Category Archives: Social Science


San Francisco’s Cabrillo Street in lockdown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live the road of repatriation! 

The Ugly Globalista

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Youth Is Not Truth

Sculpture, Potsdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are we going to do about that?

Millenials and iGen worship technology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, you cannot Periscope grandpa’s funeral.

No, you cannot film the movie.

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

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

No you can’t.

No.  You can’t.




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

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The Nine Types of Facebook Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nine Types of Facebook Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are Canadians.

No, I’m just kidding.

Or am I?

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

“Talk” Ain’t Cheap

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

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

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

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

Which is surprisingly difficult to find.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

This Is Japan 1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song for Europe

Budapest train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s talk about it.

Funny, You Don’t Sound American

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anybody got a match? 


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.


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, 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.]