Category Archives: Social Science

Prague Rock: A Velvet Revolution


Note: I wrote this essay 10 years ago but never found a published home for it. In honor of Vaclav Havel, and because this is kind of a Christmas story, I’m giving it a home as the inaugural post of Civilization Party’s re-launch. Enjoy and Happy Holidays.

I was sitting on the pavement in Malostranske square trying to reckon why I had let tram 22 pass me by. The tip of my nose was numbing up, I had a sprained left ankle, and my right ankle was about to go on strike. A light snow flurried down over Prague, and a cozy room off of the Ujezd awaited me down the tram line. So why had I just sat there, ass on the ice-cold concrete, as the apple-red tram hissed its doors shut and clacked away? My eyelids rolled shut and the long, dark, Bohemian day re-played itself like a jerking Jan Svankmajer cartoon. Was I cracking up from the cold, the strain of limping without a crutch, the overwhelming beauty of this medieval town? From being alone during the holidays? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I even move enough to carry myself home?

Then the music stopped.

That was it! I wasn’t moving because there was live rock n’ roll thundering out from that building across the street. Cut-rate Sabbath sludge. Cut-rate Sabbath sludge that had just ended.

But hearing rock n’ roll, no matter how lousy, coming from the inside of any building never fails to make me feel I’m sorely missing out. The kickdrums and fuzzboxes were now silent, but they’d already worked their sleazy magic on me. Suddenly bone-deep exhaustion didn’t matter anymore. Enchanted, I headed for the club entrance.

Obvious efforts had been made to draw a tourist crowd into the Malostranska beseda; signs pointing up the stairs in German and English announced: Live Music! Every Night! Jazz n’ Pop! But a cloud of Czech voices enveloped me as I climbed a scarred plaster stairway and emerged into a small, smoke-choked lobby tended by white-haired men and women in somber Sunday suits. They enthusiastically sold me a fifty-cent ticket and offered to take my coat and scarf.

The two adjoined main halls roared with people bathed in thick curtains of smoke. The vaulted plaster ceilings were chipped, oily and tired, the lace curtains the color of used cigrarette filters. Bright, greasy chandeliers glared down on the little tables covered in checkered cheesecloth, empty Pilsner bottles and overflowing ashtrays.

I imagined the space being used as some sort of Worker’s Edification Facility in Soviet times, where young Czechs could whoop it up Saturday nights with a lecture on tractor repair or schoolchildren’s concert of folk songs. Tonight it looked and felt more like an oversized Knights of Columbus hall in Cleveland or Cincinatti—but with just as many young people as chain-smoking, baggy-eyed adults. And with a ravenous energy in the air.

I took a seat with my bottle of orange Fanta and elevated my injured ankle in the opposite seat. The lights dimmed.

Seven paunchy middle-aged men shuffled out onto the stage in sweats and sacky sweaters, with a dredlock here, a Bob Marley T-shirt there, and a bright Guatemalan scarf there. It looked like a PTA work day in Berkeley.

Amid healthy applause, they struck up a toothless reggae number with Czech lyrics. Two girls dressed in oversized T-shirts and ripped jeans raced out to the dancefloor and flopped around frantically. Then came a Czech salsa number, also received lovingly by the audience. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t stop picturing this band as the first, noontime act at a Potato Festival or Onion Festival in some Midwestern town. Nobody would be listening to these guys, nobody. This was the most inoffensive, wallpapery quasi-world music I’d ever heard. But in the filmy darkness of the hall, audience members were inching towards the edges of their seats.

At this point I chidingly reminded myself these people were no longer culturally isolated rubes. Pop radio in Prague now offers the uniform Western European top of the pops fare, which, bland as it is, updates this developing democracy with what the music industry is firehosing at the rest of us. Czech teenyboppers know whether they can take J-Lo or leave her.

The ones in the Malostranska beseda were obviously leaving her. More bodies invaded the dancefloor during the 20-minute “salsa acid jazz” jam. Females, regardless of age, wore their hair in moussed mullets or Aqua-Netted Fawcett flips, and dressed overwhelmingly in miniskirts, high heels and 1980s-style jerseys (with no detectable air of ironic retro-cool). Boys were professor’s aide types in spectacles and reindeer sweaters.

After waiting through a burst of extended applause, the band decided to stop fucking around. The keyboardist grinned and whipped out a set of Peruvian pan pipes.

I winced. Jesus, not pan pipes! Were people really going to stand for this?!

But surprised, youthful squeals of recognition rang out from every corner of the hall when the song kicked in. There was a universal scraping-back of chairs and a stampede to the dancefloor. I was looking at a whipping, crazed fury of flip-curls and reindeer sweaters. They were dancing like it was their last night on earth. A 40ish woman who looked like Amy Sedaris in Strangers With Candy pogo’d up and down by herself in front of the amplifier.

A frizzy-haired boy in a cardigan jogged up to my table and offered his hand. I could only point to my elevated ankle and make a “breaking in half” gesture. He understood, waved his departure, and made haste for the dancefloor again.

The youngsters mopped themselves off and headed to the bar while the moms and dads stuck around for a slow jam. The singer howled out a pop ballad Julio Iglesias-style while the couples mingled flab, slumping back and forth on each other like pairs of hot gingerbread cookies.

I was worried. Would this attack of the Quiet Storm kill the pace of the show?

No chance, comrade! Czech Salsa-reggae-acid-jazz struck again and then all ages were on the floor. Call-and-response shook the dancehall. I thought the building was going to collapse. Big clapping, then half the audience started clapping on the off-beat, polka-style. Or was it American Gospel style? I couldn’t tell. Everything was all over the place and it didn’t matter. Young dance partners made up their own improvised salsa steps and swung each other around madly in some improvised Slavic jitterbug.

Everyone knew every word to every song. Did these guys get radio play? It seemed unlikely. They’d be laughed at in the States, laughed at! They were skilled musicians, wedding-reception perfect. Just…cheesy. Predictable.

After two encores the band finally took leave from the shouting, stamping audience. The chandeliers blinked on, pelting us all with hard, tired light. I didn’t want to leave the Malostranska beseda, but my ankle was in pain. I gimped back out to the lobby, collected my anorak from the doting septegenarians, and descended to the snow-covered tram stop.

The band’s keyboardist was on tram 22 that evening, hauling his gear back out to the cement Soviet-era tenement blocks on the edge of town where American and German expatriates hadn’t jacked up the cost of living. Outside, snow-frosted church spires and arching cupolas sailed by, preserved by poverty and the attendant lack of development.

What exactly had I just witnessed in there? Was it condescending for me to think that the normal measures of music critique didn’t really apply here? Rolling Stone wouldn’t have a single star to spare for these guys and the British music press would have disemboweled them before proceeding to ignore them.

There were unique factors to take into account. Sure, the Czech Republic was quickly Westernizing, but how much of the middle-aged musicians’ lives had been spent under the Soviets, and what had they been exposed to since the Velvet Revolution in the late 1960s? Czechoslovakia had had a sort of pop music; there was a entire museum dedicated to it around the corner from my rooms, and Milan Kundera had bitched about it in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, saying it represented the infantilism of the modern world. Since I’d never heard any Czech pop I couldn’t deduct how, or how much, Western standards had informed them.

But I’d seen something I hadn’t seen, perhaps couldn’t see, in the West: the long-obscured function of music—not so much to entertain us as to make us all musicians, to make instruments of the audience. But this can only happen if the audience is willing.

“Performers,” writes punk rock historian Jon Savage in his 1992 book England’s Dreaming, “are only as interesting as the emotions they generate, or the situations that they catalyze: the audience gives them their power.”

The Sex Pistols’ accountant, Andy Czezowski, said of that band: “Whether they were good or not was irrelevant. I wanted to be excited and they filled a spot.”

As a teenager I attended four years of religious boarding school where dancing and rock music were strictly forbidden. At my Christian college, popular music was allowed, but for some reason dancing was not. I was obsessed with dancing at every single show I managed to escape to.

But I soon learned that in the rock n’ roll Cool-ocracy, exuberance was not done. I didn’t understand but, desperate to appear as beautifully miserable as everyone else, I taught myself to spend shows standing stock still with arms folded suspiciously across my chest, like the clinically depressed adults who regulated my existence.

My liberated peers turned wary eyes on rock n’ roll, expecting to be disappointed, gypped, ripped, lied to, told what they believed in a dead language of hipster clichés. There was no need for tear gas or truncheons or rubber bullets with them; cynicism had conveniently installed a de facto Big Brother right into their spinal cords.

Kill the urge to dance, and you have essentially killed the right to dance. Kill the urge to dance and you have denied to large groups of people something essential, the right to speak out from the core of your physical being. In that sense, perhaps, this former Eastern Bloc society was far more advanced than ours. The show at the Malostranska beseda was not about the band. It was about the audience, and nobody could have understood it any other way. The ironic curtain of Cool had not yet descended here.

The doors of tram 22 slid open and I left the keyboardist behind to hobble through the snow and find my rooms along the banks of the Vltava. Maybe, I thought, the original Bohemia could export a new Velvet Revolution to us Westerners, smuggling it out via Pilsner bottles. God knows we could use it now.

The Drift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KUSF: Radio Whose Door You Could Knock On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Need Another Glass of Wine. Fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not So Fast, Sonny Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messed up.

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

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

“Come on,” he drawled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaron Lanier on June 17!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citizenship Fatigue

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

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

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


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

Where does a writer find herself in all this?

Virtually speaking? Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Pollution

Whenever I head back to an old cafe or restaurant I once loved, or approach one that looks cool from the outside, these days it’s always with a sense of dread. From the outside, the place always looks sweet and inviting: intimate lighting, cozy tables, a view of the sidewalk, square, or park. The closer I get to walking through its doors, the more deeply I feel that longing for respite from the outside world that’s as old as civilization itself; I want quiet, shelter, nourishment, a place that protects me but brings me into warm contact with others. I want a place that incubates a mealtime conversation with my companion, or if I’m alone, a sense of connection with strangers who could be my friends.

What the restaurant gives me instead, more often than not these days, is flatscreen television. A blinding rectangle of strobing nonsense culture — an assumption that, as a customer, I’m totally incapable of whiling away some minutes at my table however I choose, perhaps by doing nothing much at all.

The ubiquitous flatscreens are a depressing epidemic that I believe is ruining what little post-cell-phone public space we still have. Are restaurants subjecting us to TV because customers are asking for it, or are customers asking for it because they’re now used to TV in restaurants, or are struggling restaurants just freaked out by the quiet and stillness of what was once called atmosphere?

I tried to answer these questions and more in my article “Real People, Real Places,” published with I hope you’ll read it and give me your feedback on how to speak back to the restaurant and hospitality industry about keeping our places — and ourselves — conversational, atmospheric and real.

The Kid Is All Right, Part 3

[This is the final of three installments of this incomplete essay.]

Of course the real problem, the root of all evil, is that each and every day of my life, I commit the Unforgiveable Sin of modern American life: I am content.

I’m not even sure why. I read a book or write while riding the bus to work, I watch people, I drink coffee, I can do some research or writing if there’s down-time, I socialize with the folks in the lunch room who are also support-staff bohemian barnacles like me, and when the weekend comes and I have a little cash, I may as well be Aristotle Onassis. I’m a free agent in a city with a thousand different cool things to do, most of which don’t cost that much.

Advertisers and manufacturers hate people like me. I don’t buy anything. When my CD boom box started skipping a few years ago, I put in some phone calls to engineer friends, took a few notes, and just fixed the damned thing myself. I’m still using it today, 12 years after purchase. I was supposed to throw it out and get a new one, then throw that out when I got an iPod.

My guess is that there are legions of people like me in the world; we’re just invisible and voiceless because we’re not a significant marketing demographic in a culture and political system based on marketing demographics. We don’t buy, therefore we’re not.

I don’t own a car or a television, and though rising fuel and energy prices have recently shifted the tide, most of my family still seem to think that doing without either of these items amounts to some masochistic, self-righteous sacrifice for the greater good, rather than a decadent lifestyle improvement. Riding the transit system gives me the luxury of extra time and energy; I don’t need a television because I have a picture window that looks out on Golden Gate Park, the massive weather systems sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean, an Orthodox Jewish pre-school teeming with squirrelly whimsical children, and public basketball courts bustling with tough kids playing games of pick-up. This is my television. I feel it informs me far more effectively than a sixty-dollar-a-month cable subscription.

But there is no shorthand to explain all this to the wedding guests, who are now being assailed by DJ Smooth Operator announcing the first dance of the lovely bride and groom.

Really, I should go down and at least try again to circulate among them; for the thousandth time of my life I think it all through, and there’s no rational reason for me to feel as uncomfortable as I do around these people.

For one thing, I look like them. I bear the genetic imprint not just of my family but of my social class of origin: tall, high-cheekboned, Nordic, strong-framed, upright. I rode a hotel elevator with a whole herd of us this morning – strangers I could have been related to, the by-products of country-club eugenics, their features and bearing tightened with defensive pride.

When I am in downtown San Francisco and desperately need to use a restroom, I make for the lobby of the St. Francis or the Palace Hotel. Even when poorly dressed or disheveled, I am never stopped, never questioned, never asked in that incriminating tone whether I can be helped. The doormen and the concierges have all been told – and I know because I’ve done temp gigs in these places and I’ve talked to these guys – to watch for anyone who looks as though they don’t belong.

In jeans and a t-shirt, making a beeline for the toilets, I look as though I belong. It’s not just the tallness and the blondness, the middle-class jawline; I radiate entitlement. It’s clear that at some point in my life at least, I was used to being in these places. My line of sight and my gait are steady. I know exactly the open, benign apathy with which to fix my face as I wander the halls. The uniformed guardians of the establishment clock me as I pass with the same open, benign apathy.

The beautiful toilets of the world are mine, all mine.

Not so for everyone.

And how long did it take me to realize that?

And what of this bathroom here, with the coffee table Picasso retrospective I just finished? Oh, why can’t I just go out there and be a wedding guest?! Is it really so difficult?

Certainly my attire is not the problem. When it comes to dressing for occasions, I can out-Republican the Republicans. You think you know high-heeled shoes? You think your clutch bag is subtle and understated? Step aside, ladies. My chignon is piled higher than yours. My button-pearl earrings are smaller and more finicky than yours. My little black dress is littler and blacker and dressier. My heels can stop bullets, and my saturated red lipstick is more Eisenhower-era than your lousy lavender lipgloss. You may make me feel like an underachieving peasant, but I make you look like slobs.

This is my one silent form of protest, of social theatre, of camp aggression. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from decades of befriending, working with, reporting to, and voting for flaming homosexuals, it’s how to don the uniform of those who suffocate you, give it your own slight twist, and throw it back in the face of your oppressors – hopefully in such an underhanded way that they don’t even get it. They welcome you with open arms even as you undermine the exclusionary conditions on which they base their welcome.

But if my get-up is the armor with which I protect myself in battle it is also the costume in which I perform my desperate plea for love and acceptance: See me! Look at my face! Observe my warm, human neuroses! I apologize for none of them! Observe that my choices have been valid ones! I have nothing but my eyes with which to say this!

The wine has made me raw and combative, on the brink. I don’t trust myself. I might say something, something too big to be said. If I say anything longer than “Yes,” “No,” or “Goodbye,” it will take all night and I will say it to anyone.

Do I hate these people? Do I hate the way they talk, act, look? Do I hate the grey-templed men who barrel their chests out of their camel blazers and back-slap and HAW-HAW-HAW over their shot glasses, their mouths yawping out of their Scotch-reddened faces? Do I hate the leathery-faced tennis club babes in the blonde newscaster coifs who gaze unsmilingly through the festivities like zoo lionesses jabbed with tranquilizer? Do I hate the Beautiful Children in their Beautiful Children clothes who already know the part they’re playing?

Do I hate the ones who truly believe nobody ever helped them, whose mental bio-pics of themselves conveniently write out of the script the inheritance, the annuity, the paid-for college education? Do I hate the ones who will never admit they can’t stand learning anything, that they’re too weak and frightened to examine those things over which they have no control?

Do I hate the odd few who really did claw their way to the top unaided, and now feel the need to mention this every five minutes in conversation? Who think that hard work is some sort of spiritual charge account on which they can rack up six digits’ worth of self-centered beliefs that the rest of us will end up paying for?

Yes. I hate them. I hate them. I hate being in their houses, I hate smiling for their photos, I hate the language they speak, the rewarded narcissism, the cheerful oblivion.

Why? What have they done to me?

Well, nothing really, they just offend me.

Wait. They did do something to me.

They acted as lightning rods for my family’s insecurities about themselves. They made us feel like shit. Of course, we let them, but it was a small town. There was nothing else to do. There was no clear path by which we could choose immunity to their games and demonstrate that openly without suffering consequences.

I hate them because they were in our house without physically being there, like dirty ghosts.

If in their presence I live up their scowling expectations of me, it’s because of my deep, inherent knowledge that I have no place in their world – less of a place than a total stranger would have. They could assume a total stranger would want to emulate and be like them.

They can make no such assumption about me. I have had every opportunity, have been groomed in every aspect of my education and points of reference to – figuratively speaking – drive the Lexus.

I am not driving the Lexus. It is now clear, at my age, that I will never drive the Lexus. My family’s friends know where I live, they know how I work; I keep the details of my day-to-day life on the down-low and they accordingly imagine the worst. I am among them, but I am not of them, and nothing has really equipped them to deal with that.

Exactly why don’t I drive the Lexus? Because I can’t, or because I choose not to? This question plagues me, and every family gathering sends me into bouts of mental acrobatics trying to answer it.

The Kid Is All Right, Part 2

[This is the second part of an essay I’m posting in several installments.]

“So Jennifer, what is it you do up in San Francisco these days?”

“I’m a proofreader.”

The deliberate suspension of their judgment of me is as palpable as a barely contained fart: the highlights in their eyes dim and retreat, the smiles become a form of facial calisthenics, the nodding is something they are telling themselves to do.

But the kind, gracious ladies at the wedding are very practiced in this kind of thing. They know just how to neutralize the subject at hand. What fond memories they have of me as a child! What an interesting, fascinating, unique little girl I was! Such an individual type! And so intelligent. The old stories are dragged out once more: You spent my child’s sixth birthday party reading our stacks of Time magazine instead of eating cake and ice cream (I did?! What was I thinking?! Obviously I knew nothing about how to party. You snag the cake and ice cream and *then* lock yourself in the bathroom with the reading material.)! While still in grammar school, Jen, you would make the most profound observations about people and society! You were able to read and write at college level by the fifth grade!

So why aren’t you rich? they are thinking, but don’t say. They accentuate the positive, no matter how many decades ago that happened to be.

And suddenly there’s another phantom me, one that wants to say, sorry. I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you. I’m sorry I’ve made you doubt that anyone who’s intelligent and works hard will live the way you do. I’m sorry the spectacular promise I showed as a child appears to have come to nothing in particular, that the endeavors I have found worthwhile and fulfilling would seem to you either banal or baffling: hammering out a nonprofit mission statement for minimum wage; being named unpaid staff writer at a well-respected underground magazine (that then went out of business); romping around Europe by myself right after 9/11, when everyone else was terrified of driving ten miles from home.

So there’s another, deeper, stronger, more obnoxious phantom me that steps forward, looks these women dead in the eyes and says, no, I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry one bit. You may be disappointed in me, but I am disappointed in the stories you live by, as they will inevitably disappoint you.

If asked on the street, you would agree that everyone makes mistakes, that everyone is frail and human, that we all end up in the same final place. But how can you really understand these things when your culture enshrines the mythology that because someone is young and good-looking and upwardly mobile, they will always be so, their skyward trajectory will simply continue forever because of its attractive present state? When it doesn’t continue, you cannot forgive them for it, as you cannot forgive yourselves when you finally show signs of earthly mortality.

If the Phantom Me had come true, by now the talk about her would have gotten demoted from “Isn’t she amazing?” to “Poor Jen, that husband just left her for some young thing” or “Apparently Jen’s youngest boy just got packed off to military school” or “You know, she never did lose that extra weight after those two kids.”

And to be fair, much of their concern is pragmatic. With the way things are now, how will I survive in the long term? How will I not end up in a place of extreme financial vulnerability? Owning property nowadays more often than not requires earning six digits a year, moving to the “exurbs” and pulling a nightmarish commute, soothing your boredom and stress with a constant stream of new consumer items racked up on your credit card. Even if I were willing to do any of that, my skill set wouldn’t qualify me for the hot job, the grind would destroy my health and put me in medical debt, and my overall higher-ups would sense that I just wasn’t cut out for the life. They would be right.

This is the thing. It’s not that I have nothing in common with the Phantom Me. It’s not as though I’ve never had an I Need to Get Serious phase in my life; I’ve had several. I’ve put on the nice suit, I’ve rehearsed the interview answers, I’ve beefed up the portfolio, I’ve sat down more times than I can remember to try to “figure it all out,” to squeeze the meanderings of my achievements and interests into some sort of linear path that suggests the sort of soaring future that would make sense to my family, that would finally speak their language.

But each time, with few exceptions, “it” doesn’t want to be figured out. Something in me has always just said no.

[Part 3 will be forthcoming next week. Part 1 is available in the last post. Thanks for reading.]