ISA HOPKINS

Raconteur. Adventurer. Kimchi Enthusiast.

Dear Al Franken

Please. Step down.

 

It’s been a long few weeks for women (and men) who hold memories of assault and harassment as part of our lived landscapes. It’s been a good, surprising kind of pain, to see predation and abuse met with actual consequences, but those consequences nonetheless demand the excavation of our own scar tissue, all of those itches that so many of us have spent so much effort trying desperately not to scratch, and while satisfying it’s also really fucking exhausting. Trauma retriggered, emotional whiplash, crushing disappointment — it’s all there in every all-too-familiar headline, the story of Weinstein’s hired Mossad agents a caricature of the legal scuffle I endured as a naive nineteen-year-old assaulted by a family member who then hired a bloodhound lawyer who spent months sending me taunts and threats (he would expose the REAL reason I had left Caltech!, he promised, because one-third of college students transfer schools but it is only weaponized and discrediting when a young woman speaks against a prominent man); the pleasant shock of learning that the compact I’d assumed the world had made with Louis C.K., to overlook his sexual misconduct because “genius”, was a contract with limits, that what I’d heard about for years as a member of the comedy community was not as universally known as I’d thought; the less pleasant shock of seeing the photo of another prominent comedian, behaving just like a comedian, groping a sleeping woman on a plane, grinning at the camera.

 

I like Senator Al Franken — I’m not a Minnesotan so I have no call to vote for him, but if I were, then I would; not only because the near-extinction of the moderate Republican leaves essentially no non-abhorrent alternative to punching a ballot for (D), but because Senator Al Franken seems to take a balanced approach: serious about the issues, unserious about his own role, lacking the self-importance so easily found in politics and politicians.

 

Comedian Al Franken… I’m kind of meh about that guy. I know, I know, he shaped the glory days of “SNL,” but — well, were the glory days of “SNL” really that glorious, after all? When do we get to stop pretending that Chevy Chase is the peak of comedic brilliance? When do we admit that forcing collaborative efforts like sketch comedy into the white male worldview is creatively limiting and makes for a lot of shitty comedy? 

 

When do we acknowledge that jokes can be cruel and oppressive as often as they can be funny and liberating?

 

To look at the photo of you groping Leeann Tweeden, Mr. Franken, is to see a picture of Comedian Al Franken, which you stated as much in your (second) apology — “clearly it was intended as a joke,” you said, and it is clear. “It’s just a joke” is the preferred hiding place of every comedian whose immaturity/thoughtlessness/malice/privilege/ignorance/hate — take your pick, there are plenty of examples for each — occluded their view of their own jokes and the hurt those jokes might cause, often recast as “offense” because that loaded term implies a certain thin-skinned sensitivity, rather than a genuine and justified injury. It’s all part of the game in a comedian’s non-apology, in which said comedian transforms a question of their own values and humaneness into a debate about free speech, because “free speech” is an easier banner to rally one’s self-importance than inclusive comedy, predicated as it is on empathy and humility. 

 

But groping someone isn’t reducible to free speech; it crosses the boundary behind which comedians, and so many others, hide all their worst impulses. It’s not the worst of the recent assault and harassment allegations, not by a long shot, but it’s still gross and dehumanizing in the way that so many of the ways men treat women are gross and dehumanizing, ways that aren’t always — or ever — legally actionable but that nevertheless slowly chip away at female selfhood, that keep our eyes down and our voices low, that assert a hierarchy we can’t escape even asleep, even in a flak jacket, even at thirty thousand feet. 

 

The photo was taken almost fifteen years ago, and people change. I have no doubt that Senator Al Franken is a different, and probably better, person than Comedian Al Franken — but that is precisely why Senator Al Franken should resign, rather than allow Comedian Al Franken to continue to write his apologies. Because Senator Al Franken seems to have an understanding of political optics, of the mechanisms of power and privilege, of what it means to stand for others — which can mean, sometimes, standing down.

 

Mr. Franken, your groping one woman is not as serious as Roy Moore assaulting and harassing multiple minors. It’s not as serious as Trump admitting to grabbing ’em by the pussy; it’s not as serious as anything Bill Clinton has been accused of, or, in the case of Monica Lewinsky, admitted to. But that’s just the point: as long as powerful men can act with impunity, they will, and until we as a society have a mechanism and a model for them to face consequences, they won’t. The question is not whether or not Senator Al Franken deserves to answer for the actions of Comedian Al Franken — the question is whether or not Senator Al Franken wants to set an example by which other powerful men, much worse, might be brought to account. 

 

Because right now all we have is a group of powerful men pointing fingers at each other, each one trying to deflect attention from their own misdeeds by claiming someone else is worse, and somehow the only individual who seems to have paid any political consequence whatsoever is *Hillary* Clinton, because OF COURSE. I’ve been a woman my whole life, and unfairness ceased to surprise me a long time ago; when I was about nineteen, I think.

 

Given the partisanship of today’s Washington — and America — I don’t imagine that your stepping down, Mr. Franken, will immediately spur self-reflection on the right, that it might cause Roy Moore to drop out of his campaign or Donald Trump to resign his trophy presidency. I don’t even imagine it will do much to quell the right-wing outrage machine, which has proven itself adept over the decades at manufacturing anger and fear to suit its own needs regardless of reality. I’m not making an instrumentalist argument, at least not in the fashion being widely debated across the Internet, and certainly not in the fashion of the instrumentalist arguments offered in defense of Bill Clinton in the ’90s, recently and succinctly summarized — and deconstructed — by Matt Yglesias.

 

No, Mr. Franken. First read Rebecca Traister’s excellent essay, about the way sexual harassment and assault harms women along many axes, about how it not only exhausts us but dissuades us from our own ambitions, about how speaking up and finding justice is its own cost. And understand that I am asking not for your punishment, but simply for you to do the right thing. Because the argument I’m putting forth is not one of retribution, but restitution; of taking responsibility for causing harm, rather than making other people — women — responsible for the outcome of your actions.

 

It takes a lot of ego — a strong sense of self — to run for Congress. Asking to be a Senator is asking for moral responsibility, and to suggest that an ethics committee is suddenly necessary to determine culpability or consequence — at a moment when consequences have finally just materialized for sexual harassment and assault, for the rarest circumstance when there exists incontrovertible photographic proof of the incident, rather than the all-too-easily-disregarded words of a woman — is disingenuous, at the very least, an evasion of moral responsibility as obvious as so many comedians’ claims to free speech. Because just like those claims, that’s not the point: “free speech” and “I will cooperate with an investigation” both dodge the basic adult obligation not to hurt other people. Not, Mr. Franken, because what you did specifically to Leeann Tweeden was so hurtful — though it was — but because, in ceding your agency to rectify the situation, in forcing other people (women) to do the work of making things right, you are continuing to exact a price, continuing to benefit from women’s emotional labor, continuing to build an edifice on our scar tissue.

 

There’s another choice, and it’s a simple one: Be a goddamn grownup.

 

Bill Clinton maintained his own personal power by deploying the defenses of the right (“This is a private matter!”), rather than affirming the legitimacy of women’s experiences and participating in the sometimes-hard-and-personally-costly work of dismantling the patriarchy. Roy Moore and Donald Trump are pretty committed to their own irredeemability; they dismissed their own humaneness well before anyone else ever did. But you, Mr. Franken — you actually seem like a decent human being and a good progressive. 

 

There are plenty of people — including women — arguing that that, in itself, is reason for you to remain in the Senate; that decent humans and good progressives are a rare enough breed that we can’t afford to lose a single one. But the notion of irreplaceability has been used persistently to keep women and people of color from accessing power, because the men wielding it are just too damn good to let go — it’s an idea that protected not only Louis C.K. but Weinstein and Wieseltier, and frankly, it’s a steaming pile of bullshit. There are plenty of people who can tell good jokes, and produce good movies, and nurture good writing without assaulting, harassing, or otherwise discriminating against at least half the world’s population (“at least half” because, let’s be honest, if that’s the way they treat women, they’re probably not super great on their interactions with gay men or non-white men). And the reality is, the world is full of decent human beings and good progressives. 

 

Minnesota is full of decent human beings and good progressives.

 

So, if you really want to be a hero, then make a real sacrifice: find a few decent human beings and good progressives who would like to be a senator from Minnesota — especially women, especially women of color — and resign so that they can take your place. Mention them by name. Support their campaigns. Create a whole new template for responding to the failings of masculinity, one that’s generous and stands in genuine solidarity with women, rather than one that lives in defensiveness and self-justification. No, Roy Moore and Donald Trump probably won’t follow your example, but if they’ve become our ethical barometer then we’re all screwed, and the point is, somebody will probably follow your example, or learn from it, and women will be empowered by it, instead of exhausted by the endless demands of speaking out! that only compounds victimhood.

 

The first time I was assaulted, I reported it. I spoke out, and for that, I was hounded, taunted, and threatened for months.

 

The second time I was assaulted, I said nothing.

 

It can’t only be women’s responsibility to speak out, to arbitrate consequences, to manage this entire conversation. Maybe all men can’t get their shit together right away — but you, Mr. Franken? You’re a progressive. You’re a feminist. You believe women, and you believe in women. Prove it. Hold up your end of the bargain, because women have been holding up more than our share of it for years now, and we’re pretty damn tired. 

 

Women have dragged sexual assault, harassment, and misogyny into the public consciousness once again, and men seem to be taking notice. Notice is nice. But what we need now to move things forward is the hard work of dismantling, of some real heavy lifting. 

 

I hear men are supposed to be good at that kind of thing.

When You’ve Gotta Be Right

Berners, spring/summer 2016: 

Any result that is not Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee is illegitimate and wrong! We must disregard the votes of millions of black women, who have overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton, to get what we want! Also identity politics is a stupid distraction from the *real* problems facing America, which can only be solved by class-based solidarity led by the white men writing Internet screeds saying so.

 

Berners, fall 2016:

DONNA BRAZILE EMAILED HILLARY CLINTON TO TELL HER THAT DURING THE DEBATE IN FLINT THERE WOULD BE A QUESTION ABOUT THE WATER CRISIS IN FLINT THIS IS PROOF OF COLLUSION AND VILLAINY AND DONNA BRAZILE IS AN UNTRUSTWORTHY INSIDER DEMOCRATIC PARTY/CLINTON HACK!

 

Also, Hillary Clinton is writing a book about her experiences with the campaign now? Geez, could she be any more of a cash-grabbing capitalist sellout?

 

Berners, fall 2017:

Donna Brazile is the only Democratic insider we can trust. Any critique or discussion of her insider claims, especially insinuations that writing a book  about her experiences with the campaign might be motivating a sensationalism to move product like some kind of cash-grabbing capitalist sellout, are efforts to silence all black women, whom we should never disregard!

 

Berners, spring/summer 2020:

Wait — the vast majority of black women voted for a neoliberal stooge like Kamala Harris?!  THIS IS ILLEGITIMATE AND WRONG! IDENTITY POLITICS ARE RUINING AMERICA!

 

And repeat, ad infinitum…

An Incomplete List of Things That Have Failed, Despite Mayim Bialik’s* Opinions, to Protect Me From Sexual Assault

-wearing khakis

-wearing sweatpants

-(wearing unisex sweatpants)

-wearing a hoodie

-(wearing a Shaun White for Target boys’ hoodie)

-not wearing makeup

-wearing glasses

-long hair

-short hair

-being fat

-not being fat

-being outspoken

-being well-mannered

-being intellectually serious

-being a comedian

-being a feminist

-femininity

-androgyny

-plainness

-daytime

-nighttime

-who i was hanging out with

-who i wasn’t hanging out with

-going to a religious school

-being a virgin

-not being a virgin

-believing in God

-not believing in God

-sobriety

-shortness

-whiteness

-middle-classness

-being in a rich area

-being in a poor area

-trusting authority figures

-not trusting strangers

-taking various self-defense classes

-being good at math

-reporting my first assault to police

-being in public

-being well-educated

-being from a “good family”

-being at my grandmother’s house

-believing that there was anything I could do to “protect myself” 

-knowing that there was nothing I could do to “protect myself”

 

*And many other people who believe that their good intentions are enough to justify the active harm they cause women and other-gendered victim of sexual predation and assault every day when they peddle this pile of unexamined garbage.

Santa Rosa: A Love Letter

I was there last in August, on my most recent trip to the Bay Area. I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house, just across the street from the high school and down the road from Santa Rosa Junior College; my aunt and I made our usual stop at the Santa Rosa fish market, a downtown hole-in-the-wall with seafood so fresh the air is thick with brine, and you walk out the door with the day’s catch and beach hair. We got oysters and scallops and mussels, the usual order for our regular bivalve nights, a tradition begun a few years’ back when amidst mussels and wine I drunkenly proclaimed my love for the bivalve and that little-used word became our inside joke, one so flavorful it retains the ritual capacity of the eternal present: my uncle shucks the oysters, fresh from Tomales Bay, while I slice the scallops into sashimi; they are sweet and butter-soft, luscious, melting on the tongue, the Platonic ideal of a scallop. My aunt cleans and steams the mussels, with white wine and lemon and garlic and backyard parsley, and some backyard purslane that I insist on adding. My uncle uncorks and pours the most hyperlocal of wines, grapes collected from nearby vineyards and brewed in my aunt and uncle’s garage. The next morning in the garden I collect a tote bag full of fallen green walnuts to make a nocino, steeping now in my cabinet, and my aunt and uncle gift me with apples from half-a-dozen varietals that they’ve grafted (now living in my brother and sister-in-law’s freezer, applesauce for my niece and nephew, jars and jars of it), pears, peppers, beets. We snack on prunes, ripe off the tree and sugar-sweet, and pause to drink more wine as the chickens cluck, content in their coop, all of us warm in the afternoon sun.

 

It takes time to build such a life, one that reads like an enviable magazine feature on the wine country.  My aunt and uncle have been in their house for thirty years, and I’ve only been witness to the last twelve; I didn’t see the garden laid out or the studio built or those apple trees planted. By the time I moved to San Francisco, just out of college and craving the California sunshine, their home and their yard and their family were all well-established enough to become my escape, to feel — as I moved, as I couch-surfed, as I had no place to call my own — a little bit like a home to me, too.

 

And so last Monday, when I woke late, frustrated that a long sleep had done little against a persistent and vicious cold, when I checked Facebook and saw posts from friends in San Francisco about respirators and outdoor air quality, links from Bay Area friends about the mounting flames, panic rose until finally, fortunately, a post from Jake, my aunt and uncle’s upstairs tenant — he and I have bonded over the years, forcing my aunt and uncle to watch “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut” on a Movie Monday and getting into a shouting match about Richard Sherman and racism in the NFL during one memorable Super Bowl — who was OK, who had packed up his guitars and gotten the hell out even though, he reassured his social network, he was not actually in an evacuation zone. As I waited for my aunt and uncle to respond to my frantic “ARE YOU OK?!?!??!!” I tried to look up maps of the damage, but the chaos of the moment was too great for such orderly reporting. Eventually I realized that the Santa Rosa Junior College Twitter feed was probably the best source of information I could find for their neighborhood, and refreshed it compulsively until my uncle emailed later that night. They hadn’t been evacuated, but half a mile away the entire Coffey Park neighborhood had disappeared into smoke and ash so they had spent the day packing their car and truck, preparing to flee to Marin, to another aunt’s house, but when the time came to go they couldn’t do it. Nor the next day, or the next, or the next — even as the lines of the evacuation zones crept closer and closer to their house they chose instead to stay, to volunteer at evacuation shelters, to go to work. My aunt is a county employee; she’s an official part of the recovery effort. The ash she had to wipe off her desk when she went back into her office, she wrote to us, was inches thick.

 

My home-away-from-home, my second home, the center of my California gravity — by whatever label it might be known as, its more important label is safe. It stands, still, in a city where hundreds of other houses do not, by nothing more than luck. There will be nocino and applesauce for years to come. My aunt and uncle are safe; we could have had bivalve nights under another roof, if it had come to that, but without them the tradition would have become tragedy; not only because they are family but because they are the kind of people who, faced with a city-destroying firestorm and the opportunity to flee, choose to stay and help others.

 

I spoke on the phone with my mom on Tuesday. She was certain that they’d gone down to Marin, no matter how many times I corrected her. I suspect she would have fled, and simply could not imagine someone making a different choice. I would have fled, too, and though I can acknowledge that my aunt and uncle stayed I am nonetheless astonished by it, although I don’t know why; I have been the direct beneficiary of their generosity for over a decade, and why should I be the boundary to it?

 

Nearly a week on, my Facebook feed is oddly bifurcated. From Northern California friends there are links to articles, links to GoFundMe pages, links to DIY air-filtration systems to keep the dense, choking, particulate-heavy smog out of one’s lungs. From Cleveland and East Coast friends there is nothing, no mention or acknowledgment of the devastation, no donations, no thoughts, no prayers. Dozens dead, thousands displaced, millions suffering from the heavy smoke — and yet it seems that the media response is to treat this as just another California fire, something typical and expected. But Katrina was not just another hurricane, and this is not just another fire. Some disasters are not so typical.

 

Our president and his acolytes at FOX News, of course, have political reasons for pretending California doesn’t exist — we are an inconveniently well-populated foil to his claims towards representing “America,” or to have been popularly elected — but the ignorance of the scale of the fires comes not only from conservatives. I blame hygge: in the last decade American ideas about “the good life” have rotated northward, borrowing not from the Mediterranean ideals of “Into the Tuscan Sun” but from Noma-inspired Nordic fantasias of coziness and Scandinavian seasonality, so much more applicable to the chilly Northeastern environs of our national tastemakers than the tired cliche of endless wine and sunshine available only to us lucky West Coasters. It is not today’s aspirations but yesterday’s dreams which disappeared in the flames, and isn’t it gauche to mourn something that we’re all supposed to be over already anyway?

 

That day in August, after we picked walnuts and apples and prunes, my aunt and I drove to three different grocery stores trying to hunt down more of a specialty product she’d bought and nearly run out of, a fermented sheep’s-milk butter from a small Petaluma dairy that she insisted I try. It was featherlight and funky, singular and transcendent, worth the effort to hunt down even if only to discover that it was a short-run seasonal product, and out of stock at the moment. That’s the beautiful thing about brewing wine and nocino, about eating fresh apples and ripe prunes and backyard purslane: it teaches you to wait, to understand that singular and transcendent gastronomic pleasures require patience, that the land cannot be hurried. It’s a pithy lesson amidst most food, mass-produced and shipped from a great distance, but in wine country the sheer unabashed sensuality of every flavor is its own argument and all it takes to convert a skeptic is one simple meal.

 

I don’t mean to shame those unaffected by the fires; from Hurricane Harvey to Harvey Weinstein, plus the omnipresent threat/spectacle of our own dear leader instigating nuclear war via Twitter (what a world), we are all a little wrung out on national disasters. Napa and Sonoma counties have money that Puerto Rico does not, and that matters. But the fact remains that this is not a local tragedy, or a regional disaster. The North Bay might be its own self-indulgent self-parody at times but it is also America’s culinary conscience, which seems like a rather niche morality until one considers exactly what food encompasses: agriculture and environment, transportation and labor, culture and pleasure.  To live by a philosophy of food is to be embedded in ritual and tradition and principle, the ascendent theology of “clean eating” an ascetic dogma to which the North Bay can only shrug in bemusement at the idea that anyone might choose a chia pudding when creme brulee exists. Such flavorful impacts reach beyond the palate, as this beacon of localism and landedness has developed into an entire — and substantial — economy.  There are independent food and wine producers all around the country, but where else in America do they constitute an internationally recognized identity? Losses in the North Bay are not only losses of wine and cheese and produce and fermented sheep’s-milk butter but losses of toasts and togetherness, hospitality and home; even if you don’t live there, even if you’ve never been there, the openness and ease of the wine country embodies an idea of home so fundamental that we all share it, that we all aspire to it, even if we’ve replaced the grapes with lichens and the sunshine with snowshowers and rebranded it as “hygge.”

 

The North Bay is not beyond critique. Racism and inequality are issues there as much as they are anywhere. The gentleness and gentility of wine country agricultural practice does not preclude exploitation, and the truth is that those who labor the most often savor the least, especially if they don’t have the right kind of papers. The sticker shock of housing in Santa Rosa is less than down the 101 in San Francisco, but that’s not saying much; my aunt and uncle have worked hard but they also got lucky, buying at a more affordable time, one unlikely to be revisited again soon.  But no place is perfect, and if the humane vision proffered by the best of our gastronomic wonderland — of gathering, sharing, welcoming — is to be expanded, to be made more inclusive, it must first be rebuilt.

 

For that, we should all care, and thankfully, people have stayed for the effort.

Water Music

The final essay brought up from the archives… a personal piece, written in the immediate aftermath of late January 2010, edited later that year, still felt in 2016.

 

I am on the BART back to Oakland and the music pulses in my purloined headphones, hijacked from the seat-back pocket and emblazoned with the United Airlines logo.  They’re cheap headphones but the sound quality is better than earbuds, rich with depth and clarity that I haven’t encountered yet from my iPod.

 

The BART is packed for a Thursday afternoon and I focus on the music, the slippery sounds that I have never quite been able to comprehend; it is entrancing, this brilliant noise, and I am ensnared by its rising and its falling, forever enigmatic.  I’ve read books on music theory, sonic cognition, and still it refuses to reveal itself to me.

 

Words: that is how I order the world.  Language I can marshal and understand but music is sublime and mysterious, and no matter how I chase it no illumination arrives.  I want to escape into the music now but neuronal firings won’t allow it, insistent upon conscious thought, and these words won’t go away even though I wish they would, coursing through my gray matter as they’ve done all week:

 

David, I wonder; David, where did you go?

 

Where did you go?

 

*

 

My flight into Cleveland is delayed by an hour and a half — bad weather in Chicago — and when my mother and I walk through the back door it is nearly two a.m.  My father is still awake, in the living room with my uncle and three aunts and a cousin, more arriving in the coming days.  Most of us are still on California time but all of us are hesitant to go to sleep.

 

I am camping out in the basement, my own private cave in the zoo of so many people.  It’s a spacious basement with room for more but something is wrong with the water pipes and whenever the toilet is flushed they bleat a ridiculous song, something in between a siren and a gong, loud and reverberating.  No one else is willing to put up with the noise but I don’t mind it, my head too stuffy to sleep.

 

I take advantage of the privacy to stay up late, later even than everyone else is staying up, and in the quietude of dead hours I lean on language to make sense of all this.  I don’t know that it can but my aunt and uncle have asked me to speak at the funeral and by five in the morning I think I have beat the words into a shape something like my cousin.

 

*

 

This family, my family, our family, is a many-headed organism made of dozens of moving parts: one matriarch, twelve siblings and each one paired off, twenty-three cousins (only a few of those paired off yet), three great-grandchildren so far.  Technically I suppose the number is now twenty-two but the official tally, the permanent record, will always say twenty-three, death certificates be damned.

 

We play Scrabble and put Scotch tape on my aunt’s cat, sleep on air mattresses and go through gallons of booze and don’t stop talking until we pass out from exhaustion.  It’s so easy in this world to feel like an outsider but in this tribe I see myself reflected, in so much resistance to tragedy and so many reflexive jokes, and together at my uncle’s house and my parent’s kitchen and the funeral home we stave off despair with food and alcohol and laughter and each other, most of all, with each other.

 

*

 

I am in a NyQuil haze for the wake, my head pounding and congested and confused on so many levels.  I don’t normally take much medicine but I needed some rest and NyQuil seemed the best way to sleep through the symphony of the pipes; I’ve been too sick to drink but at least I can achieve a chemical unreality with cough syrup.

 

It is an open casket and David doesn’t quite look like himself, made up and in a suit and more formal than he ever was in life.  I want to touch him, to shake him awake, but instead I go through the line and hug my aunt and uncle and then my cousin, David’s little sister, collapses against me.  She is a senior in high school, about to graduate from my alma mater, a middle child forever hassled by her older brother, and I stand firm and hold tight and say nothing.

 

Words may be all that I have to make sense of this world, but sometimes there are no words at all.

 

*

 

There’s an easy moral to be had from it all — drugs are bad, kids — but I’ve seen “Trainspotting” half a dozen times, and my cousin never looked like “Trainspotting.”  The pastor gives the official eulogy, something long-winded and meandering that ends with an exhortation to come to Jesus.  My father had employed David in countless home improvement projects and he sobs next to me, my mother on his other side clutching at his hand, and I wonder if his devout Catholicism is blunting this pain, making sense of the inexplicable.

 

There is a polished wooden casket at the front of the church.  I had pushed past it moments earlier, to speak at the lectern, to read what I’d written, and it seemed then and it seems now oddly out of place: I know David’s body is inside, the same made-up thing I saw the day before, but that is not where my cousin is now, and I just want to figure out where he has gone.

 

*

 

We like to think of death as a point on a continuum: birth and youth, adulthood then old age then illness and then death, the period at the end of a long and complex sentence.  It is a process to reach such triumphant punctuation and we imagine that it should happen peacefully, with family and friends present, time given for all the necessary goodbyes.

 

It happens this way for some, I suppose, but for others it is binary and sudden: they are alive and then they are not, young and vital and then — not.  David didn’t even go to a hospital, beyond such intervention.  My aunt found him in his room and of all the comforts this enfolding human blanket of family can offer, no one can ever erase that tormenting image for her.  I’m told there was some blood but I can’t listen yet, can’t picture something that I can’t even believe to be real.

 

*

 

They tell me that I captured him well in my words, well-written and well-delivered, and I am asked for e-mailed copies.  What I can proffer is so little but it is at least something, these meager words and whatever meager comfort they might inspire.

 

They were only memories, these words; they made sense of the person that was but offer no insight into what has happened to him now.  David was a solid presence in life, the sort of guy you’d want on your side in a fight (the sort of guy who got into fights), but death has rendered him ethereal, here and then gone, given over to time and things I do not understand.

 

I could blame the NyQuil or the head cold or the lack of sleep, those screeching pipes, but deep down I know that no matter how lucid I am this will never make sense.

 

*

 

Within one thirty-six hour span I go to the airport four times, all of us dispersing back to the unceasing demands of a life that moves in only one direction.  Chauffeuring is something to do, to keep me occupied as my parents’ house slowly empties.  I am the last to leave, departing back to Oakland, leaving behind a mountain of sheets to be washed and the wailing of their plumbing for the distractions of work and stand-up comedy gigs and bills to be paid.  It all feels even more unreal from thousands of miles away, and it is too easy to believe it never even happened.  Days later I play Lady Gaga at absurd volume across the Bay Bridge and try to crowd out the tears in my head, but she is less effective than booze and family and the song ends too soon.

 

The tears never come, anyway, dammed up by unrelenting disbelief.

 

Memories peek into my life now from so many unexpected places.  A Phil Collins song plays and I remember joking about it two Christmases ago; “Titanic” is on television at a friend’s house and with a jolt I recall seeing it in the theaters with David more than a decade ago, my grandmother taking us both in her maroon Oldsmobile.  These have been unconsidered memories for so long, piling up in my brain without reflection, but now that their collection has been so abruptly foreshortened I cling to them; they have lain dormant in my gray matter for years, shuttered and unspectacular, and suddenly three time zones away from where I grew up with my cousin they are all that is left. 

 

Six months later I am transferring numbers into a new phone, culling old friends — fallen away now — and I am blindsided at the letter “D”, tears welling up backstage at an open mic, and against all rational thought I put David’s number into my new phone because anything else would be a betrayal.

 

It would’ve been a fun trip home, under different circumstances, but under different circumstances we might not have all been so determined to have fun.

 

*

 

I am, like so many other members of my family, a terrible judge of time.  If it can be held and touched I can measure and analyze and understand but when it comes to the fourth dimension I am strangely disabled, pathologically tardy, incapable of proper judgment or perception.  Music lives in that incomprehensible space, transient, evanescent, and despite the best efforts of man to suspend time and hold onto these sounds still they fall forward into the ether. 

 

It is like life in that way, music is, and just like life it cannot go on forever.  There is much about music that is a mystery to me, but this much I can understand; these are impermanent things, fading from the earth in time, disappearing to unseen places, but when I close my eyes I can still recall the peculiar notes struck by water rushing through my parents’ pipes and the particular cadence of David’s voice, and these lush sounds are more than all the words I’ve ever put together.

 

His birthday is (was? is?) two weeks after the funeral.  Twenty-three years old today, if only I knew where to send the card. 

*

On Israel

Written in September 2014.  Not posted because WHY WOULD I INVITE THAT INTO MY LIFE eh fuck it though…

 

My life isn’t complicated enough. I think I’ll write about Israel.

 

Much ink has already been spilled about Israel, and Palestine; my purpose here isn’t to add to the cacophony but to clarify certain dimensions of Israel’s identity, to better understand the claims made about it (and about Palestine).

 

1.  Israel is Jewish.

 

That Israel is a Jewish state is its primary identity; it was founded as such, explicitly, as a nation for the people without a homeland.  I don’t have a great deal to say on this matter except to point to a masterful (and shockingly readable) essay by Judith Butler, explicating why those who claim that to criticize Israel is to be anti-semitic are, in fact, making the same error of conflation as the anti-semites who use Israeli actions as an excuse to, say, smash windows in French synagogues.  The essay is beautifully reasoned and should be read by all.

 

2.  Israel is colonialist.

 

This is, perhaps, the number-one complaint against Israel: that its actions against Palestine are those of a colonizer against an indigenous population, and while violent oppression of the indigenous certainly has had its supporters, its historical heyday seems to have largely passed.  However, the colonial nature of Israel runs deeper than its actions, and even deeper than its founding.  Zionism, as a movement, developed in Europe’s imperial age, and its entire philosophical context is predicated upon colonialism.  That the Balfour Declaration was a British document owed not only to Britain’s comparatively liberal attitude towards the Jews, but also to the utter domination of the British empire, which had enough geopolitical credibility to resettle a global diaspora within a foreign land to which it held no legal title — a maneuver which takes both cojones and unequivocal international pre-eminence.  Israel is not only a colonial project for its Jewish residents; Israel is a European colonialist project, an abdication of “the Jewish problem” to another continent and, as such, a projection of European imperialist power. 

 

3.  Israel is militarist.

 

Israel often claims that its partnership with the United States is necessary as a consequence of its geopolitical importance: that it is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.  We’ll approach that claim next, but one important distinction between Israeli democracy and the other Western democracies to which it compares itself is that Israel is, fundamentally, a militarist state.  In the post-WWII era, European democracies have demilitarized; Japan was forcibly demilitarized, to the same effect — the reduction of military power as a central pillar of national might.  Even the United States, by far the largest military in the world, uses its armed forces less as a tool for national identity than Israel, where all citizens, regardless of gender or ability, must serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (Arab and Druze citizens, as well as ultra-Orthodox Jews, may be exempted; the exemption has been challenged for the ultra-Orthodox).  As a practical result of this, every Israeli leader, in all sectors of the country, has been, at some point in their lives, a soldier.  There is quite literally no other liberal democracy in the West where a similar statement can be made, because universal military conscription doesn’t exist  in any other liberal democracy in the West.  Universal national service exists in other Western liberal democracies, but such programs also include options for non-military government work or even community service; if an Israeli version of AmeriCorps were available as an alternative to the IDF, the experience of youth would be radically different.  Military service has often been a crucible for the formation of national values, generally patriotism, sacrifice, and adherence to authority.  That the Israeli public opinion continues to shift rightward is the result of many factors, but one little-discussed is the values formation inherent to Israeli citizenship, which is militaristic. 

 

When one holds a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; when every citizen is a soldier, war becomes an easy answer. 

 

4.  Israel is a liberal democracy.

 

Though this is a key dimension to Israel’s national and geopolitical identity, it is only a partial truth, mediated by point number one.  If Israel is to be an explicitly Jewish state, then it is unlike any other Western liberal democracy in that it is not secular.  If Israel is to be a truly liberal democracy, on the other hand, then a two-state solution with Palestine is actually less desirable than a fully integrated single state, with social and political equality between Palestinians and Jews.  Any claim for both full democracy and full Jewishness must rest, then, on the total expulsion of the Palestinians — a realization which has been the central principle of Israeli strategy since its foundation, and which might have been morally and politically acceptable one hundred years ago, but in the era where wealthy governments are officially apologizing to indigenous groups is no longer.  Intrinsic to contemporary notions of liberal democracy is pluralism.  Israel can either be a pluralist democracy and therefore embody the word as it is now commonly understood, or a Jewish democracy and therefore distinct from every other Western liberal democracy to which it compares itself.

 

5.  Hamas is a terrorist organization.

 

Yes, Hamas has used suicide bombers to terrorize the Israeli population.  They are terrorists.  But terrorism, by its very nature, implies just the asymmetry that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict typifies: terrorists do not engage in terrorism because they have the means to wage legitimate warfare, or to otherwise accrue power through peaceful, legitimate means.  Terrorism is — without diminishing its horrific effects — a tool of the dispossessed.  Moreover, terrorism does not necessarily delegitimize a cause.  Numerous states have achieved independence through means which included terrorism, but the actions of, say, the Irish Republican Army did not negate the brutality of the English against the Irish.  It is one thing to condemn violent actions which result in the loss of life; the loss of life is always tragic, whether in acts of terror or “legitimate” warfare.  It is quite another, and logically insupportable, to claim that acts of terror invalidate a subject group’s claims to liberation. 

 

A common statement made in support of Israel is that the nation has the right to defend its existence.  But this is essentially meaningless: the Palestinians have the right to defend their own existence, too (as do all human beings).  Moreover, it is not the fundamental claims of either group which are commonly subject to critique in Western media, but rather the methods invoked in creating those national identities.  If Israel can object to the manner in which Palestinian leadership proceeds, then Israel must itself be open to similar critiques.  Criticism of Israeli methodology is more important not because of any difference in identity or fundamental claims, but because of the asymmetry of power and resources; no matter how many tunnels are dug Israel is, indisputably, the stronger of the two combatants, and with great power comes great responsibility.

 

6.  Israel exists because of the Holocaust.

 

This is true, but is nuanced by point number two in interesting ways.  Before getting to that, though, it’s worth recalling the abhorrent history of violence against Jews in Europe — pogroms, expulsions, and genocide happened with regularity for some thousand-plus years before the Shoah.  There is, to this day, a town in France whose name translates as “Death to Jews.”  That Jewish idealogues saw in European colonialism a way out, a path to their own liberation, is utterly unsurprising, given the unceasing violence arrayed against them over the centuries.  In many places, even in the twentieth century, even before the rise of the Nazis, even assimilated Jews were not full citizens of Europe.  Zionism may have reached its apogee in 1948 but it developed over the nineteenth century, and the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, well before anyone imagined six million dead in concentration camps. 

 

Those concentration camps, however, were not a foregone conclusion.  One of Hitler’s earlier ideas was not to murder every Jew he could get his hands on, but rather to export them all to Malaysia, an idea rejected because — in short — he thought it would outrage the British (that same nation which was the first to diplomatically support the export of Jews to Palestine).  Against the brutality of the Holocaust, some may find this nothing more than a bit of historical trivia, but it reflects an uncomfortable truth about Zionism: that removing Jews from Europe was a goal shared by Zionists not with liberal, assimilated Jews, but with anti-semites who wanted them gone.  Prior to the grotesquery of the Final Solution, where assimilation proved no guard against annihilation, the idea of moving to a hot, undeveloped, already-populated foreign land in the name of Jewishness was not exactly the most popular goal amongst the diaspora.  That Israel now asserts centrality within the international Jewish identity (a notion rejected by many non-Israeli Jews, but shared by many others) is, therefore, a feat of historical re-engineering rather than an inevitability.

  

Let’s hope that in the two years since I first wrote this, that town in France has changed its name, eh?  

Sudden-Onset Baby-Mania: A Sufferer’s First-Hand Account

Another tidbit from before this blog even existed: written in 2008.  Edited in 2012, by which point the sentiment had already well passed, but oh well…

 

The biological clock is rumored to exist within all human females; it begins its supposed steady progression at menarche, the moment it is turned on, but the ticking doesn’t really start to thrum until one’s twenties, when the siren call of the ovaries becomes impossible to ignore.  By the time a woman is in her thirties, the constant, metronomic hum of the unfulfilled biological clock drives her to the kind of madness chronicled on Sex and the City — compulsive preening, loss of sexual judgment, finding Carrie Bradshaw’s musings remotely interesting, etc.  At least, that’s more or less what I’d always heard, what I’d absorbed and compiled from pop culture and my elders; though a human female myself, I’d never felt much of these strange uterine directives, and I was perfectly content to keep it that way.

 

Until…

 

It happened the week before my twenty-fifth birthday: a sudden, inexplicable, maddeningly inescapable baby-lust.  I was helping my brother move into his new apartment and on trips to IKEA we were surrounded by small children, hordes of them shrieking and crying, and as I saw one and then another and then another I had to force myself to look away, to stop my goofy grin, to not reach out and pry someone else’s child from their arms and run off like a baby-snatching lunatic.

 

In short, the week before my twenty-fifth birthday I lost my goddamn mind.

 

In time this consuming obsession has faded into a steady background noise; it waxes and wanes depending on whether or not I’m living on food stamps or sleeping on somebody’s couch (the correlation isn’t what you might expect: in times of stability my lust is only for adventure, whereas the more my life is in shambles, the more my ovaries scream “You know what could fix this?!  A BABY!!!!”  Because, you guys, my ovaries are stupid, selfish bitches.

 

I thought I could live out my days immune from such biological pressures. My parents have long been concerned about my willingness to spawn, a concern perhaps permanently engraved in their minds when, during my freshman year of high school, I walked around for two days with a sign on my back that read “DO NOT REPRODUCE WITH ME: I AM A CARRIER!” in response to a biology lesson discussing hereditary diseases.  Among my high school nicknames was “asexual” (I wasn’t actually disinterested in sex, just more focused on getting into my dream college), and those who recall the Lauryn Hill song “Doo Wop (That Thing)” can hum along with the anthem my loving friends penned in my honor: “Hop, you know you better watch out/some asexuals are only about/bud-ding, bud-ding, bud-ding…” 

 

It wasn’t that I never wanted kids, or that I hated kids.  I’ve always liked kids a lot, actually, although my preference has generally run towards the more sentient, language-capable variety — you know, ones that have reached the age of reason.  I grew up in a family of four but with a mountain of younger cousins, the bulk of whom I have gotten to know fairly well and all of whom I find to be totally rad little people.  I dig kids, and kids have generally seemed to dig back, perhaps because my complete unwillingness to assume adult responsibilities ultimately renders me nothing more than an overgrown child myself.  Whatever the reason, kids and I get along, and more than that, kids crack me up; when they’re still young enough to be youthfully unselfconscious every day is a dance party (with, yes, occasional tantrum-breaks), and then when they get older and completely, obsessively self-conscious about every minute detail of their lives they’re so easy to embarrass that every day is like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, except all the neuroses are actually developmentally appropriate.

 

None of these sentiments towards children or the eventual possibility of a family, however, prepared me for the baby-lust, the explosive announcement of my biological clock’s existence.  It was immediate.  It is visceral.  And it will not go away.  I have degenerated into an empty-headed cliche and although I am aware of this sudden transmogrification into a chick-lit heroine, it would seem that I am powerless to combat the forces of millions of years of evolutionary pressure.  Suddenly some of my sexual fantasies are even ending in pregnancy, which up until this point has been among not only the least sexy but also simply the most horrifying scenarios imaginable.  It is not okay, people!

 

I would probably be less weirded out if I did not feel so freakishly alone — not alone as a female (or a human being, really) suddenly desperate to reproduce, but as a thinking person so suddenly overwhelmed by biological impulse.  (Seriously you guys, women who co-found their own feminist comedy nonprofits aren’t supposed to be so consumed by baby-lust… right?)  It seems a cruel trick of nature, that it should pick me for this particular Darwinian gambit: congratulations on lasting a quarter-century, commitment-phobe — now get on with the baby-making!  I was already bad at picking up guys when all I was interested in was no-strings-attached sex; now that I’ve lost my mind altogether how am I going to ever find a man crazy enough to want to mingle his DNA with my own (and then spend the next eighteen years being legally and financially responsible for the results)?  I thought I could remain unbothered by the hookup culture until I was at least thirty, but now for the first time I’m having to contemplate the prospect of trying to land myself in a serious relationship.  I don’t know much about those except that they seem to take a lot of effort, although to be fair even that is probably easier than raising a kid and suddenly that’s made its way to the top of my to-do list. 

 

Of course, the sad truth is that I probably won’t be procreating for a good few years yet (actually, there is nothing sad about this truth — it is unequivocally a good thing, rationally speaking, although all my rationality seems to have recently absconded in the face of this newfound procreative urge).  Practically, I am in a position absolutely untenable for having a kid, although if this new obsession drives me to be more pragmatic in getting together a career than I suppose it’s not entirely a bad thing.  Also, humans are not yet a parthenogenetic species, which means finding at some point an XY-chromosomed partner for this particular venture.  In fact, chances are pretty good that I’ll end up like Liz Lemon:  ten years from now I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find myself accidentally stealing coworkers’ babies and suffering Mexican-cheese-curl-induced pregnancy scares, because even a healthy dose of professional success is apparently not enough to compensate for an unfulfilled baby-lust, a biological clock ticking away the moments until genetic irrelevance — which is what, in turn, drives a girl to off-brand Cheetos in the first place.  

 

I can believe that.  The brief span of my unfulfilled baby-lust has already been torturous enough; ten years from now I could probably be spitting Pulitzers and still crying into my cornflakes about precious little fingers and chubby cheeks and wispy hair and drool.

 

In the meantime, pass the off-brand Cheetos.

 

Maybe all I really needed to give birth to was this blog?  A niece and nephew are doing me juuuust fine these days, y’all…

Enter the NoPhone

Wrote this in September of 2014 — it was commissioned by Shareable, who then didn’t run it (or pay me).  Transient and forgettable?  Maybe… but so was the topic.

 

If you or someone you care about happened to be among the huddled masses lined up outside an Apple store awaiting the iPhone 6, then maybe — just maybe — you need some smartphone methadone.  Enter the NoPhone: Dutch designer Ingmar Larsen’s gift to the tech-addicted, or to that overlooked demographic of folks who hate talking or texting but really like carrying around palm-sized plastic rectangles.  If you want to communicate with loved ones without the NSA dropping in on the conversation, the NoPhone is definitely the way to go; just be sure you’re within earshot of the loved one in question, because the NoPhone, as its name implies, is not actually a phone.  It’s a 3-D printed cultural commentary, and designer Larsen will send you one if you pledge twelve dollars on Kickstarter.  (For fifty bucks, you get a five-phone “family plan”: available on all major carriers!  I mean, no major carriers!) 

 

If that’s not enough to make your Apple-wielding friends jealous, go for the Selfie Upgrade — a mirrored sticker that posts images not to Instagram, but to your very own eyes, which, for those too young to remember a time before social media, is basically the same thing as setting your photostream to “private”.  The NoPhone mirror images don’t stick around on anyone’s server — just think of it as Snapchatting with yourself! — so if you’re a celebrity, it’ll also keep all your nude selfies hacker-proof.

 

Larsen is advertising the shatterproof, waterproof, battery-free NoPhone as an antidote to smartphone addiction (you no longer have to forego “any potential engagement with your direct environment” just to grip some cool black plastic), but with over $28,000 still to be raised for the product to be made, maybe we just like our smartphones too damn much to shell out for their Luddite simulacra.  Or maybe folks who feel the desperate need to clutch an obsolete, non-phone quadrilateral are just holding tight to their iPod Classics.  (RIP.)  If you’re in need of a “smartphone placebo,” now’s the time to shell out — just because you don’t have to camp out on a sidewalk for days doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the smug glow of being first in line. 

 

Our Dumpsters, Ourselves

Written in April 2012.  I came up the title and needed SOMETHING to match it!

 

When conservative pundits caricature progressive, ecologically-minded urbanists as hothoused wealthy elites, I can’t help but laugh: I fit the profile as far as a college degree goes, but I’ve also spent more time in a dumpster than I ever anticipated at my Georgetown graduation and, sometimes, I’ve eaten ketchup packets for dinner.

 

We’ll get back to the ketchup thing later.  The dumpsters — it started when I worked with Habitat for Humanity.  One day my site supervisor tasked me with ensuring that the mountainous pile of cast-off lumber and sheetrock fit properly into its green metal container, so like the twenty-two-year-old badass that I once was I climbed in, revved up a circular saw, and bent a gigantic mound of trash to my will.  My photo on the staff page of my current employer’s website is of me sitting kinglike atop compressed leaves and branches and clippings in a green waste bin — I spent an entire day directing volunteers in the technique of proper dumping, and it was awesome.  Unlike some of my other poverty-addled environmentalist brethren, I’ve never actually dumpster-dived; no, my time in dumpsters has been spent in the seemingly eco-antithetical act of putting things in, not keeping them out, but I’ve still learned some lessons from it.

 

Most of my dumpstering experience thus far has been purely professional (you try working in a construction-related field and not learning a thing or two), but recently, things got personal.  I’ve never been one to have a lot of stuff — even as a kid, I relished the compactness of my closet — and that trait, compounded with general young-adult transience and the fact that I spent most of 2008 living out of my car (and occasionally dining on free condiments), has always kept my personal dump-quotient to a minimum.  But I’ve been living at the same address for a year and a half now, and although it’s a one-bedroom apartment shared with two other people, permanence has enabled stuff to settle and collect with a vastness that my prior vagabonding made impossible.  Also, my roommates have so much crap that sometimes I want to light it all on fire just to have it out of the way — not everyone, it turns out, adapts well to small-space living, but they’re working on it.

 

Even those of us committed to living lightly, however, can find ourselves with big problems that end only in a dumpster.  Recently, I picked up a new mattress (well, new to me — I got it off the Craigslist free section) to replace the one I’d had for over two years, a memory foam hand-me-down from a friend who’d moved back to Texas in 2010.  Regular flipping had staved off the development of permanent dents for some time but over the last eight months or so I had found myself sleeping in an indestructible foam crater, reappearing no matter how strenuously I flipped or rotated.  Replacement, I finally acknowledged, was my only option, although with the victory of a free Craigslist conquest came a startling question: what the hell does a person do with a yellowed, compressed, used foam mattress?

 

Sure, there are a couple of recycling programs out there, but most are run through manufacturers (not much of an option when your mattress is second-hand) and, as it happens, even the progressive Bay Area doesn’t offer anything in the way of alternatives.  My options were twofold– a dumpster or a giveaway — and I just didn’t feel quite comfortable pawning off the source of my recurring back pain on somebody else.  Sometimes one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, but sometimes, no matter how much we upcycle or downcycle or recycle or freecycle, crap is just crap.

 

So I hacked the foam mattress into pieces with a serrated blade, and into the dumpster it went — there was some other garbage in there already so it fit less than neatly, the sort of job I wouldn’t find acceptable if I were loading the dumpster from the start.  When I run dumpster crews, I often surprise volunteers with the suggestion that hauling and tossing trash is a task which actually requires skill and strategy — after all, we’re trained to stop thinking at the word “trash.”  No wonder most folks find it difficult or impossible to envision the scale, logistics, and impact of landfills or Pacific garbage patches: if a twenty-cubic-yard metal container at a construction site or streetcorner or park cleanup day is already regarded as a black hole of refuse, how are we possibly to make sense of what happens to our waste even further afield?

 

As I shoved my old mattress into my apartment’s dumpster, I couldn’t help but reflect on William McDonough’s eco-classic Cradle to Cradle — in that moment of doing battle with hunks of memory foam it was tempting to think that the problem was in its disposal, but the real issue — the one McDonough articulates so clearly — was that the mattress wasn’t built for reuse in the first place.  My friend had purchased it new less than five years ago, and now it was all but useless; she’d bought it on some great sale, but how good of a deal is anything that doesn’t last — and, moreover, that can’t be put to new life once its time has come?  My new box spring was previously used by a now-deceased old woman who had it for decades, and if it craps out on me I can at least cut it open and reclaim the lumber from its frame.  Memory foam, on the other hand, looks awesome in the ads, but in my experience it has been less than promised, just another piece of junk to add to the garbage patch.

 

But I know (albeit on a small scale) the effort that garbage-management requires, and despite the claims of marketers across the country, there is no piece of junk that is truly easy to dispose of.  If only we all got to spend a little more time hanging out in dumpsters, then maybe we might spend a little less time buying — and making — the kind of tossed-away stuff that fills so many of them.

 

Four years later: still love a good round of garbage Tetris.  This one holds up.

Your San Francisco Treat

Reaching waaaaaaaaaaay back before this blog even existed: March, 2007.  This was written for an NYC friend’s zine, and I honestly have no idea whether it was ever published, or whether the zine even existed past its first issue…

 

In September of 2006, I moved back home for a temporary, painful stint in Cleveland.  The job market was crap, none of my friends were around, and the whole four months I was there I was stricken by a longing to return to the city I’d left behind: San Francisco.  Like Journey, I composed mournful ballads in homage to the city by the bay; unlike Journey, I resisted both a mullet and the impulse to make any such tunes public.

 

But I did get back to the Bay Area as fast as I could.

 

San Francisco looms large within the American cultural imagination — the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, streetcars and the Transamerica building are all iconic.  But that’s just tourist crap.  What is the substance of contemporary SF?  Is it really, as some aging radicals will tell you, a sellout town of yippies and Silicon Valley money?  Or is it, as Bill O’Reilly would have you believe, still the bastion of liberal thought in this country, all Birkenstocks and acid?

 

Eh, a bit of both.  The Internet explosion may have priced pretty much the entire Bay Area real estate market out of ownership range for anyone not a millionaire, but the technology sector also ensures a population of young, progressively minded intellectuals; these engineers may have bigger bank accounts than their hippie forefathers, but the sense of personal hygiene is about equal.  And it’s the only major American city our current president has yet to visit — the Republicans have given up altogether on even making an effort here. 

 

I would love to wax rhapsodic about Bushman, a permanent fixture at touristy Fisherman’s Wharf who would jump out from behind branches to scare tourists, but — as much as he represents the stereotypical Northern California free-spiritedness — he’s retired, so that will be of no use to any NYC’ers planning trips this way.

 

No, the best place to recapture the sixties spirit is Golden Gate Park.  It’s on the west side of the city, the non-hip and predominantly Asian side, and thirty-nine years ago it was host to many Summer of Love festivities.  To go there now, you’d think it’s all gentrified, art museums and arboretums and Japanese Tea Gardens.  But on the western edge, hidden behind a bocce ball field, is Hippie Hill.  And Hippie Hill is where the sixties will never die.

 

Hippie Hill is not the actual name of the place, but if you’re wandering around the park looking for it, you can be assured you’ve found it by several measures.  Frequent drum circles provide auditory clues, and a pervasive odor of marijuana is omnipresent.  If you find a field meeting those criteria and are still unsure whether or not you’re in the right place, you can further verify your location by checking how many people around you are either (a) barefoot or (b) appear homeless.  I had a long conversation there once with a man known as Bag Lady Betty, who was a college friend of Robert Zimmerman at the University of Minnesota (which Mr. Zimmerman left before becoming known as Bob Dylan).  Bag Lady Betty got a PhD and was a professor at Berkeley when he got kicked out for dropping too much acid, which of course begs the question: How much acid was too much acid at frickin’ BERKELEY in the SEVENTIES?  It blows the mind to contemplate, and judging by Mr. Betty’s new hobby of collecting cans, it blew his mind as well.  On a related note, if you’re wandering through Hippie Hill and find yourself suffering a sudden hankerin’ for the reefer, pretty much anyone will share with you.  The ol’ hippie spirit of communalism still lives on, right alongside the drug culture and the drum circles.

 

And from Hippie Hill, on the western edge of Golden Gate Park, it’s just a short few blocks to the corner of Haight-Ashbury, where you can wander into the Gap and buy corporate, sweatshop-produced clothing to your heart’s delight.  It’s definitely a dichotomy.  The good news, though, is that if neither of those options — barefoot stoner-hippie, limousine liberal — sound appealing, you can always just pick up a wetsuit, a surfboard, and hit the beach.  Or some hiking boots, maybe a mountain bike, and head for the trails.  Outdoorsiness not your thing?  Well then, how about Chinese culture?  We’ve got the highest concentration of Asians outside of that continent.  Dim sum doesn’t sit so well?  How about burritos?  You can’t go a block down the Mission District without tripping over a taqueria (and, in a special note to the New York readers — good Mexican does not exist east of the Mississippi.  I know you’d like to believe otherwise, but our burritos are the best burritos.  Trust me.  I am a burrito connessouir!).  And if none of this is working for you, you can visit America’s most infamous prison at Alcatraz, or, alternatively, drive up to Napa and get shitfaced at wine tastings.  Because I’ve waited until the end to tell you the very best part of life in Northern California: being so close to hoity-toity wine country might make for some of the most expensive (and best) restaurants in the world, but Pinot Noir comes cheap enough to chug.  Similarly, since the coastal corridor from San Francisco north to Vancouver is generally considered the best weed-growing climate in the world, the marijuana is both potent and inexpensive.  And really, whether it’s rich techies getting drunk in their wine cellars, or dirty hippies smoking up with some smooth Humboldt County ganja, intoxication is one thing that everyone in this city can agree upon.  And isn’t that what matters most?

 

Ha!  Remember when I could afford to rent a place in San Francisco??  Or was able to eat glutenous burritos?  Oh, naive youth… (I did make a fun video about Hippie Hill — and the ease with which one can procure pot there — in 2009.  Watch it here.)