The Most Romantic Promise

December 28, 2020
Til social ostracism do we part

A New Disorder

December 17, 2020

A friend of mine sent me a link to a thread on therapist-dedicated subreddit, in which the original poster asked if anyone else who worked with offenders felt uncomfortable with the concept of cancel culture. A few interesting anecdotes and ideas came up, that led to lots of questions (in my head, that is) about cancel culture, but the most interesting thing to come out of it was this:

I work primarily with OCD and anxiety disorders and I’ve seen [fear of being canceled] popping up more and more in OCD content in the form of moral scrupulosity. Compulsions are often checking and re-checking accounts to make sure they didn’t accidentally say or post something homophobic, racist, or otherwise offensive.

This is so fascinating to me! It’s like, the newest version of Truman Show Delusion! If the person who is to Internet Scrupulosity what Marc Feldman is to Munchausen’s by Internet is out there, please get in touch so I can write a long form piece about your attempt to get this into the DSM!

Twelve Foreign Concepts With No American Equivalent

November 17, 2020

Coming soon to a self-help-inflected Netflix documentary!

Jutpälvirsaippy (Finnish): A warm, fuzzy feeling induced by thinking of your nation’s robust social services

Zzxjoanw (Maori): A secondhand embarrassment one gets when watching foreign political leaders behave poorly  

Voirepergne (French):  The miraculous ability of some women to eat high fat diets and remain slim (alternative, archaic: the miraculous ability of some women to look stylish even when wearing rags, or, the miraculous ability of some women to somehow be pretty even when hideous)

Schnitzengruben (German): a friendliness that nevertheless grates or disgusts the recipient

卞工几と 日ヨ工几呂 (Japanese): the sense of mental well-being that comes from knowing one has the exactly ideal number of possessions

Kamelåså (Danish): a cozy aesthetic that should be easily achieved with purchases from large Scandinavian chain stores yet somehow looks stupid and cheap if you live outside the Arctic Circle 

Dututebatti (Luxembourgish): a fluency with myriad languages, acquired early in life and seemingly with ease

쟁반 받쳐줄게요 (Korean): the ability to blend in to or be embraced by a wide variety of societies and cultures; alt. impeccable social skills (useful idiom: “polite tourist in a china shop”)

Schulleilis (Gaelic): a soft and universally pleasing tone of voice

Darajuiwolo (Yoruba): a combination of perseverance, strength, and optimism, all of which are readily understandable to English speakers, and yet none are able to harness the power of darajuiwolo without purchasing a book or listening to between six and eleven Ted talks on the subject

“Ornamental Eremitism”

October 28, 2020

What hermits were and how they lived, once quite familiar, now became shrouded in the kind of mist that fostered romantic images that persist to this day. Peter France, in his book Hermits: The Insights of Solitude, noted a practice, which sprang up in England in the early 1700s and lasted almost until the 1900s, of wealthy families establishing a hermit in their formal gardens as an ornamental fixture for the edification and entertainment of guests. He quotes from an architectural guide published in 1767 which featured detailed suggestions for housing these hermits appropriately, ranging from the simple hut “ten feet, nine inches square made of trees and lined with moss” right up to the top of the line, the “Gothic Grotto, made of six rooms lined with shells.” A Miss Cynthia Aldburgham remembered that as a child, visitors to her family home could tour the grounds and “be shown a hermit who sat in a cave fondling a skull.” Presumably, he was given advance warning when his presence at the cave entrance would be required!

A Mr. Powys of March advertised for a hermit to live in an underground grotto for seven years. The apartments provided were commodious including a cold bath, a chamber organ (!), and as many books as the hermit desired. If he needed any convenience beyond the food provided daily from Mr. Powys’ own table, he was to ring a bell and his needs would be met. Ideal as this might sound, no one lasted more than four years. The most long-lasting of these ornamental hermits appears to have been one who “for fourteen years was Hermit to Lord Hill’s father; and sat in a cave in that worthy baronet’s grounds with an hourglass in one hand and wearing a beard once belonging to an old goat from sunrise to sunset.” The romantic image of the melancholy hermit appeared to have little to do with spiritual motivation, even if provided with an organ, presumably to play religious music to enhance the atmosphere!

~Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life by Paul A. Fredette and Karen Karper Fredette

I’ll Have What He’s Having

October 12, 2020

Actual page from Curious George Takes a Job, 1947

Title Dropping

September 27, 2020

Every book the narrator of Want by Lynn Steger Strong references reading. This book got a lot of buzz but I hated it for many reasons that I’m more than happy to elaborate on if you would JUST GIVE ME THE CHANCE. I honestly feel like this reading list encapsulates some of my irritation: I’m super highbrow and super, super sad!

Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight

Gayl Jones, Corregidora

Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child

Marguerite Duras, The Lover

Merce Rodoreda, The Time of the Doves

Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero

Claire Lispector, The Passion of G.H.

Henry Tree, Party Going

Dorothy West, The Living is Easy

Gerald Murnane, The Plains

Mariama Ba, So Long a Letter

Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time

Magda Szabo, The Door

Tom McCarthy, Remainder

Jean Rhys, D.H. Lawrence, Colm Toibin, Deborah Eisenberg, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Comyns, Penelope Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, Jane Bowles, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf

Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac

Louise Erdrich, LaRose

Is This Funny?

September 22, 2020

I started to write a “humor” piece about someone calling Gd’s office asking to reschedule the end of 2020 like it’s a doctor’s appointment, but I’m not sure it’s funny, or, even if it is, there’s enough to go on. Thoughts?

Hi. Oh, yeah, hi, um, can you hear me? Sorry, trying to use Skype cause of long-distance charging and all, sometimes the service isn’t so great. Uh, hi. I’m trying to reach God, or whoever is in charge of His scheduling there? Sure, I can hold.

Hi! Yeah, so I’m really sorry for the late notice, but I’m calling to reschedule an appointment. Yes, it’s “the remainder of 2020.” I’ve been meaning to reschedule for ages, but things have just been so hectic, with the Zoom school and the remote working and everything.

Yes, I do realize you have a 24-hour-cancellation policy, but if we start the cancellation from 24 hours from now, can I avoid the fee? You know what, actually, on second thought, I don’t think I can endure another day, so I’ll just pay it. Yes, the credit card on file is fine.

So as for rescheduling, hm, let me take a look at my calendar. I was really hoping to make it up when my kids are able to dress themselves, but before I am no longer able to. Some kind of sweet spot like that––maybe when they’ve just gone to college? Do you have any openings in 2040? Really any time that year, I don’t have anything scheduled yet. Oh, there’s another pandemic scheduled for then? And a world war? Shoot. Is there anything else I should know about for 2040? You know what, don’t tell me, I almost think it’s better if I don’t know.

Mask as Religious Garment

September 11, 2020

I might get in trouble for this, but: I can kind of understand why people would have some confusion, or even skepticism, about masks right now.  The experts did a 180 in terms of mask advice early on in the pandemic, as we all remember, and even though the guidelines have remained mostly the same for a while now (insofar as we’ve all been told to wear masks) there has been some conflicting data on the topic: for example, a recent-ish study showed that masks made of certain kinds of material were actually actively unhelpful, while different health authorities in different states have mandated mask usage in different environments, i.e. outside all the time, or only when you can’t socially distance, or even in your own home.  Recently, researchers have floated the possibility that the mask might be just not-protective enough to actually engender immunity to Covid-19 in the wearer by exposing them to small particles.  This is purely speculative and is not really relevant to the conversation at hand, just to say that I get why people would be confused, generally speaking.

Let me be clear: I believe the research that shows masks help stop the spread of Covid-19.  As someone who is not a scientist or a doctor, I don’t know exactly how the process works––I can give you a sketch but not a detailed explanation––but I buy it.  And I totally do not care about people who think that masks are bad for you because they cause your teeth to rot or your oxygen to get low or whatever else they’re saying these days, because often these people are the same “medical freedom” fighters who are always talking about the body is a miraculous healing organism and can survive cancer without chemo, so if the body can do that then surely it can breathe through a thin cloth every now and then?  Some consistency, folks, please.

For those people, and for others who struggle with masks, I would like to propose another way of viewing them: as religious garments, which are non-functional, occasionally talismanic pieces of clothing that serve an ideological purpose rather than a practical one.

Many religions feature such types of garments.  There are the famous “Temple garments,” referred to also as Mormon underwear, which I used to make fun of liberally and now would never, bequeathed to Mormons during their initial participation in an endowment ceremony.  Sartorial signifiers of religious affiliation are hugely important in Plain Anabaptist traditions––you’ll remember the joke from Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise” about buttons, although the Amish actually do wear buttons–– as well as Orthodox and, to an even greater extent, Haredi Judaism.  From kippot (yarmulkes) to shtreimels(round fur hats worn by married Hasidic men on Sabbath) to the monochromatic, floor-length dresses worn by Amish women and the suspenders worn by their husbands, Judaism and Anabaptism in particular make great use of the fashion as semiotic communicator.  The list goes on: having specific uniforms for cloistered Catholics like vestments for priests, the hijab for women in Islam, robes of specific colors for Buddhist monks, and so forth.  You get the idea.  Particularly in more conservative sects/expressions of major religions, there is an intense focus on the minute detail of the clothing, garments or accessories: for Hasidic women, how long the hair of your wig is, or whether you wear a snood or a tichel, says a great deal about where your ancestors came from, what sect you belong to, and/or how liberal you are.  Years ago, I met an Amish Mennonite convert who was also an academic sociologist who had written an entire book on the variations in Amish women’s head coverings and what they symbolized.  Though an outsider would spot the difference between a black head scarf and a gauzy white covering for a bun, the sociologist delved into differences so subtle––type of pleating, width of band––as to be completely imperceptible to the uninitiated, but deeply meaningful to the Amish themselves.

What does this type of garment do for its wearer?  There are two main purposes, and how much the wearer emphasizes one or the other depends on a number of factors including general level of religious conservatism.  First, in some cases, like with the Temple garments and tzitzit, there is the idea that they literallysupernaturally protect you from harm.  But the broader one, and the one more interesting to contemplate here, I think, is the way these garments serve as a visual shorthand for tribal affiliation.  (That can be cultural or religious tribal affiliation, but in the case of many faiths, like the Amish and Haredi Judaism, the two are so intertwined that they can be indistinguishable both for the religious person and the observer.)  There are the tiny signifiers––like the bowsworn on beaver hats by Hasidim, on which side depending on the wearer’s sect––and the more overt ones, like hijab = Muslim.  Whatever the prominence, the dress lets everyone the wearers interact with know immediately who the wearers are (in broad strokes, of course): from their ethical precepts down to the nitty gritty details of their diet.

An example from my personal life: I dress modestly, which means I basically cover my knees and elbows and wear dresses and skirts.  I don’t do this 100% of the time––I wear pants a few times a year when I’m feeling spunky, and sometimes my dresses don’t fully cover my knees, which I don’t really love but that has more to do with style than religiosity––but mostly, I follow the precept of what we call tznius, or modesty.  I definitely do notdo it because I feel like men are wanton sexual beasts and I must protect them from my skin, and I don’t even really do it because I believe Gd wants me to (the Jewish texts are not particularly persuasive when it comes to this argument).  Mostly, I do it because doing so marks me as a part of a community, it lets other people know how I identify, it tells them certain things about how we should behave together as humans interacting without my having to explain it (i.e. don’t offer me bacon-wrapped shrimp, for instance, or don’t go in for a hug if we’re not related/married and you’re a dude).  Although to be fair, modesty being as unstoppable a trend as it’s proven to be, and liberal Orthodoxy being what it is, many people might not immediately get this.

Lots of people think this stuff is the height of religious stupidity.  Why would the God or a god care what you wear?  And why would people think their choice of shirts made them more moral, or even holier?  I get that.  There are definitely cases where people obsess over the vehicle at the expense of the engine, and then, when there’s some kind of vehicular malfunction, their hypocrisy is that much more embarrassing.  Maybe sometimes they’ve confused visual piety for actual piety (in some environs, that’s understandable, because the education is sub-par, or there’s inter-generational trauma that leads to fanaticism or a general blending of cultural expression and religious expression) and they think that as long as they’re wearing the outfit, they don’t need to worry so much about behaving ethically towards others or engaging in study or being mindful of other specific religious virtues.  Kind of like the faith version of the Peltzman Effect.  But in the best case scenario, wearing distinct garments that point to their religiosity reminds the wearer that they are beholden to ideas greater than themselves, and that they should conduct themselves in an overtly dignified and considerate way particularly in public but ideally everywhere.

So this is where the mask comes in (and yes, I’m admittedly writing this thinking of the obvious overlap between Evangelical Christianity and Covid-deniers/mask skeptics): if you just can’t wrap your mind around the idea that the mask might provide us some literal protection from the virus particles, what about, instead, viewing it as a cloth that symbolizes your belief in the idea that, as members of society, we have to make a covenantto protect each other?  Your willingness to make yourself a little uncomfortable (have you ever dressed modestly in a sweltering New York City summer?) so that people will know, upon meeting you, that you are committed to conceiving of our society (micro, as in local community, and macro, as in world) as a holistic entity that needs constant vigilance and nurturing?  Your desire to show others, via how you treat your physical being, that you care about them, and that you are aligned with the tribe that values that caring?

Do I think this argument would sway those who need to hear it most?  No.  As we know, the religious people who are the most mask-averse are Evangelicals, and most of the American Evangelical world (bar the Duggars) did away with most of their outward expressions of faith a long time ago, and also have found a way to de-emphasize the Christian ideals of charity, kindness, non-resistance, and other community-oriented (versus self-oriented) principles and replace (?) them with a warped and relentless entitlement and vague sense of “liberty.”  I don’t know much about how late-era capitalist Evangelism has become what it has, but I could probably take a stab at formulating a theory if you paid me (call Siobhan).

Final observation: would this make a face shield the niqab of the mask set?  I kid!

Possible Narrative Conflicts Available to Filmic Storytellers

September 1, 2020

According to the protagonist of Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind:

Man vs. Man (Woman, Nonbinary, Child)
Man vs. Self
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Machine
Man vs. Supernatural
Man vs. God(dess)
Man vs. Two Men (and et chetera)
Man vs. Everything
Man vs. Nothing
Man vs. A Few Things
Man vs. Disease
Man (Sick) vs. Healthy Person of Any Gender
Man vs. Idiocy
Man vs. Memory (Memory is a map of sorts, but hand drawn, incomplete, and full of errors. It can let you know a place exists, but you cannot trust it to get you there. To get you there, you need a computer. A computer is precise. A computer does not think your mother is more important than the chair, or the space that’s not your mother is more important than the space that is, or the glass of water on the table, or the sun pouring through the window, or the velvet drapes, or your mother’s love for her father, or the front stoop, or the cracks in the front stoop. This is why Man must fight it.)
Man vs. Computer
Man vs. Time
Man vs. Fate
Man vs. Marketing
Man vs. Clone
Man vs. Smell
Man vs. No Smell
Man vs. Some Smell

(As much as I stan for Charlie Kaufman, I agree with the reviewer who called this book “exhausting.”)



Adorable, but…

August 24, 2020

Would children really find these fun?  And if the answer is yes, for how long?  Do Scandinavian babies have some kind of special gene where wood is endlessly mesmerizing to them, and American kids are born with a susceptibility to toys with garish colors and blinking lights and gratingly cartoonish voices?  Honestly just buy me this mushroom basket.

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