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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope so. Bon appetit

When You’re a Boy

   I just went in to Fog City News with the full intention of buying the remaining September fashion issues for their runway shots of Dolce & Gabbana’s lacy red dresses; I walked out instead with a magazine aimed at dudes obsessed with “dirtbag road trips” and $750 fixed-blade knives.

Why?  Well, could you resist a magazine whose tagline is “Live Bravely”?  Didn’t think so.

In fact, the October issue of Outside magazine promises “127 Strategies for Living Bravely,” and they do not disappoint.  Breaking down the dude life-journey decade by decade (your teens, your 20s, your 30s, and so forth), the Santa Fe, New Mexico–based editorial board lays out for your escape-starved pleasure a smorgasbord of age-appropriate adventures, swashbuckling life lessons, and panoramic landscapes on distant continents.

I know the snark is fairly dripping off my prose here, but seriously, I’m liking this magazine a lot.  I leaf through it on a coffee break; a few photo spreads of exotic scenery and shirtless athletes later, I’m mentally gearing up for ice-fishing in Yellowknife or surfing in Egypt, ready to take my own dirtbag odyssey into the grand unknown.

In other words:  I’m pretending Outside is aimed at me.  I’m fantasizing that there’s a publishing concern somewhere that actually thinks highly enough of me to know I’ll buy the magazine if they tell me to live bravely.

Women’s magazines—no matter how progressive, racy, or life-affirming they think they are—would never give us the Live Bravely creed.

Instead, they like to talk about strength.  Strong women.  As in: endurance.  Putting up and shutting up.  Staying in the trenches.  Battling cancer.  Struggling to be heard.  Suffering in dignity.  Be strong, the message seems to be, so you’ll be prepared when even more truckloads of shit inevitably get unloaded on helpless little you.

Bravery, on the other hand, is about kicking ass, having fun, and taking risks that are telegenic and cool.  Where strength is about hospital rooms, vomiting toddlers, and cheating husbands, bravery is about snowboarding in Turkey and penetrating vice dens in Manila to take art photos of hookers.

It’s not just the gung-ho attitude of Outside that appeals to me.  The fact is, I’m also a sucker for highly structured inspirational bromides.  “127 Strategies for Living Bravely”?  Come on, like I’m supposed to say no to that?  Especially when the women’s-magazine version would be “20 Ways to Sort of Hate Yourself Less”?

If adventure travel is brought up at all in my magazines of habit, it’s usually a first-person feature by a woman held up to us as a particular risk-taker, and it must start with the sentence, “I was on the rebound from a painful breakup / painful divorce / painful hangnail / etc.”  Nobody in a women’s magazine ever goes trekking in New Zealand just because it’s a kick-ass, exciting thing to do.  The Tragic Overture must be wailing in the background.

Outside, on the other hand, just assumes you did Machu Picchu ten years ago like everyone else (duh) and now you’re training for a triathlon in Bali.

And amazingly, for all this life-on-the-edge bravado, they’re not jerks about women.  Relationships and marriage are not sneer fodder but acknowledged as essential components of the examined life.  Talk of baggin’ babes is rare and elliptical.  We are advised, for example, to nickname our teenage-era adventure trucks Kermit rather than The Shaggin’ Wagon.

(Well-placed sex references don’t really offend me anyway.  Outdoor frolicking with shirtless athletes should be an essential component of my examined life.  It’s all got to add up somehow.)

Continuing:  One-fifth of the “30 Books Every Guy Should Read” are written by women (some would hope for more, but dude, it’s a dude mag).  A surprising number of Outside’s articles are authored by women, including first-person adventure narratives minus the waterworks and personal melodrama.

Finally, I don’t know how feminist this is, but there’s this endearing obsession with adventure dogs.  The pages of Outside abound with adventure-dog care products, photo contests, and stories.  Dudes send in photos of Jake or Frodo paddling wildly across the Snake River with giant branches clenched in their smiling jaws. It’s just kinda sweet.

It’s as though the editors know full well they’ve got some women readers like me, clinging onto them like a life-raft of possibility in a sea of fashion rags grinding their stiletto heels into our faces, showing us images of glamour and power then slinging us dreary editorial gruel to starve on.

You may argue that it’s only natural for women’s magazines to be small-minded downers.  Aren’t they merely reflections of our lives, which are in fact small-minded downers?  Even if we’re career girls, we’re still the caring gender, burdened with more suffocating responsibilities than men and constantly dwelling on them.  We spend more time caring for children, aging parents, and infantile husbands and bosses.  We have no choice but to see life as trench warfare, n’est-ce pas?

Well, it’s funny about that.  The men of Outside apparently do not see wives, children, mortgages, old age, flesh-eating bacteria, or anything as impediments to Living Bravely.  They take their kids zip-lining in Costa Rica.  They spend pipe-smoking summers in cottages on the west coast of Ireland.  They wheel their aging parents through the Smithsonian.  They join the Peace Corps in their empty-nest stage and they stroll the Appalachians in their silver years.  They just keep on finding ways to do badass things.

True, this confident access to multiple outrageous options in life smacks of a certain economic entitlement.  Not everyone (in fact, probably fewer and fewer as time goes on) can afford to live bravely the Outside magazine way.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, the planet can’t afford it at all.  The atmosphere cries mercy with every long-haul flight to Buenos Aires.

But if we’re going to consider meta-problems at all, isn’t it also true that breaking out of survival mode and thinking more broadly about our ultimate direction as individuals is a basic human need?

This leads to the real catch, besides the gender one, of loving Outside magazine.  It spotlights this mental tightrope-walk I find myself wobbling along these days:  Am I living by the Apocalypse Story or the Carpe Diem story?  You can’t conscionably do both, yet that’s exactly what most of us do every day.  We believe it’s all going to hell in a handbasket . . . and then we buy cool stuff shipped in from China.  We despair of climate change . . . then book that flight to Cancun.  We believe that jobs are going away . . . and then read that “Finding Your Dream Job” article in the in-flight magazine.

The way we live makes no sense at all, and deep-down we know it.  The facts get more grisly every day, yet we’re creatures of motivation and must conjure some idea of progress, if not in the world at large, then at least in ourselves.

The extent to which our projects of personal self-improvement end up fouling our planetary nest is an irony almost too depressing to discuss.  At the same time, dwelling on it can put you in a very puritanical, ungenerous, locked-down state of mind—exactly the state of mind that can’t solve a problem to save its life.

For better or worse, the real core of fun and excitement, the reason the pleasure principle is built into all of us, is that it gives us ideas.  And ideas are the only things that are going to get us out of this mess.

Women’s magazines don’t give me ideas.  Not ones that matter.  They trap me in some sort of therapeutic nightmare-nanny echo chamber where everything is framed in terms of crisis and tragedy.  Nobody ever tells us as women:  You can take these challenges life gives you and actually have fun with them.

A closing thought:  I’m guessing Outside’s real-world demographic income may be lower than it seems.  The bottom line of the magazine racket is that you’re selling a particular vision of life, and that involves a practice called up-selling: advertising items and lifestyles that are just out of the reader’s economic reach.

As with any magazine, you have to do some fiction-to-reality interpretation.  Will I be buying a $750 fixed-blade knife or going ice fishing in Yellowknife any time soon?  No.  Am I more likely to join a local hiking club after reading all these ripping tales of falling into ice crevasses and cooking freshly caught salmon on an open fire?  Yeah, totally.  And really, that’s all I need.

For me, Outside amounts to an up-sell of character.  The people in it are braver, more entitled, and less worried than I am.  They just are.  And they are mostly men.  Buying magazines meant for men, sadly, is the quickest shortcut to radically reimagining my life.  I wish it weren’t so.

Maybe having an adventure dog named Kermit would help.

The New Look

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

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

Welcome to Civilization Party!

My name is Jen Burke Anderson.  I’m a writer in San Francisco.  I’ve been planning this blog for a long time and finally, I’ve got my launch pad for commentary on everything from pop to politics.  Watch this space — the idea is for me never to post more often than once a week, because I don’t think anything of quality can be written in less than a week.  That’s just a full-time proofreader’s opinion.

I’m glad you’ve come to visit.  Please come back!