I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time so close to home in my adult life. Even as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out and new cases drop in San Francisco, like a lot of people I’ve found it more reassuring (and easier to find a toilet!) to simply stay within a one-mile radius of where I sleep.
Trips across town requiring two or more bus rides don’t even cross my non-car-owning mind anymore. Forget it.
Social media does keep most of us a certain kind of connected, but I can’t be the only one sick of the pixels, the scroll, the glow. Frankly by this point we’re boring each other stupid anyway. How many damned “cat sleeping in a weird place” pics do I have to sort through to feel like I’m actually getting closer to someone?
That’s why I’ve hauled out my postcard collection and started putting it to good use. There’s something so intimate about forms of communication that don’t prime you for an immediate response. To handwrite a brief, one-way message to a friend is to submerge yourself in that friend’s actual memory and accumulated presence in your life, what they mean to you, what they’d like to know. Social media can’t compare.
Staying close to home and learning to see it in new ways can be surprising and rejuvenating. It can also be maddening. And strangely exhausting.
Writing postcards to friends across town or across the Bay allows me to sum up a few little bullet points about my life that just wouldn’t work on an electronic feed. Postcards are short but significant reflections impervious to any collective flow; nobody owns or controls them except you and your friends. Sending them makes me feel less isolated, more nourished, than social media does.
My postcard-writing habit surely seems a little less anachronistic while I’m reaching out across a pandemic city. But when COVID ends and friends are once again too busy to meet, it may be a habit I just can’t kick.
It was June 5, 2020, by the time I got a flight home from Europe — one of the first, I think, directly connecting Frankfurt to San Francisco again after months of flight schedules having flailed in COVID chaos.
I write this just days before the Biden-Harris inauguration and after a sadly predictable yet wholly unbelievable violent mob attack on the U.S. capitol in Washington incited by President Donald Trump. More attacks, not just on the nation’s capitol but all fifty state capitols, are predicted in the lead-up to January 20.
I’d love to spend this time writing a neat little mood piece about repatriating after a flight that seemed like a modern miracle, but that would feel a bit provincial right now.
The thing about bringing a blog up to date these days is that events are unfolding so rapidly, this morning’s draft can seem like cave-drawings by lunchtime.
Additionally, in this writer’s inner world anyway, revolts and counterrevolutions are the stuff of daily life, in between deciding at the grocery store whether to stockpile a few dry goods while I’m at it, or whether it’s cool to pull my facemask down in the park for a few minutes if nobody else is around. What can I say that I won’t retract or reinterpret by tomorrow?
Imposed solitude can have a funhouse-mirror effect on the mind; shadows go on for miles, a passing car takes on the patina of a major event, a mood bump feels like a mini-breakdown.
Each in our cell in the giant socially distanced hive that is early 2021, we find it difficult to remember that nearly everybody around us is going through the same thing, making the same bizarre decisions, questioning the same previously unquestionable things. The bounds of normality have liquefied, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think social media helps much.
But a year ago, pre-COVID, pre-just about everything, I put a sticker on the cover of my 2020 planner that turned out to be prophetic: Solvitur Ambulando. It is solved by walking.
It came in the back pages of a charming book by Keri Smith, The Wander Society (2016). Designed like a literary scrapbook with sketches, collages, micro-chapter titles like “The Art of Getting Lost,” and quotes from such strolling enthusiasts as Walt Whitman and Isaiah Berlin, it’s an art-book pamphlet advocating the joys of walking and wandering as a tonic to modern life.
One of my major discoveries on returning home was that San Francisco had cordoned off an arterial road in my neighborhood to be used only for bikes, pedestrians, and very limited local car traffic.
People used to drive like maniacs up and down that road. Now I amble down the center of it, taking my time, and greet neighbors doing the same.
What is solved by walking, by stepping out in the open air with others doing the same? What is cured? For me, the bad hallucinations of what feels now like a sick day that invaded a year, that has colonized too many of my thoughts and hopes and feelings. Walking talks back to that, to the funhouse mirror of days so endless they go by in an instant, and months so undistinguished by novelty or event, they feel like years.
If you’ve come here after seeing my Noyo River Review reading, welcome to Civilization Party! My travel essay “Dearest, the Shadows: The Exquisite Despair of a Hungarian Afternoon” has been excerpted in 2019’s Review, which was debuted at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino on May 19.
Oddly enough I named the blog before learning that in Britain, people actually had “Civilisation parties” to gather and watch Kenneth Clark’s excellent (if flawed, and a product of its time) BBC TV series of the same name in 1969. Color television was new in England, so the epic scenery, monuments, and artifacts shown drew a remarkable 2.5 million viewers.
My idea with Civilization Party was to suggest it’s actually funner to think than you think it is. (Mostly it’s been an outlet for tart social criticism.)
It was my pleasure to attend August 2018’s Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference and meet writers, editors, and agents from all over Northern California and beyond in a such a naturally dramatic setting. Hopefully I’ll see many of you again.
You can find my full profile on LinkedIn. Thanks for visiting.
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.
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.
(Bus shelter outside the Veterans’ Building at Van Ness and McAllister)
What: Jen Burke Anderson street reading outside the Black, White and Read Opening Gala of Litquake
This Friday night, look for me in ballroom attire outside the Black, White, and Read Gala as I hit the arriving Litquake crowds with some lit-guerrilla entertainings!
I’ll have my banner set up on the back of the glass bus shelter at McAllister and Van Ness in front of the Veterans Building, where the gala will be held in the Green Room upstairs. Guests will be filing past me and looking down at me from the balcony.
Please show up in numbers to this! Bring your friends in ballroom attire!! This is by far my most subversive, obnoxious Direct Lit Action in years!! The more support I have, the bigger an audience there is around me, the less likely they are to tell me to move on. (I think.)