Dept. of Endorsements: Pretty things for a bad week

“Alobar seized his broom and danced it around the boiler room. His laughter echoed through the heat ducts of the Institute for Advanced Study. No wonder they didn’t understand Einstein’s last words! Einstein’s last words weren’t in German at all.  Einstein’s last words were in the language of an obscure and long-lost Bohemian tribe, and had been taught to him by Alobar.
Einstein’s last words were, ‘Erleichda, erleichda.'”

“The word was a transitive verb, an exclamation, a command, of which an exact English translation is impossible. The closest equivalent probably would be the
phrase: Lighten up!”

-Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

There’s a bumper sticker that crotchety people of all political ilks like to stick on their cars: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. This week–this month– if you’re not feeling a little awful and sad and lost, are you even paying attention?

Very appropriately for the Advent season, we are all just sitting in the dark together, waiting and watching. This year it feels especially hard to see the way out.

Here’s a few things that have been helping me keep the lights on.

The Death Sex and Money podcast. Host Anna Sale asks writers, comedians, public figures and ordinary people about all the things you’re not supposed to talk about. Start with “This Senator Saved My Love Life“, Sales’ most personal episode.

The Camping with Dogs Instagram account

Jane the Virgin on the CW  (First season streaming on Netflix) An often-goofy sendup of telenovelas that’s grounded by the story of three generations of women. Somehow a very funny show that also makes me cry basically every episode?

Josh Ritter’s joyful Sermon on the Rocks 

Last of all: poetry. I’ve been keeping Rilke next to the bed lately, but also thinking a lot about this one:

The Good Survives , by Charles Harper Webb


Not the time Jane threw a coffeepot at Don,
but the time they swam with turtles in Puako Bay.

Not getting drunk and crashing your friend’s car,
but handing him your #20 Adams, that’s caught fish all day.

Not the father’s snarl and hissing belt —
the time he played catch for an hour, sick with flu.

Einstein intuited this law, but couldn’t prove it:
Not his mad son and ruined marriage — E = mc².

Not Colly Cibber — Dryden, Swift, and Pope.
Not Sweet Rebel Sword — Moby Dick.

If not in heaven, then in mind, Auschwitz evaporates;
the orchid’s purple stays. Not the boy drowned

in a backyard pool, the girl’s heart missing beats,
then lying still. The way she’d lift her arms up

from her crib, and say, “Kiss. Kiss.” The way he’d throw
open the bedroom door, and say, “Daddy, it’s day.”


NYTimes Magazine 






I thought tonight, like a lot of people, about the first time I was in Paris. This was in Shakespeare and Company, the English bookstore at Mile Zero on the Left Bank. I remember standing in the stacks eavesdropping on this American kid, maybe 20 years old, hitting on a cute blonde German girl. He was working in the shop, he’d arrived just two days before, and it’s safe to say the kid was totally Paris-drunk. Three days ago I was on a plane with no plan and no money, and now I’m living here, working here, he marveled to his new friend. He told her he wanted to do travel writing but was afraid it was “done”. It was like a bad regurgitation of Before Sunrise but it was also kind of insanely adorable in its earnestness and its purity.

I don’t for a moment pretend to know Paris for real, and it’s a little weird to talk about loving a city you’ve visited twice. But I’m telling this cheesy story because even as an American tourist who speaks maybe 30 words of French (20 of which are food), I think it shows how incredibly there’s still just something about Paris that allows it to be new and extraordinary for everyone. No matter how many times you’ve read A Moveable Feast or watched Charade, Paris is still there for you, letting you feel like you discovered it for yourself. I mean, here I am—watching the news and for some reason blogging about a time I was rudely listening to strangers in a bookstore. (And of course, I wrote it all down at the time, because it was Paris.)

People photograph the Eiffel Tower incessantly, as though there’s a single view of it that hasn’t been captured before. Even the professionals gather in front of Notre Dame by night, setting up their complicated time lapses and slow exposures to capture the beautifully lit façade and the light playing off the Seine, as though there were not a hundred postcards in a hundred souvenir shops of nearly the same image. What a delusional, gorgeous way to think.

It’s tempting to feel crabby and cool about people like this—photographing everything they see, mooning over Paris that doesn’t exist anymore and maybe never did. But really, what a beautiful thought: that you can still find something special and beautiful and truly yours in this city that already means so much to so many, a city on which so many people have already poured infinite ink and praise and blood. So let the American guys with literary dreams land on the doorstep of Shakespeare and Company. Let the Japanese retirees snap photos to their hearts’ content. It’s Paris, and somehow it’s new again.


Every Book I Read in 2015 (So Far)

I have been keeping a written record of everything I read since I was 15 or 16. For a long time it was in a fat little blue suede journal, which seems to have gotten lost the last time we moved.  I’ve been keeping a note on my phone since then, and today I moved it over to the List app. My list can be found here.

(Looking back at the year so far I can see this list is a parade of a very specific sort of trendy “literary fiction” novels and you can probably extrapolate from it *exactly* which book blogs I read.  Blech, what a snooze. Tell me the weird and unexpected and great things you’ve read lately, please.)


TV rape scenes are for lazy writers

It’s become a very familiar feeling: watching a TV show I like a lot, even love, and suddenly there’s a narrative turn and I think, oh, come on, not this again, be better than this, try a little harder. But no. Sooner or later, one by one, every drama on TV has to include a rape.

Rape has become the quickest possible shorthand for showing “this guy is evil” or “this woman is damaged”.  A flashback shows a rape to lazily telegraph that this woman has had a really hard life. A scene with lots of women getting raped in the background–as “Game of Thrones” has shown repeatedly–is a quick sketch of a world where women are constantly under threat and violence permeates everything.

Elizabeth Jennings in FX’s “The Americans” grows up poor and fatherless in Soviet Russia, and gets recruited to the KGB when she’s 16. They train her as a spy, and from the show’s first moments we consistently see her using her sexuality to get information and then turn around and kill people–a lot of people–without blinking an eye. Did we need to see her raped by a superior to know that her life has been hard and traumatic and soul-deadening? I don’t think so.

Sansa Stark on “Game of Thrones” has had half of her family murdered, been dragged all over the country as a prisoner, and been married off twice against her will. Her rapist, Ramsay Bolton, peels people’s skin off for fun. Now, did we need to have a rape (that was apparently added to the show for effect) to communicate “Sansa is traumatized and desperate” and “Ramsay is a really bad guy”? I don’t think so.

In the first episode of this season of True Detective there’s a rape, off screen, in the first few minutes. I literally threw up my hands. Did we need that to communicate that True Detective is going to be really, really bleak and that Colin Farrell’s character is troubled? I don’t think so. Worse, the wife–the person who you know, actually got raped–barely appears in the show at all.

Rape happens in life, and it follows that it’s going to happen at times in fiction. What’s offensive is the gratuitousness we’re dealing with on TV today, the sheer volume of instances where women’s pain is nothing more than a narrative crutch. And when TV writers make the “well, rape happens” argument, I want to say, we fucking know. It’s happening all the time to us, to our friends, our sisters, our daughters, our mothers. We know.

As a woman you know practically your whole life that the possibility of rape is everywhere. Depending on your own experience, it may not be something you necessarily think about a lot, but it’s always fear-as-landscape, small things: always walking with a friend at night, or at least a set of keys, and certainly no headphones. Avoiding certain places after certain times, minding your drink at a crowded bar. It’s not full blown paranoia, just awareness, simmering away in a corner of your brain you try not to visit.

Here’s what bothers me, as a woman and as someone who cares about good storytelling: human pain is a practically endless palette for artists, yet somehow we’ve reached a point where any time the plot calls for a Really Bad Thing to happen to a woman, it’s going to be rape. Even lazier and more cringe-inducing is when something Really Bad has to happen to a man, and so a woman he cares about–who has spoken perhaps four words in the span of the series, if she is seen at all–gets raped. In real life, humans hurt each other in so many awful ways, both physical and otherwise, but somehow rapes on television amass, show after show, season after season, the hostility compounded by their sameness.

And why? Because it’s shocking? Is it some kind of Mount Everest thing, putting graphic rape on TV just because the show is on premium cable and it’s allowed? I’m really not sure. All I know is that it’s lazy, it’s wildly hostile, and I’m seriously over it.

P.S.: My title is only a little bit of an exaggeration, but I do want to call out this great essay on Vulture called “OINTB is the Only TV Show That Understands Rape“, which makes a compelling case and offers some excellent notes for the writers of… um, every other show.


In a coat pocket

I’m reading “The Folded Clock” by Heidi Julavits – it took me a little while to get into it, but now I’m gulping it down, always trying to speed through one more of the brief entries before the train reaches my stop. Its subtitle is “A Diary” but it’s (thankfully) not a true diary. It represents a year, though the entries are out of chronological order and each is shined up into a small, gem-like personal essay.  Each micro-chapter begins, “Today I…”

Julavits is fantastic at isolating small moments– thoughtful, joyful, maudlin, puzzling. Even a pretty mundane chapter offers up a small piece of poetry. Last night, I thought about how it strains credulity a tiny bit that one person could keep stumbling across so many little moments that are lovely or disturbing or both. There are plenty of entries that are short meditations on moments in marriage, or parenting, or friendships, but there’s a lot that are sparked by slightly surreal encounters or series of events — none of them are completely outrageous or hard to believe but when they’re all lined up and presented together, they kind of make you go: really? All of this?

Not that it matters, of course — it’s her book, and who can resist the impulse to polish one’s anecdotes just a little? Wouldn’t that story be funnier or more poignant if you could tweak just one little detail? All the same, the book– a collection of pretty ordinary moments– had me feeling like my life was a little, well, ordinary. How could all these strange/lovely/bizarre little things really happen to one person?

Julavits is preoccupied with objects: ones we imbue with meaning, ones we treat carelessly, ones we lose and ones that (sometimes mysteriously) find their way back to us. Throughout the book, she’s losing important things– her wallet, her passport–and stumbling across useless things that she can’t bear to throw away. There’s an entry where she riffs on the contents of coat pockets, how like anyone she’s often finding scraps of paper, notes, ticket stubs. At one point, she wears an old coat and discovers her marriage vows in the pocket while she’s sitting on the subway with her husband.

Today I had to take my winter coat back out of the closet. It was 37 goddamn degrees on April 24.  Chilled and feeling bitter about the whole day already, I crammed my hands hard into my pockets on the way out of the apartment and immediately felt something bite me. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and discovered it was a little Mexican worry doll, the really tiny kind made out of a twist of paper wound with wire and brightly colored thread. A little bit of the wire had become exposed, sharp enough to snag on the skin of my finger like an errant staple.

jWYWahKxgKKAlUeLcfOPtoK9pscB2rq22Naaro_8Hn4I found the worry doll lying on the floor of the lobby one morning on my way out to work. I thought maybe I should leave it there, in case in belonged to a kid who really cared about it and was going to come looking for it. But I thought it was more than likely that it would get vaccummed up before that could happen, so I put in in my pocket, planning to leave it on the covered radiator in the hall where the postal service leaves packages. I forgot, of course, and ended up carrying the worry doll around in my pocket for several days, occasionally remembering it when I put my hand in my pocket — entertaining myself by wondering how it got there, fretting that it meant something to someone and I’d just picked it up and pocketed it. (It’s probably trash, of course. They give dolls like this out like after dinner mints at some Mexican restaurants). At some point, I put the coat in the back of the closet, thinking that I wouldn’t need it again until October, and then I really forgot about the tiny doll.

Anyway, this morning the doll’s arm stabbed me in the finger and I thought: well, that’ll teach you. These things are everywhere if you remember to look.


Against real beauty

this gets pretty communist #sorrynotsorry

this post gets pretty communist #sorrynotsorry

Here are some things I would like advertisers to stop doing:

  • Showing me a flawless 18-year-old butt in a $5 pair of panties and tell me its empowering because it’s not Photoshopped.
  •  Asking me to choose “beautiful” or “average” and then explain my choice.
  • Telling me what physical features “real women” do or do not have.
  • Showing me a picture of a woman who is radical only for being comfortable with herself and expect a gold star for progressive thinking.
  • Using the word “real” to sell me underwear or soap or goddamn douche.
There’s actually very little difference between a lingerie ad featuring the Victoria’s Secret angels and a body wash ad using pictures of some perfectly lit women who have cRaZy things like a little belly flab or freckles and yet dare to say they’re beautiful. Why? Because the link between aesthetics and value survives. (Nothing new under the sun, the motto of late capitalism.) The insistence that “everyone is beautiful” is still built on the central thesis that women’s beauty matters greatly to their worth.
These ads often come with a “think of the children” veneer — we must save the little girls growing up bombarded with racy swimsuit ads and Miley Cyrus’s gymnastic tongue!  This boring, nanny-state sort of thinking has given us Aerie’s no photoshop campaign, many, many self-righteous petitions, and lots of praise heaped upon women like Jennifer Lawrence, who dares to be a size 4 instead of a size 0.

When you’re demanding that people look at (and praise) your images of unretouched models, you’re still demanding that they look at bodies, reinforcing the idea that bodies (women’s bodies, nine times out of ten) are something to be scrutinized and examined.  The essential problem with these “empowering” advertisements is that they ask us to accept the premise that all women are beautiful and therefore valuable—rather than valuable, full stop.
Burn this into your brain, teach it to your kids, get it tattooed on the hand you use to swipe your credit card: Brands do not care about you. Brands do not care about what’s “real”. They have a fiduciary responsibility to remind you constantly that something is wrong with you, because that’s what makes you buy stuff.  According to them you will always too fat or too skinny or not “real” enough.  When it’s being used to sell a product, “being real” by necessity becomes another thing at which women can feel inadequate. A size twelve woman declaring that she, too, is beautiful is not radical. You know what’s radical, what’s really powerful? A woman who understands that beauty doesn’t matter.

Much easier said than done, obviously. But here’s what I would rather teach those girls Dove is so worried about: It does not matter what you look like.   That may sound like a flippant thing to say, because, of course, it does matter, in a lot of instances–that’s the world we live in.  But do looks matter to your self, your person-ness, your essence? Do they really affect how capable or intelligent or compassionate you are? Nope. (The next time you talk to a little girl, do something really revolutionary: don’t tell her she’s beautiful. Ask her what she’s reading, or how her soccer team is doing, or what she wants to be when she grows up. Tell her she’s smart, tell her she’s strong. Try harder.)

The radical opposite of fake tits and Photoshop is not “real beauty”, not the late-capitalist gospel of “everyone is beautiful”.  It’s the hard won knowledge that your appearance is not you. Mistrust anyone who tells you otherwise–they’re probably trying to sell you some soap.


“On Immunity” in a Blizzard

20613511I finished “On Immunity” by Eula Biss on the T on Friday morning. (What better place to ponder the public good and herd immunity than on a heavily delayed subway car with a couple of hundred other miserable, sniffling commuters). Both a history and defense of vaccines, it’s a book that defies categorization: part medical journalism, part ethical tract, part meditation on paranoia, privilege, and the common good. From the first moment I picked it up I felt a sense of recognition, like, yes, this is what has been missing from this conversation, this is what we need to talk about.

Every time I’m in Copley Square I think about the inscription on the Public Library there: “Founded through the munificence and public spirit of citizens.” It’s not something you hear much about, “public spirit.” Sometimes, depending on what’s going on in the news, I read that dedication and think that we’ve abandoned the concept entirely.

These last couple of weeks have been an absolute bear for the MBTA, and while the T and city are making excuses, individuals are overwhelmingly helpful: always making room for one more person on a jam-packed train, helping an elderly woman elbow her way to the doors so she doesn’t miss her stop, hopping out at a street level stop to help a mother drag a stroller through the deep snow and onto the train. These interactions are not something any decent person needs to stop to think about: people living in a society look out for each other, especially for the most vulnerable. Public spirit is alive in Boston.

Herd immunity is about public spirit. You do not get vaccinated to protect only yourself, you get vaccinated to protect both yourself and others, especially those who are most vulnerable to disease. (People with auto-immune diseases, people too young or ill to receive a vaccine). Depending on what parts of the Internet you frequent, the vaccination conversation can be framed as hysterical mothers vs. rational doctors, or profit-hungry pharma companies vs. establishment-rattling mommy bloggers. In “On Immunity”, though, the crux of the argument is this: if you believe that it’s fine for healthy families to refuse vaccinations, you must also believe that your social privilege exempts you from any moral obligation to our fellow humans.

Rhetorically, “On Immunity” pulls off something tricky: extending empathy to a group without making excuses for their (dangerous) behavior. A mother of a young child herself, Biss can inhabit both the fear and the privilege that defines much of the anti-vax crowd. She connects anti-vaccine paranoia to a very simple fact: the scarier things get, the less trustworthy that our authority figures become, and the more control we try to exert over our health and the domestic sphere. Biss lingers here, acknowledging the fear and expressing her own original hesitance about vaccines, but then isolates the dark core of this kind of thinking: a catastrophic failure of public spirit.

This is something I think about a lot: that we’re always holding in tension our responsibility to the public good and our desire to draw inward, shrink our focus down to a pinhole of protecting ourselves and our families. And scrabbling for a little control, however illusory, is all too familiar to me. Biss recalls her sudden, mysterious fear the first time she was on a boat since the birth of her son, and then finally naming it: “Oh, I’m going to die.” I don’t have kids, but my husband had cancer at 26–a very effective crash course in “oh, I’m going to die” that I don’t recommend. I’m not a stranger to that overnight change: one day the world seems fine, the next everything feels perilous.

What I liked most about “On Immunity” is that it acknowledges this paranoia with compassion and something like respect, but then methodically shreds it to pieces using science, ethics and the long, fraught history of vaccination and public health. It arrives at a fact that’s easy to say, but not always easy to live: the public good is greater than individual fear. It is not an exaggeration to say that our survival depends on reason trumping panic–indeed, that triumph is the only thing that has ever moved society forward. I don’t know how many minds “On Immunity” will change–probably not many, unfortunately–but it’s starting the conversation in the right place.