Author Archives: Jen

Postcards Across Town

I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time so close to home in my adult life. Even as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out and new cases drop in San Francisco, like a lot of people I’ve found it more reassuring (and easier to find a toilet!) to simply stay within a one-mile radius of where I sleep. 

Trips across town requiring two or more bus rides don’t even cross my non-car-owning mind anymore. Forget it. 

Social media does keep most of us a certain kind of connected, but I can’t be the only one sick of the pixels, the scroll, the glow. Frankly by this point we’re boring each other stupid anyway. How many damned “cat sleeping in a weird place” pics do I have to sort through to feel like I’m actually getting closer to someone? 

That’s why I’ve hauled out my postcard collection and started putting it to good use. There’s something so intimate about forms of communication that don’t prime you for an immediate response. To handwrite a brief, one-way message to a friend is to submerge yourself in that friend’s actual memory and accumulated presence in your life, what they mean to you, what they’d like to know. Social media can’t compare. 

Staying close to home and learning to see it in new ways can be surprising and rejuvenating. It can also be maddening. And strangely exhausting. 

Writing postcards to friends across town or across the Bay allows me to sum up a few little bullet points about my life that just wouldn’t work on an electronic feed. Postcards are short but significant reflections impervious to any collective flow; nobody owns or controls them except you and your friends. Sending them makes me feel less isolated, more nourished, than social media does. 

My postcard-writing habit surely seems a little less anachronistic while I’m reaching out across a pandemic city. But when COVID ends and friends are once again too busy to meet, it may be a habit I just can’t kick. 

Repatriation

San Francisco’s Cabrillo Street in lockdown.

It was June 5, 2020, by the time I got a flight home from Europe — one of the first, I think, directly connecting Frankfurt to San Francisco again after months of flight schedules having flailed in COVID chaos. 

I write this just days before the Biden-Harris inauguration and after a sadly predictable yet wholly unbelievable violent mob attack on the U.S. capitol in Washington incited by President Donald Trump. More attacks, not just on the nation’s capitol but all fifty state capitols, are predicted in the lead-up to January 20. 

I’d love to spend this time writing a neat little mood piece about repatriating after a flight that seemed like a modern miracle, but that would feel a bit provincial right now. 

The thing about bringing a blog up to date these days is that events are unfolding so rapidly, this morning’s draft can seem like cave-drawings by lunchtime. 

Additionally, in this writer’s inner world anyway, revolts and counterrevolutions are the stuff of daily life, in between deciding at the grocery store whether to stockpile a few dry goods while I’m at it, or whether it’s cool to pull my facemask down in the park for a few minutes if nobody else is around. What can I say that I won’t retract or reinterpret by tomorrow? 

Imposed solitude can have a funhouse-mirror effect on the mind; shadows go on for miles, a passing car takes on the patina of a major event, a mood bump feels like a mini-breakdown. 

Each in our cell in the giant socially distanced hive that is early 2021, we find it difficult to remember that nearly everybody around us is going through the same thing, making the same bizarre decisions, questioning the same previously unquestionable things. The bounds of normality have liquefied, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think social media helps much. 

But a year ago, pre-COVID, pre-just about everything, I put a sticker on the cover of my 2020 planner that turned out to be prophetic: Solvitur Ambulando. It is solved by walking

It came in the back pages of a charming book by Keri Smith, The Wander Society (2016). Designed like a literary scrapbook with sketches, collages, micro-chapter titles like “The Art of Getting Lost,” and quotes from such strolling enthusiasts as Walt Whitman and Isaiah Berlin, it’s an art-book pamphlet advocating the joys of walking and wandering as a tonic to modern life. 

One of my major discoveries on returning home was that San Francisco had cordoned off an arterial road in my neighborhood to be used only for bikes, pedestrians, and very limited local car traffic. 

People used to drive like maniacs up and down that road. Now I amble down the center of it, taking my time, and greet neighbors doing the same. 

What is solved by walking, by stepping out in the open air with others doing the same? What is cured? For me, the bad hallucinations of what feels now like a sick day that invaded a year, that has colonized too many of my thoughts and hopes and feelings. Walking talks back to that, to the funhouse mirror of days so endless they go by in an instant, and months so undistinguished by novelty or event, they feel like years. 

Long live the road of repatriation! 

Regeneration

You’d think global lockdown would have been an easy time in which to write. Indeed, if you own the hellish twister that is a writer’s brain, you’ve actually dreamt about times like this. Hey—what if everything just stopped for some reason and you had to stay indoors, and you had to be idle, and nothing was going on to make you feel like an introverted freak for not being there, and you could just … 

But it hasn’t been like that. Not for me, sheltering in Passau, Germany. Not for countless other writers I’ve read and heard who say they can’t concentrate for shit and spend half the day consumed with a crippling ennui that can ground the entire day in sleep, inability to distinguish one day from the next, and general uselessness of body and soul. 

And this is where you start to calculate the role of stability and certainty in any life, the energy it actually gives you just by lying there undetected underneath everything. The questions that normality asks and answers for you, leaving you blissfully uninvolved. Of course you can meet five friends for a drink. Of course you can take a long trip for the weekend. 

But the stability calculation becomes particularly clear when the society you’re in, little by little, begins to open back up, performing its functions and follies again. 

Starting in late April, Germany has restored bookstores and some shopping, worship services, and hairdressing salons. 

But this week we got outdoor dining back, and it’s like Christmastime on ecstasy. The sense of restored communion and humanity—in myself, in the people around me, in the early summer air of old Passau—is astonishing. 

Of course we still have to be on our guard. There’s a clear and present danger with every one of these readjustments back to a type of life as we knew it. 

But this one allowance of breaking bread together in the open air, even though I’m enjoying it on my own, transforms my isolated existence from a serial noir into a rom-com shot in glorious Cinemascope color. 

Whether imposed by the state or the self, the writer’s isolation is a razor’s edge. Yeah, I’ve gotten some writing done and I’ve even been published a few times in this whole mess. 

But more importantly, I’m someone else now and you are too. Maybe stronger, maybe sadder, maybe more adaptable, maybe readier to make sacrifices for a desperately needed greater good. 

Let’s hope so. Bon appetit

Debut: Noyo River Review

If you’ve come here after seeing my Noyo River Review reading, welcome to Civilization Party! My travel essay “Dearest, the Shadows: The Exquisite Despair of a Hungarian Afternoon” has been excerpted in 2019’s Review, which was debuted at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino on May 19.

Oddly enough I named the blog before learning that in Britain, people actually had “Civilisation parties” to gather and watch Kenneth Clark’s excellent (if flawed, and a product of its time) BBC TV series of the same name in 1969. Color television was new in England, so the epic scenery, monuments, and artifacts shown drew a remarkable 2.5 million viewers.

My idea with Civilization Party was to suggest it’s actually funner to think than you think it is. (Mostly it’s been an outlet for tart social criticism.)

It was my pleasure to attend August 2018’s Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference and meet writers, editors, and agents from all over Northern California and beyond in a such a naturally dramatic setting. Hopefully I’ll see many of you again.

You can find my full profile on LinkedIn. Thanks for visiting.

The Ugly Globalista

In the back pages of a film festival guide this week, between all the banners for wineries and BMWs, I saw the ad for a posh Bay Area “international” school whose tagline was Where today’s students become tomorrow’s global thinkers.

Global thinkers? Meaning what, exactly? A Joe & the Juice thinker as opposed to a Joe’s Cafe thinker? A Whole Foods thinker as opposed to a pretzel-cart thinker? A Lego-block thinker so modular and free of quirks that he or she can easily snap onto any Lego-block global metropolis and land an eighteen-month gig?

Language like this is everywhere now, just another tint-glass panel on the urban landscape.

A hip travel magazine just ran a short piece by a self-described Global Dad that might help clarify our global thinking definition. (I’ll leave the magazine name out because I don’t want to besmirch this otherwise quality project that I usually really enjoy.) This month’s theme was the expatriate life, with ex-pates sketching out everything from their decision to move abroad to everyday coping strategies in their countries of choice.

I was deeply absorbed in their stories until Global Dad climbed onto his scooterized Samsonite and started preaching.

At what phrase do I start to hate this man as he describes his life strategy of never keeping his kids in one place for more than two years? Is it the verb “notching” as it relates to how many countries his tots have now seen? (Thirty, in case you’re interested.) Is it “poster children” or “perma-pats”?

Or is it his self-congratulatory tone as he declares that his biological issue will never be outsourced? They will speak several languages! They will shun permanence for mobility! They will be equally at ease on the streets of São Paulo and Shanghai!

And yet they will be “American as apple pie,” you see, because “the international culture they’re immersed in is dominated by American English and pop music.” (In which case, what’s the point of going abroad?)

For the record: I am the last person on earth who’s going to criticize parents who want to take their kids abroad. It took an act of Congress when I was nineteen to convince my parents that I would not be seduced by Johnny Rotten or blasted to bits by the IRA if I did an English-lit summer course in the British Isles. I still think about where I’d be in life now if I’d gone abroad sooner, and what it would have done for the family dynamic if we’d all crossed more borders together.

But this travel-mag scribe has daddy issues: is he even writing about “travel” as we once understood it? To him, the gifts of perpetual motion are just means to an end, mere stepping-stones on the trail to global domination via his remarkable progeny. Where foreign shores are concerned, listening, observing, and letting yourself be changed don’t seem to enter the conversation.

And what of ethics, Dad? What of civics and duty and contribution to the community that so graciously supports (tolerates) you? Or will that box get neatly ticked by “service projects” in your kids’ squeaky-clean international schools, turning the poor, permanent locals into zoo animals to be tended and gawked at, rather than befriended and learned from?

Maybe this guy sets me off so badly because he’s so typical of the post–tech invasion bullcrap paving the roads of San Francisco now. On a Sunday morning, walk to the bakery ten blocks away from my place, out of Renter-land and into Owner-land, and you’ll hear choruses of parents declaring between mouthfuls of petits fours that they want their kids attending a “diverse” school, by which they mean they want their kids mingling with the kids of the richest, most educated people from around the world—so, okay, the immersion or international option. Could anyone involved hold a three-minute conversation with the person three blocks away, or across town, who can barely make their rent? How educational would that be?

As of seven or eight years ago, Global Dad, my city has been chock full of global thinkers, and I’ve never been so bored or irritated in all my life. They buzz all over the sidewalks on their one-wheels and electric skateboards, checking Instagram with nary a look up, flying home to their door-delivered organic meals and wet-nurses.

Okay, I’m dipping my toe in the nasty-pond here myself, but really. They piss me off. Try living for one week on this side of their suitcases. To them, the unique city I’ve loved and learned from and participated in for decades is just another consumer product, Google flag, or augmented-reality game that can be deleted from their lives at a swipe. They define what now stands in for consciousness, for being alive. They zip around in glassy-eyed me-helmets of Uber and Foursquare, hard-boiled eggs in a hard-boiled-egg universe.

In Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold, gung-ho futurists describe the coming Internet of Me, an experiential digital surround that will grovel to each individual’s ego-urges.

San Francisco already feels like the Internet of Me, only in my case there’s no me involved because I keep opting out of its steady advance. (I get what it is to be controlled and manipulated. I came of age in the 20th century.) Immutable outside realities such as scraped knees and death do not compute on the human circuit-boards now aggressively ignoring my city. The capacity to be deeply altered by, or identified with, a particular location or culture seems to have been simply lost from life’s exciting digital menu.

There are those who see hope in this. Illustrator and naturalist Obi Kaufmann, with endearing sincerity, makes a case in the just-released Issue No. 113 of local literary magazine Zyzzyva: Of course we’re becoming a monoculture, and our ever-consolidating communication channels and lifestyles will make it that much easier for everyone to instantly, radically alter their ways of thinking and thereby save the planet.

I wish I could agree. The fact is, being a hyperconnected globalista is less a journey of openness to change, and more the oblivious hay-making of globalization’s quickly mildewing hay. We needed to radically change our way of thinking decades ago, we had the means to do it, and we just didn’t. If anything, we went down a far more destructive path than we should have, striding confidently into the faith that something about sophisticated communications technologies would incubate righteous content.

Does the world really need any more global thinkers, or does it need more broad-minded, politically informed kooks and weirdos who could only have been produced by their town or region? What do we even mean by diversity anymore? Isn’t it far more globally useful to retain your local flavor and be a fat, irregular dot on a rich tapestry, rather than another hive-mind hexahedral? Don’t we need as many richly variegated perspectives as possible to solve the monumental problems we face?

Maybe it’s time to seriously re-examine the ultimate purpose of long-term travel. What is more badly needed right now: another flighty digital nomad, or invested citizens willing to sit through a Town Hall with silenced phones and full attention?

The world is getting smaller whether we want it to or not. Maybe we should stop making a suburb out of the planet.

Youth Is Not Truth

Sculpture, Potsdam

Sculpture, Friendship Island, Potsdam, Germany. © 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The September 2017 Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”—written by Dr. Jean Twenge, who has been studying generational differences for twenty-five years—has been making the rounds on social media ever since.  Rightly so.

Dr. Twenge’s findings shocked many but confirmed what plenty of us have been observing ground-level for years:  The smartphone kids are in trouble.  Big time.

The teenage-behavior and mental-health charts began aligning in remarkable ways post-2007, when the first smartphone came on the market.  Specifically, Dr. Twenge is examining what she calls iGen:  kids born beteween 1995 and 2012 who have never been without mobile access to the Internet.  The years 2011–2012 marked a seismic shift for the very young in which:

• in-person hanging out with friends took a nosedive
• dating plummeted
• feelings of loneliness shot upwards
• insomnia and sleep disruption went through the roof

“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” writes Dr. Twenge, calling it “the worst mental-health crisis in decades.  Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

The facts are distressing enough by themselves, but maybe the worst part is the extent to which her book and warnings will probably not change a thing.  Because parents and adults who could turn the tide, especially here in the U.S., are instead throwing their hands in the air and doing one big cave.  We don’t know how to tell young people they’re wrong.  About anything.

This isn’t just an uptight, family-values rap anymore.  True, the loudest, most consistent critics of this strange reality have sounded from the Right, blaming the usual suspects and tracing it all to the Sixties.

But in fact concerns about the vacuum of credible elder authority—or the feeling that it’s useless to try to assert or create one—have been coming from all over the political map for a long time.

Ten years ago NPR Executive News Editor Dick Meyer, to name just one, lamented the American Child King in his book Why We Hate Us—and that book in turn quoted a passage from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) that poetically implied all moral authority and permanent values were going straight to hell.  Author Robert Stone, whose books focused on the Vietnam War experience, said much the same thing in a 1980s Paris Review interview.

But perhaps the saltiest, most usable insight comes from Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes (1938–2012) describing between-the-wars Surrealism for a public-television audience in 1980.  The series was called The Shock of the New, and the episode was titled “The Threshold of Liberty.”

“If there was one link between Surrealism and the Sixties,” said Hughes as Summer of Love documentary footage rolled, “it was the illusion that youth is truth.  By being born, one surpassed history.  By finding reality intolerable, one became a prophet.”

Let’s look at one illustrative “prophet” of American youth-worship, who happened to be ascending by the time Hughes’ series aired.  Jerry Rubin, attributed with the “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty” nugget festooning t-shirts and badges through the late 1960s, was one of the Chicago Seven radicals put on trial for disrupting the 1968 Democratic Convention in protest of the Vietnam War.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rubin went into freefall after thirty.  He even wrote a book called Growing Up (at 37).

But he wasn’t so grown up that he didn’t still need, apparently, the approval and attention of young people.  By the early 1980s, he was hosting Yuppie “networking” parties (he is even credited with coining that term) at the Palladium nightclub in New York.  No doubt our current commander-in-chief put in an appearance at some point.

Why this particular transformation into this particular perception of adulthood?  (It’s worth noting Rubin was hardly the only one exchanging leather fringe for pinstripes around the same time.  Strangely, he asserted that he “still had a lot of the same values” as in his youth, including his opposition to the war, which ten years after its end was not exactly a game-changer.)

If you’re a young person living in a city in 2017, be aware that you now inhabit the landscape paved by the likes of Jerry Rubin’s Palladium urchins—a winner-take-all rat race whose front-running vermin are the size of garbage trucks.  The rental of a one-bedroom apartment (not just in New York now, but most major U.S. metropolitan areas) will run you more than a month’s income, that’s if you manage to actually get into one.  Not easy when student debt is already engulfing your lifespan.

Despite this and myriad historical examples, the culture continues to deny that youth can be as reactionary and anti-humanist as anyone else.

To be sure, Rubin and his fountain of networking youth were not, by themselves, responsible for the wholesale gutting of that city’s life and soul, as documented in Sarah Schulman’s excellent book Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (which should be required reading in every school).  But the former Chicago Seven member was indicative of a cultural sea change after which it was more important to be young than to be right.

There is analysis galore of how we got here, taking into account everything from the Age of Enlightenment to our foreign policy.

But the ground situation is that ours is a nontraditional culture.  We’re expected to reinvent every last wheel as we go along.  Imagining valuable life stages beyond, say, age twenty-six is unfathomable.  If we want lovable, non-neurotic archetypes past the mid-twenties of a lifetime, we have to go looking for them, and then only find them in foreign films:  the sexily competent career woman of thirty; the contented, paunchy dad in his forties; the nattily dressed tastemaker, in his fifties and enjoying the height of mental and seductive powers; the inward-looking elderwoman who comes out with salient truths at the moments least expected.

In our country, you are simply supposed to freeze at twenty-six.  To age is to fail.

We still don’t question this much—or if we do, it comes in the form of lamenting that over-thirty actresses can’t get decent roles, rather than plotting the pass-down of values and ideas (which is off-limits, of course; that would involve actually admitting you got older).

What if, some time during the Carter administration, someone had simply given Jerry Rubin a tattered wool sweater in a dark earth tone?  “Here Jerry, this is what radicals wear when they turn thirty and realize they did some pretty stupid shit in the Sixties.  Maybe you want to get a farm and raise some chickens.  Now, here’s what’s really going down in New York … ”  Sometimes just a token of continuity or precedent can keep someone from going off the edge.

But how right they all seemed in the 1980s, those Armani-wearing beauties in GQ and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous pushing steadily into urban residential property.  How could they possibly be wrong, with their slick 1950s haircuts, cocaine-and-hookers amorality, and Bret Easton Ellis paperbacks poking out the pockets of their Calvin Klein trench coats?

Oh, of course we thought we hated the Yuppies, but if you put one on the cover of your magazine, it flew off the shelves.  Even the characters in John Hughes’ beloved teen films had major Yup aspects; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was basically an aspirational set-piece.  Look at all the cool stuff in their rooms!  You had to have that stuff, too!

Yuppies were cruel, clean, and chic.  Most importantly, they were young, and by the 1980s youth itself was a value, an inherent form of progress that would blossom as long as you didn’t examine it too closely.

And here we are.  Maybe it’s little wonder that Millenials and iGen prefer the artificial teat-drip of social media to the charnal-house real world that previous generations have laid out for them.

But my sympathy doesn’t quite bleed over into Jerry Rubin–style deference.

I was tuned in to National Public Radio the morning of October 25 when I heard this actual blurb for the program Marketplace:  “The Millenials are finding that national parks are not relevant to their lives.”

For Christ’s sake! I nearly stood up on the commuter bus and screamed.  Down with the tyranny of “relevance,” always decided for us by any idiot under twenty-five!  What is objectively necessary for everyone to be healthy and happy, and why are we so unwilling to stand up for it?

(Full disclosure:  I could not bring myself to listen to the actual radio program, which no doubt instructed how national parks could be “saved” by turning them into phone apps or augmented-reality games.)

But this institutionalized Nature Deficit Disorder actually brings us to one of the most compelling and hopeful points of Dr. Twenge’s research:  the spiraling patterns of teen depression and suicide correct themselves the more that young people are involved in sports, the outdoors, or other offline activities that pull them away from their phones.

“There’s not a single exception,” she writes.  “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”

So what are we going to do about that?

Millenials and iGen worship technology.

So what?  So did Mussolini.  So did the Italian Futurists, Mussolini’s cultural lapdogs, described succinctly by Robert Hughes:  “[Mussolini’s] watchword, as it was [Futurist kingpin Filippo Tommaso] Marinetti’s, was Modernity … speed, dynamism, mechanical force … contempt for women, the cult of masculinity, the cult of youth.”

All of which will sound eerily familiar if you’ve been living in Silicon Valley–occupied San Francisco for the past several years.  Good luck taking a pleasure stroll in the park these days without being flattened by some robo-jerk on a “ridable” with a GoPro helmet.

Ours is a technocentric society.  The gadgets and coding and apps are new, so of course they’re “progressive”; nevermind that they embody an approach to life, relationships, and the natural world that is conservative in the extreme.

And to all this, people my age and older say yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  You go, little geniuses!  Go on capturing a moment, even if that moment happens to be an unacceptable clown show that will irrevocably damage generations to come!

We will look at all the evidence before us—academic and anecdotal—and shrug, asserting that the nascent catastrophe described by Dr. Twenge is just another iteration of permanent change upon which we must not pass judgment.  Kids, we’re telling ourselves still, are the ultimate noble savages; wise in ways we cannot guess.

And sometimes they are.  But that is no excuse.  If we don’t immediately start asserting our prerogative as pre-smartphone elders and pry phones from young hands for at least part of their day each day (best to set an example ourselves), not only will we have hatched a generation utterly incapable of dealing with an unstable and deadly twenty-first century, but we will have blood on our hands.  The suicide numbers, especially among girls, could not send a clearer message.

Let’s stop apologizing for the courage of our convictions.  All together now:

No, you cannot come to my party and stand around watching viral videos the whole time.

No, you cannot spend this camping trip Skyping with your boyfriend.

No, you cannot Periscope grandpa’s funeral.

No, you cannot film the movie.

No, you cannot watch Vimeo clips on the hiking trail.

No, you cannot spend six hours alone in your room on Instagram.

No you can’t.

No.  You can’t.

NO.

YOU.

CAN’T.

Because what will be harder:  saying these things now, or explaining to the young in twenty years or forty years why we allowed what happened to the environment in the twentieth century to happen to the human mind and soul in the twenty-first?

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

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.