Author Archives: Jen

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.]

The New Look

Welcome to the new, vastly improved Civilization Party blog.  This format is now brighter, more open, and more readable; for my part, it’s easier and more graphically exciting to post to, which means I’ll be posting more often from here on out.

In the meantime take a gander at my last post, “The Drift” (to which I was finally able to add the graphic of the Scott Walker album by the same name) in which I examine why most contemporary fiction just doesn’t spin my bow-tie. And stay tuned!

The Drift

Picked up the latest copy of GRANTA (Vol. 117) this week; the theme is “Horror.” There’s a short story by the lavishly praised young British writer Sarah Hall called “She Murdered Mortal He,” which, about two pages into it, had me wondering: what’s wrong with this story? Why don’t I love this? Why isn’t this great?

Technically it’s magnificent. A young, troubled couple from London vacation at an idyllic coastal village in Africa to re-spark their relationship; there’s a fight; she walks out in anger and confusion at twilight and finds herself pursued by a mysterious creature. Hall’s got everything: descriptive powers, the right dispensation of conflict to carry us along, believable dialogue, ambiguous and pregnant details.

What was wrong with it? The answer’s a bit metaphysical. What’s wrong with it is the whole culture that produced it. Like most fiction now, this story doesn’t give a damn, to the point where you wondered why the author bothered. The characters don’t really care about anything; they’re ambivalent about their jobs, their relationships, their friends, each other, the villagers whose world they’re in.

This isn’t an intentional exploration of modern alienation (which it could have been if Hall had taken that head-on); it’s just the metallic product of an alienated mind that probably doesn’t notice that it’s any different from the alienated minds surrounding it, and in fact wins awards and accolades for continuing to crank out its alienated product. (Hall’s new story collection is called The Beautiful Indifference – hot damn, sign me up!)

You don’t get the feeling anything is really at stake in this story. Yes, the relationship, strictly speaking; but you glean eventually that the female character doesn’t really care about that, either.

As I read “She Murdered Mortal He,” I felt (against my will) this ghost response I was supposed to be having: “Oh yes, this is it, I don’t really give a damn this way either, she’s really nailed it.” Though I didn’t want to keep reading, I’m the type who has to finish what she starts, and I got to the bloody, creepy, wrap-up that left me as cold as I knew it would.

Am I stupid to want some sort of warmth from my art? I was trying to characterize this weird quality that weaves the fabric of so much creative output now and the phrase The Drift popped to mind. People in financially declining Western societies are drifting. Nobody owes anything to anyone else. You’re supposed to kind of hate everyone, and everyone is duly hate-able. Rules are stupid, commitments and sacrifices are stupid. If you clearly state a value or belief, it’s because you’re naïve or a crazy fundamentalist.

Maybe I got the phrase from composer/singer Scott Walker, who named his mournful 2006 album “The Drift,” containing the lyric, “A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind.” I’ll listen to him before Hall.

Because so much music, too, seems devoid of human presence or passion these days, even if it’s performed with what would appear to be great feeling. Again, I think the problem is that we’re hearing it all within a culture where “content” is everywhere; everyone produces it so it’s no longer even a crass commodity. It’s just one more thing that overwhelms you. Your nerve endings are already so shot from all the other input you get all day – texts, instant messages, Twitter, Facebook, email, phone calls, news feeds – you don’t have the bandwidth to connect to music the way you used to.

Even if the music itself is heartfelt and genuine, the world you’re hearing it in now, and the person you have to be just to survive in it, somehow sucks all of the meaning and human context away so that the best thing music can possibly be to you is cute or likeable or pretty good. It bounces off you like one more ping. Hit “skip,” move on to the next song – doing so is now more important than songs themselves. The shuffle trumps the cards, and we all get dealt a losing hand.

KUSF: Radio Whose Door You Could Knock On

“No family or family traditions, no religion, no community, no vocational calling, no passions, and no ‘being comfortable in your own skin’ or ‘knowing who you are.’ They lack the nourishment they need to gain existential weight. How can people like this view the external world as anything but inhospitable, not worthy of trust, and phony? There is no way they can’t hate it much of the time.”
–Dick Meyer, “Why We Hate Us” (Three Rivers Press, 2008)

This quote is from a book I started reading a year ago, and which I’ve been alternatively enlightened by, pissed off by, and obsessed by ever since. Meyer, an old-school journalist who advanced through the ranks of CBS and NPR in Washington, is talking about unhappy Americans. Though we have numerous reasons to be happy – affluence, mobility, political freedom – we’re existentially exhausted, says Meyer, by too many choices and a general culture of phoniness we just can’t trust.

By now, all of my friends in San Francisco are fighting the hostile takeover and castration of KUSF 90.3fm, once the independent college radio bedrock of our town. My friend Jennifer Waits of KFJC 89.7fm has been doing some excellent reporting on the story. The terrestrial signal has been taken over by Classical Public Radio Network, 90% of which is owned by the University of Southern California. KUSF as we knew and loved it literally had its plug pulled mid-song on the morning of January 18. Some DJs tried to get answers, to no avail.

Yet the “student radio” format, we’re told, will continue broadcasting in an online-only format with the call letters KUSF.

So the question becomes: what’s the big deal then? If everything’s online nowadays anyway, can’t we just be happy with the same content delivered via a different and perhaps more current medium?

Myer’s “Why We Hate Us,” with its emphasis on commitment to one’s community, keeps coming to mind. I cannot, and will not, have the same emotional and cultural relationship to a digital stream that I have to a broadcast signal licensed and by definition rooted in an educational institution founded in 1855 and located 20 blocks up the road from me.

And I enjoy Internet-only radio. I ransack every iTunes radio folder like a tourist. Yet there’s only so much it can really do for me.

Why?

About a month ago I was listening to some silly music stream from Italy, just to check it out. Most of it was crap, then suddenly there’s this incredible song I need to know the name of.

Good luck, sister. The stream was “powered” by some faceless entity whose website told you nothing. Googling the stream name just gave you an Italian supermarket chain that uses the stream for their happy shopper music.

In my experience this is fairly typical of net “radio.” We chose to take the human connection out of presenting music a long time ago. Nobody back-announces, if you get the song’s metadata it’s often inaccurate, and anyway who the hell ARE you playing me this? Sure, you may be just an algorithm but did someone set you in motion? Where are you geographically located? Do you have a heartbeat or a name? If you don’t care that much about me, don’t expect me to care that much about you.

And that, says Meyer, is so much of Why We Hate Us. The Internet makes many things possible, but more often than not it enables a sort of “screw you, find it yourself” attitude on the part of culture-makers, like music programmers, who assume you’ve got the time, inclination, and technology to go poking around for something. What if I’m too poor to have a computer, and I’m hearing this song in a cafe? What if looking it up for myself feels lonely, boring, and alienating? Having that information provided to me, even electronically, feels as though someone somewhere has been polite.

And an actual back-announce – even an annoying one? Too much to ask for. The next generation will not know how to process that degree of human intimacy.

The technology itself may be morally neutral. But combine it with the malaise of rootlessness that defines our culture, and it’s like pouring gasoline on fire.

I don’t want an Internet-only KUSF. I don’t need one more meaningless piece of culture that could come from anywhere, be created by anyone, whose door I cannot knock on and whose eyes I cannot look into. I, and my community members and fellow music freaks, are after connection that’s accountable, human, and real.

Another friend, Irwin Swirnoff, known and loved as KUSF’s DJ Irwin, has been a key figure in protesting the station’s sale. Swirnoff’s Sleeves on Hearts show was a jewel in San Francisco’s broadcast crown, an edgily romantic tsunami wave of singer-songwriters, melodic pop, and local sounds, all presented with a uniquely sweet, made-for-radio enthusiasm that fairly hugged you through the microphone.

Swirnoff has his own beef with Internet-only broadcasting: “The internet is NOT free. Not everyone has access to it. We are mindful of the wide range of the community we were serving.”

Jennifer Waits also cites free access as a chief gift of real radio: “…it’s much more democratic than online. It’s magical and it’s FREE. When the power goes out and the earthquakes, riots and hurricanes come, we’ll still be able to tune in to terrestrial radio (take a look at Haiti – radio was a savior after their devastating earthquake) on our hand-crank radios.”

Then there’s the wee matter of broadening your musical horizons: “I think the difference between [terrestrial radio] and algorithms/search engines/iPods/etc. is that when exploring music online most people are looking for something in particular….By narrowing the search, they are missing out on difficult to categorize, unexpected gems that might not even exist in digital form. These are the types of sounds that a live DJ might offer up on a college or community radio show featuring hand-picked music. Think: vinyl thrift store finds, hand-made cassettes, and obscure international sounds.”

When I named this blog Civilization Party, I was serious. I’m for civilization. I’m for people committing to one other and creating good, enjoyable things that make us better people. I’m not an arms-folded hipster. I believe in strong public institutions and I’ll gladly shout “Rah! Rah!” with the crowd if there is something genuinely worth cheering. The old KUSF, though it was not perfect and like everyone else I aired my grievances among friends the way I would about a cranky but beloved relative, was something genuinely worth cheering.

Visit http://www.savekusf.org/. Read up, join them on Facebook, make a donation. WFMU’s “KUSF in Exile” simulcast, live from Amoeba Records on Haight Street, was shared by college radio stations all over this country in solidarity. It’s starting to feel like a revolution out there.

Who knows? If we get our station back we may even stop hating us.

I Need Another Glass of Wine. Fast.

Oh Gawd, I suppose I’m cornered now. I was enjoying myself at this art gallery but now you’ve got me in your sights, fixing me with your beady, mucous-caked eyes and verbally shredding this so-called liberal politician who’s a complete sell-out, and that supposedly progressive politician who’s a corporate stooge, and your district supervisor the Lord God Almighty who’s actually the right hand of Satan. And I’m going to be standing here all night getting, shall we say, progressively more depressed.

If I had a dime for every Failure-Narrative, “lone gunman” radical sadsack who thinks he’s too good to join any sort of established group or contribute to any sort of organized effort that might actually achieve something, I’d be rich enough to fund the wealthy, well-organized Left-Wing Conspiracy that Fox News keeps conjuring nightly.

And to think when I was younger, I (ugh! blech!) went out with a few of you guys.

And you are usually guys. Guys with filthy eyeglasses, jackets that haven’t been washed in ten years, and skin conditions you refuse to do anything about because that would, you know, make you less pathetic.

Because grooming and presentation aren’t supposed to matter, right? Libertarian America is supposed to become Western Europe by tomorrow and nothing else will do. Compromise isn’t supposed to be necessary. That kind of thing can be attractive to younger women.

Until it isn’t. Until younger women get so tired of your carefully cultivated victimization, self-disengagement, and endlessly rotating summer/winter Emo Olympics that it finally occurs to them they’d like to actually win every now and again.

Was I disappointed by the BS, watered-down health care reform bill? Absolutely. But look how hard we had to fight to even get that. You, Mr. Guy cornering me in the art gallery – I’m curious about whether you really think you’re going to get the public option patched in at some point in the future (“Oh, that’s not going to happen, it’s too late now, and besides the public option is bullshit because etc. etc.”) by taking endless, feeble, random pot-shots at everything you happen not to like?

OK, so you wrote some letters and made some phone calls and spoke truth to power today. Fair enough. Good for you.

Did you bother looking into who else was doing the same? Did it occur to you that pooling your efforts with those who have a name, a website, email lists, and the ability to appear as something like a voting block to a politician might empower your efforts so that they actually make a difference?

Or would you rather just go on blaming those in power for making your life miserable and saying that all those activist groups are really just too bureaucratic for you, and you sort of part ways with them on Issues X and Y anyway, and off you go continuing to enjoy your treadmill of marginalized self-pity?

Would you rather, in other words, be the sort of guy who corners women in art galleries and railroads their otherwise delightful evenings?

Sir? Sir?! I’m going to get another glass of wine. Good night and good luck.

Not So Fast, Sonny Boy

Is there anything sadder, more infuriating, more apocalyptic than a 13-year-old with absolutely nothing in his eyes? No mischief, no sadness, no desire, no energy, no love, no anger, not even a deliberate pose of apathy?

There he was standing in front of the stairwell of the bus, earbuds in ears, 24-oz soda in hand, face ravaged with acne, staring into space. I sat directly across.

He threw his half-full soda into the stairwell—well, dropped it really, and not accidentally. He just didn’t care.

Count one against him. This is the point at which my righteous, good-citizen face started burning with blunted rage. Lousy kid. Should I say something? Should I not say something? He was a honky, I was a honky, so I could wag my bony 41-year-old finger at him without feeling like an imperialist pig.

Then out from his pocket came the stickers. You’ve seen these. They’re about the size of the “Hello, My Name Is” stickers but they’re blank and kids put their graffiti tags on them, then stick them here and there. It’s like Tagging Lite, I guess, because it’s easier to slap those stickers around than to do a full-on tagging, which I’ve also witnessed on the bus and been pissed off by.

Boom. Up goes sticker number one on the plexiglass partition. I’ve seen “good” tags (dramatic, clever, containing visual puns, photogenic, inventive) and I’ve seen lousy ones, and boy was this one lousy. Just your bog-standard ugly jumble of black letters.

He scanned around behind him – not alertly, not foxily, just roundly and dumbly, the way a drunk looks at the ground before taking his next step. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe it hadn’t just been soda in his dropped-in-the-stairwell soda.

I looked around, too. Was anyone noticing this? Was anyone seeing this? Did anyone give a damn? It was the warm Saturday of Pride Weekend, and the bus was stuffed with earbudded hipsters behind grasshopper-eye sunglasses, their maws full of slopping bubble gum and lip studs. If they did notice this kid demeaning their public services, either they’d tell themselves it was all harmless fun, or wouldn’t want to risk being perceived as uptight by speaking up.

Or, certain Facebook exchanges have led me to believe, in fact they cared a lot but lacked the sort of script for what to say to a wayward younger peer.

Boom. Up went sticker number two. Same pointless tag, same braindead expression on the kid’s face.

Ah shit, Jen, you’re going to say something, aren’t you? You’re not going to be able to stop yourself, are you? It’s probably going to fuck up your whole weekend too, as you quarterback the incident again and again in your mind and ask yourself what you could have done differently, or tell yourself you just should’ve kept your big mouth shut. Dammit, why is this stuff always up to me? Why can’t anyone else be the Culture Cop for a change? Sometimes I think someone needs to slip me a random mickey every now and again, it’d give me a much-needed mental vacation from caring too much.

I reached over and poked him in the XXL t-shirted ribs. It took a few pokes to even get his attention. He removed his earbuds in slow motion.

Messed up.

“Hey,” I said, “don’t do that. Stop doing that. It’s ugly.”

Sneer, roll of the eyes. My first from a teenager, as a non-teenager! Yay! Now I’m a grown-up!

“Come on,” he drawled.

But he stopped. For a while. Then sticker number three went up on some relatively low-visibility piece of railing. Was that a compromise? Now that I’d done my snickety thing he had to do one more to prove I had no power over him.

The bus, almost at my destination, waited for what seemed like ten minutes at the junction of Upper Market and 18th Street, right before the 33’s treacherous hairpin turn into the Castro. I was still burning all over from fright and rage. Is that why I do this crazy shit? For the adrenaline rush?

But don’t-give-a-shit kids are probably so rarely and randomly scolded by the public, people like me seem to them like oddities, earnest psychotics amusing themselves in mysterious ways, or time travelers groping for a keyhole back into some hoary mist of Avalon.

I stared hard at him. He never looked at me, but plainly knew I was looking.

At long last the bus opened its doors to my stop, and as I stepped down and out, I couldn’t resist picking his discarded soda back up off the ground and brandishing it in his face before the bus doors snapped shut.

“And pick up your damn trash, too!” I snarled. But, with his earbuds back in, he must have seen me as some mouthing female sea monster below him, nipping at the shore of his lysergic little island. His eyes were dead, flat, unabsorbing.

So did I do any good? Did my anger vent make him think? Did any hipsters dig my direct action and get a script for future Lousy Kid interventions?

Let’s be clear: my feelings about graffiti and vandalism are complex.

In March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, I got laid off from my umpteenth media job and decided to take a road trip to LA. On Venice Beach, I spied a colorful graffiti wall that was constantly being worked on, constantly in flux, and obviously an accepted part of the landscape there. An artist worked on either side as I snapped photos of the images and words evolving. With the freedom to take their time, the artists could apply a level of detail and creativity they couldn’t if they were just tagging on the fly. With the impending war in the background, freedom of speech issues were very much on my mind, and this wall gave me a revelation: graffiti is media for poor people.

Even if you’re just tagging, there is a kind of message there, which is, “Hello! I’m here! I’m me! I matter!” And who hasn’t wanted to say that?

Still and all, it upsets me to see kids so young engaging in tagging when it’s clear they’re not just being obnoxious but starting to make really poor decisions with their lives. When a gang of taggers leaps up and starts hitting an already-nearly-destroyed bus, I pick up heavily on their rite-of-passage adrenaline. As they shout and egg each other on, their brotherly bonding saddens and repulses me. I want to smack them or shake them: Don’t you care about anything?!

Then when I deduce why they don’t care about anything…I don’t know. I just wish someone at home had really shown them the way.

Taggers could fend off a lot of hostility if they just chose their targets a little more logically. There’s an old folks’ home down the street from me, and they’re constantly getting tagged. Come on, guys, you don’t have grandparents? Nobody in your family does home care for a living? All those people need a break, big time.

A friend of mine works at a nonprofit providing vital services to a poor community in Oakland. Her office is always getting tagged, too. To paraphrase her response, “Like I don’t have anything better to do with my time than get out the can of cover-up paint in the morning again?”

Which brings us to our beleaguered public transit system. Sure, I’m mad at MUNI. You’re mad at MUNI. It needs fixing. Is that any reason to degrade and filthy the buses we all rely on? When you fuck up the buses, it’s demoralizing to those who use the system.

That means YOU, Sticker Boy. MUNI is not The Man. MUNI subsidizes your transportation, especially if you jumped your fare, which you probably did for maximum mucho-macho street cred. You’d be well advised to direct your anger elsewhere, such as City Hall. With the spill in the Gulf, we need to fight harder than ever for a transit system that saves oil, and citizen-to-citizen, we need to keep the buses nice for all of us.

Better (as in more morally acceptable) places for graffiti: the backs of street signs (definitely not the fronts. I once got a $250 parking ticket because someone put a sticker over a bus stop sign so I didn’t know not to park there – I appealed but the court showed no mercy), abandoned buildings and other derelict eyesores, or intelligence-insulting ad billboards.

Have you ever randomly intervened when you saw a young person doing something wrong? Does part of you not want to risk their disapproval? Have you wanted to intervene, but were afraid? Send me your stories.

Jaron Lanier on June 17!

“Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.” —Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget,” Knopf, 2010

The New York Times’ “Your Brain on Computers” series last week gave me a sense of relief. So I wasn’t the only one who’s noticed that, well, everyone and everything in the last five-odd years has gone completely and utterly cuckoo.

Example: people spend wads of cash on concerts, only to spend the entire event ignoring the action onstage while they text, Twitter, phone, and email. They only time they pay attention to what they’ve paid good money to see is when they take photos of it, so they can immediately turn their experience into an uploadable commodity, with which they brand themselves online. “Hey everybody, here I am! My life is more exciting than yours!”

Nobody seems to notice that this dilutes the energy of live performance in the first place and makes the whole affair banal and rather depressing.

But just standing there and enjoying the music without gadgetizing it somehow? Nowadays? Unthinkable! The gadgets are what make live events “real,” because this is how people understand reality. Instead of “Be Here Now” we have “Be Nowhere All the Time.” At this point I’m nostalgic for two years ago.

Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget” addresses and affirms my discontent on so many different levels, I feel like grabbing a highlighter pen and dousing every word with it. One of the original architects of virtual reality, Lanier is not only deep in the pudding of Silicon Valley ideology (and yes, Virginia, you’d better believe there is a Silicon Valley ideology), he’s a hell of a writer.

You Are Not a Gadget unpacks what I’ve suspected for years: that the nerds who have made the world over in their image are driven by vast, sweeping theories of what people are, what reality is, and why we’re here on earth.

But unlike the ideologies that politicians espouse, nerd dogma reprograms the very architecture of how we think. We’re far more susceptible to it because we’re not even aware it’s in us.

Jaron Lanier will be speaking this week, June 17, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum here in San Francisco. It’s going to be an important and fascinating talk, and it’s free. Please join me!

Citizenship Fatigue

Your Honor, it’s not that I don’t want to be well-informed and engaged. It’s not that I want to be oblivious or whinge about my “bandwidth” or take the New Age cop-out of “news fasting” in order to salvage my personal sense of serenity.

And God forbid I become one of those “the news is so depressing” people. It’s the news’s job to be depressing, and in past decades, the shoddy way it’s reported or the trivia that passes as news adds myriad and multi-colored depths to anyone’s Dark Night of the News Junkie Soul.

It’s more that, in this hyper-democratized media whirlwind called everyday life in the 21st century, I feel the need to respond thoughtfully and thoroughly in some way to just about everything I read.

EV-ER-Y-THING.

Being a writer is a bit like being a doctor. You can never really clock out from the responsibility, and you never want to anyway. You feel surrounded on all sides by crappy writing, sloppy thinking, half-baked editorial standards, nonexistent respect for basic grammar and spelling — and that’s just the actual “content” being thrown at or sold to you! The comments posted below any given article are typically a blizzard of aggressive stupidity, made more aggressively stupid by otherwise reasonable, mild-mannered people needing to publicly mourn the loss of civil dialogue by calling everyone else idiots.

Where does a writer find herself in all this?

Virtually speaking? Everywhere.

Raise your calm, even-handed voice! cry the civil society advocates. Fed up with a lack of intelligent exchange? Then simply start one yourself! It’s that simple!

Is it? I don’t even look at YouTube comments anymore, I know what my reaction will be. Like some digital Dudley Do-Right, I’ll be clacking away for hours, backgrounding and fact-checking my evidence that, no, SavageIdaho44, Barbra Streisand was not a KGB mole from Jupiter, and anyway, who’s in a position to pass judgement until they’ve watched Color Me Barbra in its entirety?

Then there’s the “Stupid Me” factor that unfolds slowly, year after year, with maturity and wisdom. You just realize more and more that you don’t know shit about anything, and you start to feel reeeeeeally guilty about it. Oil spill in the Gulf? What do I think should be done? OK, um — domestic drilling, how many drills do we have? What percentage of our oil supply is domestic? How did this happen? Was I supposed to be aware of how this could happen? What’s the regulatory background on this? What’s the political background? How does an oil drill work? How do you fix one? How old are most drills? Was I supposed to know that? Man, I’ve really fallen off the map with this issue…I swear, I just trying to survive from day to day…ugh…Stupid Me! Stupid Me! Stupid Me!

Meanwhile, nobody around you seems taken aback by an event like this; it’s as though they’ve been discussing that bum drill for years over Sunday coffee, as though it were some Victorian radiator hissing in the corner. “Marge, I tell ya, any day now that thing’s gonna blow, and believe you me there’ll hell to pay…”

Suddenly, everyone majored in Oil Spills in college. Everyone knows what went wrong, who’s to blame, what should happen, what the charts and the graphs mean, all the actors in the play. But at no point does anyone ever impart that they had to actually sit down and spend some time figuring it all out.

For me, there are the bits and pieces I pick up in the coffee room or by glancing at newspaper headlines. I have never, Your Honor, sat down and just crammed on the Gulf spill crisis like a good citizen, assiduously comparing the Beeb against Fox, bookmarking the Guardian and the Economist and the Monitor and the Financial Times, knitting my studious brows so that I could assert the major bullet points at my local house of public drinking or my town hall.

Because if I started, I would not be able to stop. My sense of total, all-consuming impotence and ignorance would drive me to a state of X-treme citizenship for which there seems to be no cure but quitting one’s job and clackety-clacking all day in the eerie blue glow of cyber-alienation. There are no boundaries, no limits, to the ways and means I can inform myself, 24/7, of everything, everywhere, forever. Feeling I have a handle on one issue will just make me obsessed with another.

I throw myself upon the mercy of the court. I’m on Auto-Citizenship Drive. I have so much to say it hurts.

Go ahead and sentence me to Community Service. I might actually learn something.