s eastern border seeking asylum.  But Prime Minister Miklós Németh dealt with that crisis a little more creatively than Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is dealing with this one.  

In fact, the events of the last several weeks have jarred me into joining and becoming active in a human rights group for the first time since my early adulthood.

The migration crisis is admittedly a fiasco any way you slice it.  The transversed countries in this story have troubles of their own, and nobody wants to see their crops trampled or their small town overrun.  Naturally, local resources are overwhelmed, and it’s not as though the EU nations of entry are doing that great economically.

But you don’t have to be Mahatma Ghandi to see that roughing up women with children in their arms just isn’t right.

Remember that the root causes of this fiasco are even bigger fiascos.  Maybe mass migration of this kind, which after all has been part of the human experience since there have been humans, is best understood as a force of nature.  Anything alive tries to stay that way; why would hundreds of thousands of war survivors be any different?

Would you try to stop a hurricane by detaining it?  Or building a fence?

This particular force of nature is driven by unique individuals.  Hungary’s fresh imprint on my memory isn’t the only reason this crisis packs such an emotional wallop.  I now count among my friends several Balkan emigrés who went through the refugee experience in the 1990s.  Once you personally know a former refugee, you can no longer, for example, look at Syrians kept in battery-hen conditions on the Hungarian border and see an indistinguishable mass.

The media responsible for relaying these images would make no profit from taking the long view, and the long view is that these people whom they depict as unrelenting hordes of filthy wretches will—with the help of an intelligent host country and/or through their own luck and pluck—eventually stop being refugees.  They will start businesses.  They will go to school.  They will marry, begin families, and re-integrate into society.  The only difference between you and a refugee is that he or she was interrupted by history.

At this writing, the EU will meet in a few days to try to sort out, among other issues, a more coordinated response to the crisis.  As an American, I’m thinking about my connection to the refugees coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, our own refugee crisis on the Mexican border as scores of women and children flee gang violence in Latin America, and this summer’s brutality in our own cities.

We can no longer deny our residence in an epoch of upheaval, especially as we all contemplate the long-term spectre of climate migrancy.  This moment is a crucial opportunity for people everywhere to wake up.  Democracy is not a law passed but a life lived—by individuals, communities, and nations.  We can no longer cruise on cultural autopilot.  If we’re to have a future with any carryover of humanist ideals and constitutional rights it will take much more than—as plenty have suggested—simply rejecting or just wiping out those who don’t check your particular box under Religious Identification.

I don’t expect that one more American joining a human rights group will promptly change the world.  But I do believe in duty and responsibility.  If we treat people like animals, the whole world becomes one big nasty zoo.  We must do better, and quickly.

Let’s talk about it.

Posh Hobby

Is it okay for a working gal to have a posh hobby?

Such is the key question after you discover that current batches of hand-crafted pottery make you go all girly-bonkers. 

Having grown up in California in the 1970s, I’ve long associated hand-thrown pottery with the sort of yawn-inducing, earth-toned hippie drippings you’d expect to find during a mescaline bust.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the kind of bold, modern ceramic treasures you can now find in Japantown, indie bookstores branching out into giftware, and of course Harmony, California.

If you’ve never heard of Harmony, there’s a reason.  The town is so small it’s been bought and sold several times.  You can also rent it for weddings. 

But the real reason to go—besides its sculpture garden and other laid-back charms—is its working glass and pottery studios.

That’s where I found this incredible vase by Southern California potter Jon Price.  The deep blue “fireworks” come from a rare process called crystalline glazing, in which crystals actually bloom inside the glaze.  Getting this right is an incredibly painstaking and difficult process; few potters undertake it.  But a talented artisan can produce glorious results like these. 

Reiterating:  Is it okay to have a posh hobby like collecting excellent pottery that just makes you want to … you know, quit your job and collect more excellent pottery?  This fine piece of work did set me back more than any single housewares item in recent memory, so how do I rationalize the splurge?

Truth is, I feel justified every time I look at this little beauty.  My desk becomes more alive just because it’s there, even if there’s nothing in it.  It radiates love, care, and attention to detail.  I think it has a positive impact on my work.

So maybe posh hobbies are cool as long as a) you don’t indulge too often, b) you make sure others get some enjoyment out of it too, and c) you ensure that talented people get their props.  Well done, Jon Price and Harmony Pottery.

Funny, You Don’t Sound American

Really?  Seriously?  You think I’m “faking a pretentious British accent”?  I can tell you the British are never fooled. 

Europeans, on the other hand, always ask what part of England I’m from.  And the Australians think I’m Irish.

Wait, I’ve got that wrong.  What the Australians actually say is:  “Oh, your American accent’s not that bad.”

And then I drop on the floor laughing because I know exactly what they mean, which I suppose makes me some sort of self-loathing Bad American.

But my Aussie friends have a point.  Of all the castoffs of the British Empire, we Yanks are probably the unprettiest speakers.  Fellow Americans:  When was the last time somebody in your physical environs made you think:  What law do I have to break to get a voice a like yours?  More likely you’re listening around you thinking:  Stop whining.  Stop prattling.  Stop honking.  Stop wheedling like a baby.  Will you stop mumbling, for God’s sake?

Of course, I’m a little weird about it.  Being a radio volunteer will make you very, very aware of speaking voices and what they convey, and I’ve been a radio volunteer for 20 years now.

And yet it seems like there was a time when (at least on stage and screen) my countryfolk had a special gift for the spoken word.  The recent passing of Lauren Bacall is a good vantage point from which to look back at the life and death of the Great American Speaking Voice.

Here she is in To Have and Have Not (sorry about the ad at the beginning—you know the drill.  Punch Mute, then crank it way up).

Hear how she does that?  Anybody got a match?  Hardly any of us are born with Bacall’s smoky, resonant pipes, but that’s beside the point.  She’s completely in control of what she sounds like, barely speaking at all yet hitting every syllable clear as a bell.  That’s not an accident.

Actors of Bacall’s generation were trained in something called American Stage Speech, often described as “Mid-Atlantic,” and described by a lot of us now as “that funny way they talked in old movies.”  It was a style of speech taught in the East Coast theatre world, thought to be exceptionally clear and attractive and well-adapted to highbrow texts like Shakespeare.  It was also thought to be a good jumping-off point from which to learn dialects of all kinds.

But when silver-screen actors like Bacall blurted their contemporary lines with this enunciation they’d worked years to perfect, it didn’t sound pretentious.  It sounded perfectly suited to the world they were in:  the still-new, blown-up hyperworld of cinema.

American Stage Speech is still taught, but when I studied it briefly myself at American Conservatory Theatre, we students were made to understand we were lucky enough to be learning a stringent, demanding classical skill that was on a bullet train to extinction.  It involved memorizing charts of phonetic characters, diphthongs, and stop-plosives, and teachers moaning that nobody in this country could pronounce a decent “z” any longer.

But even before I took the class, before I trained for radio, I was still getting the “British accent” hassle from people.

My hairtrigger allergy to lousy speech goes back even further:  by third grade at the latest, I realized I wanted to sound nothing like my fellow schoolgirls when I spoke.  Already they were getting on my nerves, especially with the word no, which they always turned into a ten-second, high-dive, downward-spiraling dirge terminating in an endless, nasalized wail.  I can still hear it.  It still makes my skin crawl.  (Speakers of languages whose word for no ends in a consonant have no idea how good they’ve got it.)

Never, I remember thinking.  I will never sound like that.  Ne-vah!  Ne-vah!  I shall fight them on the beaches, I shall fight them on the fields and in the streets…

And there in the schoolyards of my small California town, another funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century.  Starting around the late 1970s, I started noticing that the teenagers surrounding me had inflections in their speech that differed from teenage speech in TV shows and movies made even 10 years earlier.  It was a certain broad, smiling sigh in the way they’d say all righhhhhhht! and oh my gahhhhhhhd!  They sounded cool and fun and intellectually untroubled.

Little did I know that this beachy patois would pretty much become mainstream American speech, let alone that speech scholars (mystified as to how and why it had shown up but compelled to document its importance) would eventually deem it the California Vowel Shift.  Even Frank Zappa’s skewering of it in his massive hit single “Valley Girl” (1982) couldn’t stop it; instead it moved from cultural obsession to unquestioned norm.  Suddenly an entire generation wanted to sound like spoiled rich kids in Southern California.  This was, after all, the 1980s.

If you consciously said no to the California Vowel Shift as a young Californian (which, with typical crankiness, I did), that alone would get you accused of being on permanent audition for Brideshead Revisited.

But since its canonization, the California Vowel Shift has not just become more common (especially—sadly—among women, no matter their age or career position); it’s snowballed from a bright and vaguely annoying speech style to full-blown, eardrum-assaulting baby-babble hell (“Hal!”).  About two years ago on a commuter flight, I sat through safety instructions from a young flight attendant whose “CVS” was so bad that I literally couldn’t understand what she was saying.  I felt like I was listening to a sped-up five-year-old rattle on about buckles, straps, and flotation devices.

Sure, language changes.  It’s inevitable and essential.  I’m just wondering why it had to change so that we all sound like gum-snapping tweens with bloated clothing allowances.

How do we fix this?  Maybe we shouldn’t be allowed to graduate from anywhere until we’re forced to do an audio selfie and listen to it at least ten times.  After all, visual selfies don’t bug us at all; try to stop people in a nightclub booth from doing the snap-and-gawk two-step, with accompanying looped soundtrack of “Oh my God!” for hours on end.

But ask for an audio-only selfie and watch people run away in horror:  “Nooooo!  I sound so stupid!”

Well, sure.  But listening to my own voice was part of my radio training, and it was invaluable.  It takes about three or four listens before you stop hating the sound of yourself and start taking apart how you make sound with your language.  And then you can start sounding the way you really want to.

How did I want to sound on mic?  Like Maggie Smith in a Maggie Smith role?  No, not really.  I just wanted to sound good.  Which is why I actually pronounced my t’s and d’s instead of hiccupping over them, which will make a name like Minton sound like a stifled sneeze.  I wanted to give every word full play.  I kept the habit.

Damn near anyone can sound better, but few of us are provoked to think about how we sound at all.  That’s too bad.  Speaking clearly shouldn’t be perceived as a kind of burning of your American passport.

Anybody got a match? 

 

When You’re a Boy

   I just went in to Fog City News with the full intention of buying the remaining September fashion issues for their runway shots of Dolce & Gabbana’s lacy red dresses; I walked out instead with a magazine aimed at dudes obsessed with “dirtbag road trips” and $750 fixed-blade knives.

Why?  Well, could you resist a magazine whose tagline is “Live Bravely”?  Didn’t think so.

In fact, the October issue of Outside magazine promises “127 Strategies for Living Bravely,” and they do not disappoint.  Breaking down the dude life-journey decade by decade (your teens, your 20s, your 30s, and so forth), the Santa Fe, New Mexico–based editorial board lays out for your escape-starved pleasure a smorgasbord of age-appropriate adventures, swashbuckling life lessons, and panoramic landscapes on distant continents.

I know the snark is fairly dripping off my prose here, but seriously, I’m liking this magazine a lot.  I leaf through it on a coffee break; a few photo spreads of exotic scenery and shirtless athletes later, I’m mentally gearing up for ice-fishing in Yellowknife or surfing in Egypt, ready to take my own dirtbag odyssey into the grand unknown.

In other words:  I’m pretending Outside is aimed at me.  I’m fantasizing that there’s a publishing concern somewhere that actually thinks highly enough of me to know I’ll buy the magazine if they tell me to live bravely.

Women’s magazines—no matter how progressive, racy, or life-affirming they think they are—would never give us the Live Bravely creed.

Instead, they like to talk about strength.  Strong women.  As in: endurance.  Putting up and shutting up.  Staying in the trenches.  Battling cancer.  Struggling to be heard.  Suffering in dignity.  Be strong, the message seems to be, so you’ll be prepared when even more truckloads of shit inevitably get unloaded on helpless little you.

Bravery, on the other hand, is about kicking ass, having fun, and taking risks that are telegenic and cool.  Where strength is about hospital rooms, vomiting toddlers, and cheating husbands, bravery is about snowboarding in Turkey and penetrating vice dens in Manila to take art photos of hookers.

It’s not just the gung-ho attitude of Outside that appeals to me.  The fact is, I’m also a sucker for highly structured inspirational bromides.  “127 Strategies for Living Bravely”?  Come on, like I’m supposed to say no to that?  Especially when the women’s-magazine version would be “20 Ways to Sort of Hate Yourself Less”?

If adventure travel is brought up at all in my magazines of habit, it’s usually a first-person feature by a woman held up to us as a particular risk-taker, and it must start with the sentence, “I was on the rebound from a painful breakup / painful divorce / painful hangnail / etc.”  Nobody in a women’s magazine ever goes trekking in New Zealand just because it’s a kick-ass, exciting thing to do.  The Tragic Overture must be wailing in the background.

Outside, on the other hand, just assumes you did Machu Picchu ten years ago like everyone else (duh) and now you’re training for a triathlon in Bali.

And amazingly, for all this life-on-the-edge bravado, they’re not jerks about women.  Relationships and marriage are not sneer fodder but acknowledged as essential components of the examined life.  Talk of baggin’ babes is rare and elliptical.  We are advised, for example, to nickname our teenage-era adventure trucks Kermit rather than The Shaggin’ Wagon.

(Well-placed sex references don’t really offend me anyway.  Outdoor frolicking with shirtless athletes should be an essential component of my examined life.  It’s all got to add up somehow.)

Continuing:  One-fifth of the “30 Books Every Guy Should Read” are written by women (some would hope for more, but dude, it’s a dude mag).  A surprising number of Outside’s articles are authored by women, including first-person adventure narratives minus the waterworks and personal melodrama.

Finally, I don’t know how feminist this is, but there’s this endearing obsession with adventure dogs.  The pages of Outside abound with adventure-dog care products, photo contests, and stories.  Dudes send in photos of Jake or Frodo paddling wildly across the Snake River with giant branches clenched in their smiling jaws. It’s just kinda sweet.

It’s as though the editors know full well they’ve got some women readers like me, clinging onto them like a life-raft of possibility in a sea of fashion rags grinding their stiletto heels into our faces, showing us images of glamour and power then slinging us dreary editorial gruel to starve on.

You may argue that it’s only natural for women’s magazines to be small-minded downers.  Aren’t they merely reflections of our lives, which are in fact small-minded downers?  Even if we’re career girls, we’re still the caring gender, burdened with more suffocating responsibilities than men and constantly dwelling on them.  We spend more time caring for children, aging parents, and infantile husbands and bosses.  We have no choice but to see life as trench warfare, n’est-ce pas?

Well, it’s funny about that.  The men of Outside apparently do not see wives, children, mortgages, old age, flesh-eating bacteria, or anything as impediments to Living Bravely.  They take their kids zip-lining in Costa Rica.  They spend pipe-smoking summers in cottages on the west coast of Ireland.  They wheel their aging parents through the Smithsonian.  They join the Peace Corps in their empty-nest stage and they stroll the Appalachians in their silver years.  They just keep on finding ways to do badass things.

True, this confident access to multiple outrageous options in life smacks of a certain economic entitlement.  Not everyone (in fact, probably fewer and fewer as time goes on) can afford to live bravely the Outside magazine way.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, the planet can’t afford it at all.  The atmosphere cries mercy with every long-haul flight to Buenos Aires.

But if we’re going to consider meta-problems at all, isn’t it also true that breaking out of survival mode and thinking more broadly about our ultimate direction as individuals is a basic human need?

This leads to the real catch, besides the gender one, of loving Outside magazine.  It spotlights this mental tightrope-walk I find myself wobbling along these days:  Am I living by the Apocalypse Story or the Carpe Diem story?  You can’t conscionably do both, yet that’s exactly what most of us do every day.  We believe it’s all going to hell in a handbasket . . . and then we buy cool stuff shipped in from China.  We despair of climate change . . . then book that flight to Cancun.  We believe that jobs are going away . . . and then read that “Finding Your Dream Job” article in the in-flight magazine.

The way we live makes no sense at all, and deep-down we know it.  The facts get more grisly every day, yet we’re creatures of motivation and must conjure some idea of progress, if not in the world at large, then at least in ourselves.

The extent to which our projects of personal self-improvement end up fouling our planetary nest is an irony almost too depressing to discuss.  At the same time, dwelling on it can put you in a very puritanical, ungenerous, locked-down state of mind—exactly the state of mind that can’t solve a problem to save its life.

For better or worse, the real core of fun and excitement, the reason the pleasure principle is built into all of us, is that it gives us ideas.  And ideas are the only things that are going to get us out of this mess.

Women’s magazines don’t give me ideas.  Not ones that matter.  They trap me in some sort of therapeutic nightmare-nanny echo chamber where everything is framed in terms of crisis and tragedy.  Nobody ever tells us as women:  You can take these challenges life gives you and actually have fun with them.

A closing thought:  I’m guessing Outside’s real-world demographic income may be lower than it seems.  The bottom line of the magazine racket is that you’re selling a particular vision of life, and that involves a practice called up-selling: advertising items and lifestyles that are just out of the reader’s economic reach.

As with any magazine, you have to do some fiction-to-reality interpretation.  Will I be buying a $750 fixed-blade knife or going ice fishing in Yellowknife any time soon?  No.  Am I more likely to join a local hiking club after reading all these ripping tales of falling into ice crevasses and cooking freshly caught salmon on an open fire?  Yeah, totally.  And really, that’s all I need.

For me, Outside amounts to an up-sell of character.  The people in it are braver, more entitled, and less worried than I am.  They just are.  And they are mostly men.  Buying magazines meant for men, sadly, is the quickest shortcut to radically reimagining my life.  I wish it weren’t so.

Maybe having an adventure dog named Kermit would help.

A Book Like No Other

Every now and again, entirely by accident—amidst the blizzard of iDevices, glowing rectangles, and craning necks that define This Digital Life—you come across a real paper book that justifies the continuing existence of real paper books themselves.

If, as I did, you unearth this real paper book from the dusty, bottom-shelf stacks of a semi-private library in a redwood-shaded coastal retreat center with patchy wireless reception and no television, the experience is so much like going back in time that it feels like a grim and primitive distant future.

“should we stand for this?” reads the cool, minimal lower-case print running across the top of still-glossy white pages, oddly shaped like a tall square.  “can we tolerate this?  is anyone taking any notice?”

These words are from someone you’ve probably never heard of.  I’d certainly never heard of Donald McCullin, though since the printing of Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? by MIT press in 1971, a thing or two has happened to the onetime anonymous evacuee of the Second World War, the East Ender street kid who described his young adulthood thus: “Where I was, no one was encouraged to do well for themselves. You were much more acclaimed for getting your collar felt by the police or battering someone. It was full of bigotry and it was like quicksand pulling me down to oblivion.”

In 1977 he’d been made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society; in 1993 he was granted the CBE (Commander of the British Empire), the first photojournalist to receive the honor; and throughout all these years he continued to rack up an impressive array of honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout Britain.  He would continue to cover conflict in Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

But all this had yet to happen when Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? rolled off the presses to a public that needed no further evidence supporting their disillusionment with governments, ideas of progress, or the human race in general.

Open the cover of this book, if you are lucky enough to find a print (the San Francisco Public Library has one copy, and it is kept under lock and key), and view the darkest possible side of life through eyes that are now horrified, now compassionate, now grasping for beauty in the rubble.

McCullin’s unflinching black-and-white photos speak for themselves, but the book’s real psychological impact starts with its disorienting architecture: there are no informative captions for the photos—no locations, no dates, no chronological listing of photos anywhere in the book.

The introduction explains that the book is divided into “eleven segments which are geographical but not chronological.”  So we turn pages through Biafra, Vietnam, the Congo, Bangladesh, the coal fields of Britain, the streets of Londonderry in the thick of the Troubles, never exactly sure where we are, never quite able to quench our knee-jerk need to contextualize the human faces we see into nationalities, events, or known situations.

The wall between photojournalist and reader is broken down; these people cannot be framed into sets of exact information, so we have no choice but to see them simply as people, to look into their eyes as we would someone across from us on the bus or in the café.  Is Anyone delivers a harrowing, grim, and deeply affecting gutpunch after which you may never be the same.

Images:

Somewhere in Northern Ireland, a suited man carrying a neatly wrapped package steps over a soldier coiled on the pavement with a machine gun.

Children pelt tanks with rubble amidst burned-out buildings.

A girl with tragic eyes caked in wild makeup stands in the middle of a wet cobblestone street.

A teenage boy with long, unruly hair is caught in mid-jump—to avoid gunfire or just for the hell of it? We’re not told.

Tanks navigate down narrow streets.  Swarthy elders in traditional hats sit under naked light bulbs in near-destroyed houses.  On hills of rubble near the shells of incinerated cars, headscarfed women in peasant clothing embrace each other in grief.

There are pictures of corpses in this book, and some of them belong to children.  They lie along African roads in unidentified countries.

It takes not just talent but the courage of empathy to deliver these images without layering on a passive sheen of sensationalism and exploitation.  McCullin is clearly honed in on some frequency of pain most of us don’t wish to access; his hardscrabble childhood seems never to have abandoned him.  Some of his most apocalyptic images are not of conflict at all—just lousy life continuing in its lousy way, close to home.

Elderly men with grim, determined faces tow their burdens amid a flat, puddled, denuded hell every bit as cold and featureless as a nuclear winter.  For this shot, McCullin treats us to a rare explanatory caption: “These guys are carrying sacks of coal which they’ve spent hours sorting from a slag heap.”

Then a few pages later, a huge squashed rat with its entrails splayed across some East End street.

Probably even in countercultural 1971 this book was pushing the envelope; its gritty aesthetics either hearken back to the air-raid-siren decades of McCullin’s youth, or presage the punk movement with its naked abandonment of idealism.

Is Anyone is almost the bastard twin of an earlier classic of photography that aimed to show us the world as it was: Family of Man.  In 1955, American photographer and curator Edward Steichen culled human-interest photojournalism from all over the world and arranged it under broad themes: birth, death, childhood, work, play, old age, love, grief, joy.  Locations were freely given, and white space was decorated with words from philosophers, literature, and the great wisdom traditions.  Dark subject matters were frankly addressed, yet the book’s editorial hand steered with gentle optimism, and envisioned a resilient brotherhood of man defying the threats of the atomic age.

The moral urgency of Is Anyone, on the other hand, seems to explode forth from a near-total forsaking of hope.  This is it, the images seem to say.  If this species doesn’t get it together now, it’s curtains for all of us.

So where are we now, some 40 years later?  Would a book like this even be produced now?  What has changed in the years since is not just a swing towards apathy and disengagement but a commercialization of the news itself (which then feeds into that apathy and disengagement).  In the 1980s, a new editor at the Observer sacked McCullin because his photos were “too depressing.”

Fellow war photographer James Nachtwey has also had problems getting his photos into news magazines because of the increasing sway that advertisers have over editorial content.  Nobody wants their candy bar ad across from a photo of body bags, and advertisers have no problem letting editorial staff know their wishes.  (View the documentary War Photographer for more on this.)

Over decades this palliative approach weakens the tolerance of the news-consuming public for images that might teach us things we need to know:  War is hell.  People in other countries hurt just like we do.  Civil society and sensible options are dependent on intricate, fragile systems that take decades and centuries to build; they can disappear nearly overnight with one detonation or stroke of the pen.

Couple this consumer distaste for bitter medicine with the Internet’s undermining of newspaper and journalism infrastructure altogether, and you have what would seem to be a dead end for photojournalism’s power to provoke, engage, and connect with a mass audience.

But in spite of this, and in spite of being 77, McCullin continues to work.  After a stint photographing the ruins of antiquity in the Middle East (which, after a career dodging bullets, could be interpreted as semi-retirement), he is back in the thick of it—this time in Syria.

“What we really need,” he told the BBC, “is the human interest side of this story.”

And that he delivers.  While the evening news paints Syria for us with shouting reporters and blurry footage of gunfire, explosions, and street chaos, McCullin gives us a silent quest for survival: children hunting for drinkable water, shiftless crowds in front of bombed-out stores, entire neighborhoods gutted and abandoned, families with young children sitting in buildings without utilities.

Can a life itself stand as a symbol of hope?  Nobody told this elderly photographer to go work under fire in Aleppo but, as he told The Times in London, “I got curious about this war.”

Is it honest curiosity that blocks us from pity, from objectifying those suffering in ways we can’t understand, and leads us to connection?

Is anyone taking any notice?  The Syria shoot is billed as McCullin’s “final trip,” but who knows.  Like the photographs he takes, he can’t stop asking all the right questions.

A Culture of Poverty—or Depression?

“…poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a  shortage of money.”  —Barbara Ehrenreich, “What ‘other America’?” in Salon.com, March 15, 2012

The other week Ms. Ehrenreich attempted to dismantle the “Culture of Poverty” theme that recurs in American political language from both the left and the right, framing the poor as inherently “other”; they “[think] differently, and [pursue] lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance.” (Here Ehrenreich is paraphrasing the idea as expressed by democratic socialist Michael Harrington, whose 1962 book “The Other America” influenced the Great Society policies of the 1960s.  According to the essay, Harrington was the coiner of the phrase and the idea.) The essay ends with the blunt conclusion quoted above.

For the record: I am a fan of Ehrenreich. Who else would revive the grand tradition of gonzo journalism by trying to survive on a string of minimum wage jobs, then telling the tale in a book like Nickel and Dimed?

I know what she’s getting at.  Too many voices in the media and political arena feel obliged to cleanse themselves by blaming poverty on what would seem to the casual observer to be the unruly lifestyles of the poor.

But, to paraphrase my friend and associate, a psychotherapist for San Francisco’s public health system whose patients are mostly very poor people: there’s a difference between saying that there is something about the poor themselves that makes them poor—and pointing out that the poor respond to their situation with particular codes of behavior and values that allow them to help each other survive.

If we reject the former but ignore the latter, we undercut Ehrenreich’s essential argument.  There’s a danger in taking a strictly materialist view of the experience of having no money.  The cumulative psychological, emotional, and social effects of long-term unemployment/underemployment are very, very real.  For those of us who know firsthand what it takes to get through Day Without a Job #451, the “Culture of Poverty” meme, even coming from someone clearly out to hurt us, can have the persuasiveness of a grey lie.

I’m certain it wasn’t Ehrenreich’s intention to imply that poverty has no emotional fallout.  But let’s take a moment to acknowledge the landscape of the financially constricted psyche as it rolled out for yours truly.

Changes I observed in myself during a long spell of underemployment: depression, alienation, lack of motivation, anger.

It was the early part of this century, in what we San Franciscans groaningly call the Dot-Bomb. The combination of a failed mono-economy, the psychic aftershocks of 9/11, and the mega-scandals of Enron et al. sent us hurling downward into an abyss from the heights of a skyscraper made of cards. The future seemed worse than uncertain; it seemed over.

Just yesterday we’d all been Tomorrow’s Wonder Kids—web designers, online copywriters, nouveau journalists, glamour-industry denizens on the edge of a new cyberfrontier. Suddenly we were on the scrap heap of the Great Unwashed.

If only we’d known what we were in for, and how long!  The economy would never truly recover; it would stagger somewhat upright in the mid-2000s only to fall eight feet under in 2008.

And the media jobs were gone for good.

For the first half of 2002, there was simply no work.  The office-temp jobs I finally found involved security-related data entry, then packing boxes for a dying company.

This after a corporate media gig that had thought nothing of flying me to New York and giving me my own room in a chic Madison Avenue hotel for a schmooze-fest on the Hudson River.  This isn’t the way the story is supposed to go! I whined inwardly, brushing the cardboard dust off my sweatshirt and jeans.

Probably most of us college-educated New Economy refugees were thinking the same thing. We’d all heard that, statistically, we were supposed to end up financially worse off than our parents’ generation, but obviously we were the exceptions, right? (. . . right?)

Imagine the armor of our arrogance slowly rusting and dropping away. Years dragged on.  How else can I put this?  Nothing happened.  You’d get a temp gig here, a little freelance assignment there.  You’d check Craig’s List and there were a couple of things—temp and freelance things.  Sometimes it was even someone expecting you to work for free.  You applied.   You never heard back.

We all knew the rules.  The Real Jobs weren’t advertised; you had to have an inside line.

But all of our inside lines were unemployed, too.  Our hot contacts were also watching Oprah with mom and dad and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s, hitting “refresh” on Craig’s List every few minutes, wondering what had happened to their lives.

There’s a particular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.  This, of course, is the essence of the modern job search.  If it goes on long enough, you will have at least a few “close but no cigar” interview rounds, which seem specifically designed to deliver exquisite emotional torture.  Getting very close to a job achieves nothing but greater disappointment than you would have had otherwise, and it’s at this point “Why bother?” starts seeming like an intelligent question.

Pundits may debate the existence of a Culture of Poverty, but they cannot debate that a Culture of Employment lives and breathes inside the increasingly guarded silos of privilege.  This culture smells of freshly brewed cappuccino, hustles purposefully down hallways, blurts its own inside jargon and private jokes, and is hip to the latest version of Windows because naturally IT has outfitted everyone’s machine with it.  Everything in the Culture of Employment is freshly updated and dynamic by nature.

Once the Culture of Employment leaves you behind for six months or more, it’s very difficult to make it recognize you again, for reasons large and small.

Your hair grows shaggy.  You need a cut.  What are you going to do?  If you’re lucky you can cut your own hair.  If not then a friend or family may donate a haircut.  But the humiliation of it piles on top of you like the shirts you can’t dry clean, the shoes you can’t get polished, the shoddy laptop bag you can’t get repaired.  You can’t support your own upkeep, and it’s not long before you feel that everybody plainly sees this.

“I never realized,” I told a bartender one night in the thick of the Dot-Bomb detonation, who asked why he hadn’t seen me in awhile, “that when I walk out my door, I present a certain face to the world.  Usually I don’t have to work at it or think about it.  The face says, ‘I’m all right, Jack.  I can take care of myself.  No problems here.  And furthermore, you’d better not fuck with me.’  When you’re unemployed for a long time, putting on that face gets to be harder and harder, and soon you feel you just can’t do it anymore.”

The personal appearance front is painful enough to prop up.  But what about all the pragmatic details, like your technology?  It was easy enough to stay on top of the latest applications when the company tech team made it all a no-brainer and a no-coster.  But when you have to be your own IT department, it gets time-consuming, stressful, and expensive.  Soon it makes sense to drop out of that race, too.

(Aside: the cost of being unemployed has skyrocketed in the last 20 years.  It used to be that all you were expected to have was a landline [for which you could get low-income Lifeline service] and an answering machine.  Now you’re expected to have an iPhone and 4G wireless Internet access.  Pay for those rates on top of staggering COBRA payments and all the costs of living, amidst little or no income, and it’s a one-way ticket to Debt City.)

So you stay in.  Which makes sense.  Staying in doesn’t cost any money.  And you can take comfort.  Some in alcohol, some in Internet chat rooms, some in the daydreamy half-sleep of long-term, low-grade depression and disappointment.

It’s amazing what starts to seem logical as the months drag on.  Looking at pure probability, simply lying in bed seems like a good choice.  Chances of your getting hired despite your best efforts?  Pretty slim.  Chances of your finding some shitty, shallow, desperately needed comfort by pulling the covers over your head?  Pretty good.  Add to that the probability of feeling ten times worse after yet another “close but no cigar” rejection, and spending life in your pyjamas looks like a reasonable, adult option.

If you’re not careful, you won’t observe these changes happening in yourself.  You’re likely, for budget reasons if nothing else, to hang out with other underemployed friends who are going through the same thing.  They can provide a certain degree of comfort, but also unwittingly affirm a place of helplessness, a maze of insecurity with no exits.  Your collective personality changes can create an unquestioned consensus reality, just at the time you need to be pinpointing those changes as symptoms of an abnormal situation.

So if a college-educated white chick who once had a totally hot job can feel this level of degradation and resentment towards the world, how much more so if my birth certificate said South Bronx?  South Detroit?  What if nobody I knew had ever had a job?  What if the Culture of Employment didn’t just seem like a long walk across town from me, but like another planet viewable only on TV?

The contrast between the entitlement and confidence I’d always felt without knowing it—and the realization that some people spent their entire lives with this exact sense of futility I was now feeling, only multiplied a gazillion times into a wraparound reality that defined your vocabulary, your social interactions, your cultural opportunities, your ability to conceive of options for your life . . . well, let’s just say some small sliver of new understanding dawned forth.  Hopefully it continues to dawn forth.

After long years of temping and underpaid jobs, underpaid jobs and temping, during which I often felt I was just expensively subsidizing a fragile, synthetic dignity I could use to get through the next day—I got hired on to a Real Job with benefits.

My first big-ticket purchase with the disposable income was a heavy winter coat.  This was February.  My family had offered to buy me one back in November, which was kind, but if I’d taken their offer I would have felt obliged to choose the bog-standard, utilitarian coat they’d approve of.  I held out and saved to buy my kind of coat with my own money.

I walked out of the North Beach boutique bundled up in it (a cape-cut black wool vintage I. Magnin “swing coat” from the early 1960s, since you asked), all warm and cozy in the chill, damp night.  And I wondered: how in the hell have I lived so long without this?

I wasn’t just thinking about the coat.

[The illustration photo: Ocean Beach, San Francisco, March 2012.  To give you some idea of the extreme sandstorm conditions: there were piles of sand in my pockets after 10 minutes of walking on the promenade.]