You know that argument you have with yourself on Friday night where you’re melted to the couch in an overworked daze with no intention of ever moving again, and all you really want in this whole world is to drain the last of that Trader Joe’s red blend and watch depressing French films on Criterion Channel until the day finally falls to its death between the icy crevasses of your soul — but you’ve told a friend you’d show up to his gig?
Don’t let your inner sadsack win that argument. It’s always better to go out, always better to see your friends, to strap on the high heels and slap on the aftershave and kick it all up a few notches. Especially when your city is finding its night-crawling feet again after years of semi-shutdown and exodus. It’s time to think about living.
And if you’re a mere bus ride across town from North Beach, San Francisco, you really have no excuse.
Yet a few weeks ago, sitting on that wobbly 1 California crawl up the Polk slopes that peak at Grace Cathedral then plunge like a roller coaster down into the narrows of Chinatown, all I could think was: I must be crazy. I’m exhausted. I’m antisocial. I look like crap. I’ve got nothing to say to anyone. Why am I doing this?
I was doing this because my Scottish friend Paul was playing with his new band at Maggie McGarry’s on Grant Street, and I wanted to see who he was when not in a shell suit at 6:30 in the morning, dashing his takeaway coffee out the cafe door to his next construction gig. I told him I’d show, and my word is my word.
Somewhere around the Powell Street stop, though, I decided to stop moping and face the night with a transformed spirit. I’m not that tired and anyway the real gift of nightlife is that you never know what’s going to happen — especially when you think you do.
And sure enough, walking up south-of-Broadway Grant Street, I’m almost to Kerouac Alley when I run smack into Ari Munkres, bassist for local gypsy jazz legends Gaucho, whom I haven’t seen since before COVID.
We repair to the old Beat haunt Caffe Trieste on Grant and Vallejo for drinks and post-pandemic catch-up.
“We all lost a few years, Jen,” says Ari, shaking his head. “I mean, what’s The Zen of Losing a Few Years?”
I get a boost from him looking so at home in this midcentury-holdout Italian coffeehouse — smart hat, smart specs, freshly pressed shirt — but he has to hustle on to Gaucho’s standing gig at the dark, elegant Comstock Saloon over on Columbus. I decide to follow him over so I can grab a prosecco and check out a few tunes.
At Comstock I’m able for the first time since 2019 to wave hello to renowned Gaucho jazz guitarist Dave Ricketts. The band also has a standing gig Thursday nights at DecoDance over on Polk and Sutter. I have yet to drop by this divine-looking neo-Deco speakeasy, but it’s on my SF bucket list.
The band is in top form, and tunes like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” find a willing audience among young internationals sinking vermouth concoctions in high-walled booths. I’d love to stay, but I’ve got to get moving if I’m going to hit all the spots before seeing Paul’s band.
The crowd at Vesuvio a few doors up has gotten steadily more boorish and careerist over the years but even taking that into account, on a Friday night it’s ridiculous.
Yes, Vesuvio with the panoramic Kerouac Alley view from its upstairs gallery and all its boisterous junk on the walls and lived-in anti-splendor – it must have been a riot in Dharma Bum days. Nowadays you can have a go at wine-fueled existential speculation here, but it’s not easy when the next three booths over are loaded with drunk Wharton grads who believe they’re going to alter the course of human destiny.
The strange thing is, if they get seed funding for their nose-picking app or their self-driving toaster oven, they may do just that. But should they, friends, should they? Screaming about Tesla and crypto over the 2000s power pop revival hits on the sound system, checking TikTok for instructions on how to have a good time?
One young man sits on his own across from me, glass of wine, reading the standalone paperback of a Henry Miller short story. I don’t want to bother him but must affirm the choice. He is friendly enough – how often do some of us, after all, read in public hoping someone will attaboy our taste in authors and strike up a conversation? Guilty as charged – and he tells me the story is incredible and he got the book at City Lights. There’s hope yet.
Gotta see who’s at Specs Bar across the street. As it turns out: Alan Black, former publican of the much-missed Edinburgh Castle, author and lit-scene booster, fresh back from Scotland and pulling pints. He’s restarted the Specs Social Club event on first Thursdays, where the mic is open to readers and rockers and just about anyone.
I settle in with the regulars at the end of the bar and we end up belting out the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” like a bunch of hopeless cases.
On to Green Street’s Foreign Lens art space, but en route I’m drawn into the enviably named Live Worms Gallery on Grant, where (among others) photographer Dennis Hearne is showing his work chronicling the North Beach street and music scene.
Tonight’s reception showcases about five other artists producing everything from jewelry to ink sketches, and the crowds are spilling out into the parklets. Overheard as I passed some women dishing on the general topic of amour: “He’s a total narcissistic asshole, you know, but the sex is incredible.”
Are we “back to normal” yet?
If you’re seeking a reliable basement boogie on Friday nights, Foreign Lens is your true north. Tuneful disco warps the curio-studded walls and once you’ve danced your ass off you can crash out on an antique sofa and watch the portrait painting or the body painting or the makeout action or the…
Time for Paul’s band. Back around the corner on Grant, Maggie McGarry’s is heaving with postgrads. The young women flirt in full makeup and spaghetti-strap tops, the young men hoist their beers and howl in shorts and t-shirts. It feels like the 90s again, celebratory and volatile and muggy with body steam. I can’t even get near the stage to let Paul know I’m here, it’s that crazy.
But there he is, all in black and on the bass, looking aces, supporting the diva in Amy Winehouse and Adele covers, songs that every kid knows every word to and they sing with full throats and beer-filled bellies and bursting hearts. Hugs, tears, selfies, fists pumping in the air. They’ve made it. Made it through another lousy COVID year of higher education.
And though I only just got here, I slip back out after 20 minutes, quitting while I’m ahead. What more heavenly note than this could the evening end on?
Postscript: You didn’t hear it from me, but if you call Flywheel, you get an actual human being on the dispatch line.
Is there anything more depressing than temporary freedom?
Observe the June blog I never posted, raving about San Francisco re-opening after high vaccination and low infection rates saw us return to an almost normal summer of mask-free indoor dining, normal capacity limits for bars, and the reinstatement of limited cultural events.
I never posted it because shortly after its completion, my father passed away.
Then COVID-19’s delta variant started doing its worst. Because of it, Dad’s memorial had to be indefinitely postponed.
Meanwhile, wildfires across the American West have put grimy skies over some of our best-loved natural wonders at a time we most need an emotional recharge from nature. One colleague of mine took his family on a great American cross-country road trip, only to find they were coping with smoke as far east as the Dakotas.
Worse than any of these facts alone is an unspoken understanding on the part of my peer group that it’s all downhill from here — that if you think it’s bad now, friendo, just wait til next year and the one after. And don’t even think about the 2030s.
My mind has been oscillating between two songs lately, and I’m a little embarrassed to reveal what they are: “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a TV theme generally unknown to U.S. audiences called “White Horses.”
At first glance these two songs have nothing in common. “White Horses” was the theme to a 1960s adventure series about a young equestrienne, filmed in what is now Slovenia and aired mostly in Europe, called Ferien in Lipizzi. It’s a light, shuffling air sighed out by British pop star Jackie and sweet enough to mortify the modern six-year-old with its dreams of running away to candy-floss clouds on snowy white horses.
The other song is a drug-dripping freakout reportedly penned by John Lennon after a much-speculated-on weekend in Spain with smitten producer Brian Epstein.
“Fields” consistently rates as a lysergic masterpiece with music critics and historians, while “Horses” sounds so silly to the current ear that it captures a certain hipster fascination. Indie duo Dean & Britta covered it in the 2000s (but Britta’s kitteny whisperings are such a put-on I can never make it through to the end — it’s not a torch song, for God’s sake), and that’s just one of dozens of covers over multiple decades.
And yet most importantly, both songs are massive escape anthems: admissions that sometimes life just gets to be too much. A mental retreat (temporary, we hope) into childhood wonder is not just normal but necessary if we’re going to hold on to our marbles in the long run.
There is something very analog, very endangered, about all this. For all of the current Stanford-approved blatherings on “creativity,” we seem to be losing our capacity for plain old imagination as it relates to our lived lives.
The difference between creativity and imagination? Creativity as understood by the Innovation Mafia means imagination as, ultimately, a profit center. Something that doesn’t necessarily belong to you at all unless you’re lawyered up. Thus the tremendous emphasis on collaboration, and some clever person gets to capture and monetize your marvelous ideations.
Imagination as I conceive it inherently belongs to us as individuals; maybe is the natural us to a large degree. In the years before social media there used to be much more talk of “the commons,” those things that belong to no one and yet all of us, that can’t be bought or sold: the air, the ocean, and so forth.
When these songwriters grew up, childhood — whether full of joy or horror — was part of your personal commons. More than anything else perhaps, it belonged to you and you alone, defined who you were, yet everyone had one and nobody could take it away. It was an elemental repository of you before the boundaries and disappointments set in.
How true is that anymore? My neighborhood is filling up with Bluetooth screamers pushing baby joggers loaded with phone-staring toddlers. Not one of these souls seems particularly grounded in adulthood or childhood but a kind of hot, connected nowhere that submerges me, the bystander, whether I care to be submerged or not. My mental health does not benefit. I can’t imagine what it does to theirs.
Even if they realized they needed imagination, an escape that was theirs alone, could they access it? I doubt it.
Regressive escape into the spiritual beauty of childhood is a legitimate coping mechanism. I think that’s why “Strawberry Fields Forever” continues to haunt us, and “White Horses” has gotten nearly 2 million hits on YouTube, as well as being honored with “best television theme ever” by the Penguin Television Companion.
I hold on to these two songs like a kickboard in a pool. Their assumed cultural irrelevance makes them somehow more mine, lets me grip them harder and flutter-kick my way through a pretty awful summer.
And I do like the idea that perhaps John Lennon, knocked sideways by the fame, the drugs, the clothes, the glamour, the women, holed up in some six-star hotel in Zurich or Rome in 1967, tuned in to an episode of Ferien in Lipizza.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.