Dave Eggers, The Circle and Why I’m Leaving the Bay Area

| October 25, 2013
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thecircle

I can’t tell you definitively what brought me to San Francisco seven years ago. I mean, graduate school, but why did I apply to San Francisco State? There was the British guy who lived across the street from me who I had a crush on who said I would love it here. That’s the “it’s always about a boy” answer. I needed to leave Portland and become an adult and SFSU was the only school that didn’t require essays in their application and as a 23-year-old I was mainly too drunk to write admissions essays.

But there was also Dave Eggers. I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when I was 18, in my senior year of high school. I read it again my freshman year of college. It blew my mind and changed my life in a way no other book really ever has. A concrete way. While reading the Bible and all of JD Salinger’s non-Catcher in the Rye work and Kurt Vonnegut (the other things I was really into at age 18) were moving and gave me vague ideas about spirituality, A Heartbreaking Work gave me permission to write the way I wanted to write, the way I had tentatively started writing, which was just: about being myself. I couldn’t believe this was actually allowed. That book also gave me an idea that the Bay Area was the place to be, a place where you could be a better version of yourself, a place where standing on the beach and throwing a Frisbee a million miles was possible, a place where tragedy and happiness could coexist.

I also liked the idea of Dave Eggers’ pirate supply store.

So in 2006 I got a tattoo of the state of Oregon on my chest so no one would forget where I was from and left Portland, moving out of the apartment I was sharing with my little brother and allowing all the drunk calls from the non-boyfriend guy I was sort of dating to go to voice mail.

In San Francisco, I became a new person, just like A Heartbreaking Work made me believe was possible. No one knew a single thing about me. I wasn’t held back by the expectations of people who’d known me since I was 13 months old, or four or eight or 14. People met me as Lizzy Acker, the adult. I got to be a writer, a friend, a dependable employee. I wasn’t the girl who totaled her family car in middle school or the girl who cried in Calculus class or staged an unsuccessful boycott of the Mr. Spartan Pageant or who looked like a boy up until sixth grade or who didn’t lose her virginity until she was 22.

I did a lot of amazing things here, had a million adventures. I fell in love, I finished graduate school, I wrote a book, I got my heart broken, I got a good job. I’ve had a very seriously eventful seven years. But a few months ago, I decided that it was time to go home.

In the same way I can’t pin down the thing that brought me here, what is making me leave is elusive and has changed a few times in the last couple months. I mean, as with everything, it’s about a boy. But after reading Dave Egger’s newest book, The Circle, I realize that there is more to it than just one boy.

I read The Circle like I haven’t read a book in a really long time. I read while walking to work, in line at Starbucks, sneakily in the bathroom, hiding it behind my back when I walked out. I was done in about two days. I couldn’t believe Dave Eggers had written another book that seemed to be so directly meant for me.

The Circle is the story of a girl, the Bay Area and social networking. The girl, Mae, starts working at a Google/Facebook monolith and quickly becomes subsumed by its culture and dogma, to the point where she truly believes the only way to be happy is to record every second of her life, is to have no secrets and no privacy. As a counterpoint to the glittery, safe, antiseptic tech wonderland of the Circle, Eggers uses Richardson Bay (never named) and the anarchic anchor-out community just off the shore of Sausalito. Weirdly, I spent all of September and still spend many of my weekends, out on this part of the Bay in a boat for an art project, so I knew it immediately. To me, this has become the Bay that I love, a beautiful place that still contains magic, while I’ve seen the city of San Francisco go from a place fueled by creativity and struggle, into a super-connected, spiritless town deadened by unquestioning Worship of the App. In The Circle, the changes in behavior and intense connectivity have gone farther than they currently are, but not by much. Mae is only a little connected when she starts out at her job at the Circle, with the equivalent of one Facebook page and one Twitter account, but by the end she has millions of followers on the all-inclusive Circle, nine screens, a camera around her neck and two bracelets to give her real-time physical and audience feedback. The only time she isn’t connected is when she goes to the bathroom and even then, only the audio is off.

It’s important to me that Eggers, who is famous for telling absolutely everything about himself in A Heartbreaking Work, is wrestling with the question of radical honesty online. I write about my life very openly–I like to and it feels right for me to be my own version of honest. However, I don’t want to tell you everything. I like to reserve the right to create my own narrative and I make things up sometimes. I change events to make them sound better or worse. And I like to keep some things–secret moments, two-person dance parties, a hand on my knee, mixed tapes–for myself.

In The Circle, Dave Eggers is pointing out how quickly we in the Bay, the nexus of the current startup movement which is completely reshaping world culture, are willing to adopt things that make our lives “easier,” without thinking of their logical consequences. How in a few years we have gone from defining ourselves by the feedback we get from the people immediately around us, to defining ourselves by the feedback we’re getting, the likes and shares and upvotes, from hordes of strangers. He is asking if it is really safe to allow a massive corporation, whose goal is to constantly make more money at a faster rate, to have all our information and mediate all our purchases, communications and media consumption, to mediate our whole lives.

As I’m writing this, my headphones are on and Facebook is making a pinging noise in my ears and immediately I am feeling that hope, desire that someone is acknowledging my existence, sharing something I wrote, liking something I said, saying I look cute in a picture. Later, I will check the analytics on this blog and maybe on a story I wrote somewhere else, earlier this week. I’ll probably check Twitter for any mentions of my name. I will be disappointed if there aren’t any.

I know my decision to leave San Francisco and to stop working in social media is the correct one.

I’m not a hundred percent sure what I will do when I leave. But at least for a little while, I am going home to Oregon, where I can measure my worth within myself and against the faces and real-life smiles of people I have known for 16, 25, 31 years.

I’m going to miss a lot of things here: the water in Sausalito, the sunshine, the seals, The Giant Dipper on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, my friends, my coworkers. But I won’t miss the three-screen experience that is my life mostly every day. I won’t miss the mediated communication with the people who have eye balls I would like to look into, who have hands I would like to hold. I won’t miss the lack of time for reflection.

Changing things is terrifying but in July my very best friend and I got matching tattoos of geometric California bears that he had drawn. I’m going to miss him so much I can barely think about it, but it’s time to leave and find a new place to be a new version of myself before I get lost in a mess of analytics, likes, shares and smiley faces. Of course, I’m giving notice and not leaving until December. I wanted to give you some time to process the whole thing. But after that, if you want, let’s start sending each other letters.

 

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About the Author ()

Lizzy Acker’s work has been published in Nano Fiction, Fanzine, Joyland, Eleven Eleven and elsewhere. She has read with Bang Out, RADAR, Quiet Lightening and others. Her first book, Monster Party, was released in December of 2010 by Small Desk Press.
  • Fay Nissenbaum

    So you’re leaving trendy San Francisco – for trendy Portlandia? I’m not seeing how you are changing much…

    • lizzyacker

      Well, Portland may be trendy too but it also contains the majority of my friends and family. I would pretty much go wherever they were…

    • PennyLuckySF

      Here’s the thing: Portland, like San Francisco, is a real place. I know: like Ms. Ackerman (who is eons younger than me) I grew up there, my family is there, and I still, after 30 years in SF, have friends there. She’s going back to where she’s from for how ever long she chooses for her own reasons. If I had had to spend the bulk of my time in SF working in social media and bleeding out money for rent, I’d want to flee too.
      Although I love watching Portlandia, neither SF or PDX are the sum total of any marketing trend, industry or whatever self-involved, mostly white 20-30 somethings think is important. No place is. The superficial dismissal of either city is emblematic of the problem that Liz Ackerman (and Dave Eggers) speak to.

      • zeromein

        I used to live off of Hawthorne in Portland. The show Portlandia absolutely nails it. No exaggeration. Hipsters, who think they are too cool for school, dwell there. Basically, as the State Motto once quipped – Oregon is for Dreamers. A lot of the 20-30 somethings moving there are have dreams that are not grounded in reality. Also, there are hardly any family wage jobs in Portland.

        • PennyLuckySF

          Funny. I too lived off of Hawthorne when I was young, 20 to be exact. It was 1981 and there were coffee shops and vintage clothing stores and record stores and a small Powells and pretty much what you see now, only a 1981 version and less of it. I shopped and wore the vintage and was surely more than a little self-satisfied as young people who think they’re the ones who have discovered and know everything often are. I also lived off Clinton when I was 19 and off Belmont when I was 17-18. And I grew up there. Like everywhere it has changed but not changed. I love that Portlandia nails its subject in many ways, as all good parody should. Having grown up on the west coast but spent a lot of timing studying and working on the east coast, I have heard so many people say: “Portland isn’t real,” “San Francisco isn’t real,” which I think is very much like saying “Thailand isn’t real” if you aren’t Thai. Tell it to my great grandparents who settled in Portland in 1885 and 1906, and my grandparents and my parents and everyone who is there now. As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

          • zeromein

            Read ‘Fugitives and Refugees’ by Pahlaniuk to understand why it is very rare that you find anyone from Portland, in Portland. It is very insightful.

          • M. Ratcha

            zeromein – are you from here? Because nobody I know who’s from Oregon or been in PDX for more than a dozen years considers “Fugitives and Refugees” to be a good book about Portland. Except my friends who are friends with Chuck Palahnuik. I admire their loyalty. In some ways it’s a fun read but it always felt somehow disconnected to me.

          • zeromein

            I moved there when I was 14, and lived there for a decade. I then spent a couple of years in North Carolina (extreme culture shock), before returning for 4 more years in PDX. Judging by the times that I was there, I thought that the book was pretty accurate in its depiction. It may have changed with the influx of all of the hipsters that have migrated to PDX, but for a long time, up until recently, at least, it was a destination for fugitives and/or refugees.

            As a case in point, my mother’s boyfriend was a fugitive (literally), and she was a refugee. Generally, the book’s thesis is that people aren’t coming to PDX, for anything that PDX has to offer, but rather they have tended to be people running from something. My comment was directed more at the thesis of the book and how I agree with it. I had already formed the impression, before he wrote the book. I also have friends, who are friends with him, but I leave that aside and judge the book on the merits of its thesis relative to what I have been able to learn through my first hand experience living there, for over a decade.

          • M. Ratcha

            Thanks for explaining. I wonder if I should give the book another chance. I’ve been in Portland twenty years or so and spent a lot of time here the decade before that, too. I kind of miss the running-from years.

        • PennyLuckySF

          Funny. I too lived off Hawthorne when I was young, 20 to be
          exact (I also lived off Clinton when I was 19 and off Belmont when I was 17-18). It was 1981 and there were coffee shops and vintage clothing stores and record stores and a small Powells and pretty much what you see now, only a 1981
          version and less of it. I was an earnest college student, shopped and wore vintage 20s-40s w/a punk edge, and was surely more than a little self-satisfied as young people who think they’re the ones who have discovered and know everything often are.

          Portland, like everywhere else, has changed and not changed; it is today an extension of all that came before and every new influence. I love that Portlandia nails its subject in many ways, as all good parody should, and the culture it reveals is certainly not about newcomers of the last few years. Almost everyone I knew when I was a young adult (that I found interesting) had come from somewhere else (New York and DC and LA and San Francisco and Boston and Europe points in between), and my parents had the same experience before me, only a 1968 version.

          Having grown up on the west coast but spent a lot of time
          studying and working on the east coast, I have heard so many people say: “Portland isn’t real,” “San Francisco isn’t real,” which I think is very much like saying “Thailand isn’t real” if you aren’t Thai. Tell it to my great grandparents who settled in Portland in 1885 and 1906, and my grandparents and my parents and everyone who is there now. As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

  • Sarah Gilleland

    I’m at this same jumping off point with Portland. Moved here 5.5 years ago from Central Texas and I think it’s time to move onto something else. The Bay Area is tempting but “home” (the Austin area) is also an option. Good luck in your move! Are we embarking the end of our Saturn Return?

    • lizzyacker

      Thanks Sarah! I think I ended my Saturn Return last year. This year has just been dealing with the aftermath…I feel much calmer and more able to make decisions.

  • Jessie

    Great post. I just moved away from SF after 7 years as well. Very sad but so nice to be “home.” I love A Heartbreaking Work and I will have to check out The Circle. Best wishes!!

    • lizzyacker

      Thank you!

  • http://www.kqed.org timshoesuntied

    wow. Heartbreaking/warming news.

    • lizzyacker

      <3

  • Juli C. Lasselle

    A very narrow view of the SF Bay Area. You can unplug anywhere. Even in SF. Moving isn’t going to change that.

    • Carlita Carla

      I agree. Geographical changes rarely work, be it for alcoholism, nostalgia, finding “the right someone” or any other reasons.

    • M. Ratcha

      It’s harder to do in certain places. I lived in the Bay Area when the Internet was first starting to pop, and I was part of that. When I moved to a city that was largely disconnected from all that, it was easier for me to spend a little less time plugged in. Most people into art and music read weeklies and alternative publications, and met up in public, so I did too.

      There was also quick access to nature nearly everywhere I went, whereas in the Bay Area I had to be very deliberate about it, like “This weekend I’m going to plan in 2.5 hours to drive to Tilden Park, have a picnic, and drive back.”

      That was a long time ago. Harder to unplug anywhere these days. Still: geography matters.

  • denise thompson

    After 10 years in Los Angeles I came ‘home’ to San Francisco ten years ago. No matter the reason – there is a strange magnetic ray that pulls us to our home. The self has a need to center and home is usually where this takes place. Good luck!

  • Secret Pez

    i love this story. at first it started out too cute for me, but as you connected VULNERABLY with your passions over dave’s book, i came to adore you and wish you well.

    i’ve been here since ’94 (rent control) and have seen the mission/SF go through waves of this and yeah… even the “original gangstas” FROM here are sad at the loss of soul here and some have considered moving as well. but where? there’s never really anywhere to “go” because it’s true: wherever you go there you are. and we’ve made all this and must deal with the consequences as they radiate outward. and where you go now, is owned by a faceless conglomerate now, and so on and so on…

    but the real beautiful story here for me is that you’re unplugging and craving actual human contact again. i’ve been feeling like all this is The (Armchair) Terminator where life here has been a fight between the humans and the machines. it’s turned everyone into fretting neurotic movie stars who photograph rainbows for facebook posts instead of standing before them in awe, and for no MONEY! i hated doing this for WORK so i burned out and had to quit or i’d DIE from the dissonance of pandering to invisible people to survive when i couldn’t get a regular job for the same reason. i cannot pander. it is the bane of my existence, but the source of my constant adventure and RENEWAL.

    so take note, little girl! go home, see eyes again. touch the trees. and realize attaining and CLINGING TO a generalized fame and adoration is for empty, unhappy, insatiable people who FORGOT playing the guitar was always about getting The Girl (even if she’s a man). it was never about being The Rock Star. that is loneliness. you want the girl.

    so proudly FOLLOW the girl. because all this is about Love in the first place. career and your “work” is falling for The Rock Star Shtick. (this is what Donald Trump personifies and shows in his demeanor)

    and yeah, it’s TERRIFYING that we’re only at the forefront of what’s happening all over. however i feel so much HOPE that you’re seeing how sick the addiction to others’ approval makes us weak cattle off to the slaughterhouse as life-long “consumers.” anyhow, good luck and enjoy the truest adventures, glamour, and romance in the SECRETS you live.

    anyhow, i’ve been writing enough. it nearly killed me. i just wanted to write you since you were dear enough to admit how much you crave a little more adulation before you return to real life! ask me for what you want and i’ll give it to you gladly!

    i was geared to dislike you because you started out cute and shticky. but you won my heart over with your admission of your HUMANITY and VULNERABILITY. i honor your immense bravery. and in this era of bitchy san francisco comments? eek. you’ll never miss the trader joe’s here again with all the people reading labels for MSG in the aisles!

    yes. go for Love. that’s all there is. run away and live with the indians. help others became brave enough to look each other in the eyes again and be awkward enough to ask for phone numbers in person. in the moment!

    congratulations and best luck to you wherever you go. and if you leave again, so be it! fly free for as long as you can. screw everyone else and their “opinions.” everyone else is TERRIFIED of real life and especially… LOVE.

    erika lopez

    • lizzyacker

      Thank you so much for your comments Erika. I’m really terrified but I sort of know that means I am doing the right thing.

  • Yeltrah

    I discovered your writing, and by extension you, today. I am now certain that I have a new blog to read and am making it my personal goal to keep my eyes peeled for the house-sitting opportunity you seek in Portland.

    Cheers!

    • lizzyacker

      Thank you!!

  • Charlie Hess

    It’s constantly amusing me: the knee-jerk backlash against “apps,” “start-ups,” and tech monoliths in general. As if the consumers of these products were mindless slaves, incapable of unplugging at any time, helplessly dragged into the orbit of Technology.

    This article in particular, and more broadly, the paranoid mindset behind Eggers’ over-hyped novella, strikes me as remarkably shallow (dare I call it a “first-world problem?”). As if the author had an existential crisis while checking her Twitter feed, and could find no other solution besides relocating her entire life (ironically, to a locale that is just as hip, tech, and “connected” as the Bay Area).

    If you wanted a career change, say you wanted a career change.
    If you needed to unplug for a while, say you needed to unplug for a while.

    But please, spare us the incessant railing against social services that are both

    1. Free, and
    2. Non-mandatory

    And the overwrought descriptions of how Google/Facebook/Twitter/whatever other tech company is one step away from Orwellian dystopia. It’s a tired, lame-duck analogy with little correlation to reality.

    • Carlita Carla

      > As if the consumers of these products were mindless slaves,
      > incapable of unplugging at any time, helplessly dragged into
      > the orbit of Technology.

      Many/most in fact are. Ask yourself the next time you see someone tweeting in a parking lot, head down, oblivious as they walk into oncoming cars, or texting while operating a bus, train or airplane, risking death to get in that final LOL, how “free” and “able to unplug” they are.

      It’s called addiction. Is it any wonder literacy has steadily declined among the educated classes for the past 50 years straight? It’s called television, a drug people would rather turn on and sit in front of and be numbed by than pick up a book or do anything involving thought. And now these silly mobile apps and devices you stroke and poke have only made it worse. People today barely have attention spans for half-hour sitcoms (which really translate to 17 minutes when you take out the commercials) let alone a 500-page novel. Which is why the idiot who wrote this stupid “commentary” feared writing a simple college essay, something I did in my day on a manual typewriter in about half an hour without breaking a sweat.

      People don’t like to hear this and immediately dismiss it, but it’s obvious to anyone who never grew up with this trash and still has an attention span. The problem is you can’t make someone without an attention span or a developed intellect see it, no matter how much evidence you have, any more than you can make a color-blind person see a rainbow. There’s a reason pop songs are no longer than three or four minutes and contain constantly-repeating rhythms and chords.

  • nap12

    I’m making the move back near my hometown in the east bay soon, after 6 years in SF. All my great friends are having the time of their life there, and it’s just beautiful out there. Everything you really are is stuck where your origins are, and you seem to accumulate a lot of shit when you move to the city. We often go back to release it and become truly happy.

    • wialno28

      That REALLY depends on where you grew up and who was around you then. I can’t relate even a little bit. Still, best wishes on your move!

      • KKP

        Haha, seriously, when your hometown in the east bay was voted Forbes magazine’s #6 most miserable town in America for 2013, you don’t have this wistful nostalgia.

  • Vol Tron

    I couldn’t get past 2 pages of said “..Heartbreaking Work..” I found it incredibly pretentious. Maybe that’s the problem here is you should have never been “inspired” by terrible fiction. I bet if you foundv that special someone here, for good, none of the supposed evils of social media would matter to you. You’d be in love with “that boy”, and this city.

  • notyoutoo

    Good luck!

    • lizzyacker

      Thank you!

  • Elizabeth Brown

    I just recently returned to Oregon as well (grew up outside of Portland) and it’s been a breath of fresh air from San Francisco! I lived in San Francisco for six years, the last two in the Mission, and I felt the same energy that you’re describing here. Hopefully your relocation will give you the opportunity to relax and think through your next move —just like it did for me. Good luck :)

    • lizzyacker

      Thanks so much! I hope so too!

  • http://outerspacien.tumblr.com/ Kinnaree

    I enjoyed this immensely. I feel the same about the bay, about my supposed connectedness, & about Dave Eggers. :)

    • lizzyacker

      Thanks!

  • http://www.ianaleksanderadams.com/ Ian Aleksander Adams

    You can turn off the pinging noise. That’s probably a metaphor.

  • fdesroches

    Sounds like the 7-year-itch to me. I totally understand the need to leave the tech/social media bubble, but at the same time committing to a person or place, making it work and not succumbing to the vagaries of tech – that seems like a challenge we will all face no matter where we live. Best of luck to you!

  • Caleb Nichols

    THANKYOU for writing this. The passage about not thinking about the consequences of start-up culture felt like something I’ve been having trouble articulating for a while – and I’m happy to hear someone else say it well. Good luck!

    • lizzyacker

      Thank YOU!

  • zeromein

    I too am from OR and now live in the Bay Area. I make time for reflection and while being constantly plugged into to digital media is something that can create distance between people, I know many of my acquaintances in Oregon, who are also too plugged into the social media craze.

  • Margaret Thornberry

    I suppose it’s a cliche that our greatest and most important discovery is of ourselves. In my life, I have known many, many people–to be honest, mostly women–who left small towns and different parts of the country to come to San Francisco so they could be ‘themselves’. When they got here, instead of being able to define themselves against the small town/more restrictive cultures they had been struggling against, they found that no-one cared, and there was nothing to push back against…want to take a walk on Market Street naked, take drugs, have sex with multiples? No-one here cared one way or another, and the discovery that self-definition would not come from opposition to

  • Millennial Mike

    artisan bespoke curated

  • Carlita Carla

    > …as a
    > 23-year-old I was mainly too drunk to write
    > admissions essays. But there was also
    > Dave Eggers. I read A Heartbreaking Work
    > of Staggering Genius when I was 18, in my
    > senior year of high school. I read it again
    > my freshman year of college. It blew my
    > mind and changed my life in a way no other
    > book really ever has.

    I think these two things are related, and not in a good way.

  • SF1972

    Geographic moves can literally work if you are seeking affordable housing. The issue is choice once you open to seeming endless options.

    Happiness isn’t dependent on geography. It’s an internal state of mind and completely portable.

    Living in SF for the sake of living in SF may be inextricably grasping toward self defeat. Like an abusive relationship, why would anyone want to embrace something not embracing you?

    Use hardship to discover your priorities and bravely adjust your life to fit. Most of the happy people in the world live elsewhere. So can you.

    I’m a gay man who moved in 1972 from Indiana University to SF. I felt then and for many years I’d landed in Oz, truly a Golden Age. I loved every year since and when I met my partner in 2005, we moved to a more affordable environment. SF had changed radically and so had I.

    My advice is that the best advice is to follow your heart; allow that which is no longer useful to fall away naturally. Like leaves in autumn.

    Good luck! Nick

  • Von Sydov

    Oh god. People’s brains are so vulnerable and constant judgement is basically screwing it up … brains are getting rewired and getting owned by those who don’t actually care about the people /-: Maybe one day we’ll suddenly stop taking it all so seriously lol..

    “where I can measure my worth within myself and against the faces and real-life smiles of people I have known for 16, 25, 31 years.” That. ! Good luck !

  • Kirsten inSF

    Girl, you don’t have to move back to Portland. Just disable your Facebook account for lent and interact with people IRL instead and you will feel SOOO much better. How do i know? I’m doing it. Do I still want to move to Oregon? Yes. But just because I hope there’s cheaper rent.

  • Mitchell

    “I got a tattoo of the state of Oregon on my chest so no one would forget where I was from and left Portland, moving out of the apartment I was sharing with my little brother and allowing all the drunk calls from the non-boyfriend guy I was sort of dating to go to voice mail.”

    I hope the guy got over this creep that drove him to drink, and found someone that didn’t cover him- or herself with graffiti.