desk lunch – 2015-05-28

Brought to you this week by a brain that doesn’t quite want to make words work. I can’t blame the heat because it was 90 degrees in Philadelphia today, at the end of May; that can only mean July and August will make this place seem like the surface of the sun, but humid, because topography is cruel.

And the further we get into the cinematic superhero era — now almost 15 years long — the more explicit these films get about both their real-world impetus and about the way America responded to that tragedy.

These narratives mostly suggest that it’s a perilous thing to be a girl, that there are only two ways for girlhood to end: joyfully and with procreative marriage, or tragically in painful death. But that dyad isn’t any more real than the poison apple or the dwarves with the Protestant work ethic.

Here are two really different essays that, in their own ways, deal with admitting difficult truths to ourselves. Those truths, specifically:

  1. superhero movies have grown from cultural/geopolitical power fantasies with a crumb of reality at their center to overworked toddlers kicking over skyscrapers when things don’t go their way and mayyyyyybe they’ve outlived their usefulness and entertainment;
  2. you are not responsible for your objectification, for others diminishing you to something less than a thinking, feeling, breathing human being.

They work for me, anyway.

I love space. It thrills me and scares me because the reality of space is so much more than my imagination could ever conceive. Last month, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia opened up their observatory during a Science After Hours event. I stood on their roof in the shockingly cold April night for about 45 minutes, waiting for my turn to step up to a telescope and look at Jupiter for about 15 seconds. The largest planet in our solar system was 400 million miles away, but the telescope provided enough detail to differentiate its layers of atmosphere and count three of its moons passing in front it. Science put all that right in my face and I couldn’t have been happier to know that this isn’t all there is. It’s enough to know that there’s more to existence than what happens on Earth.

This Tuesday, May 26, marked what would have been Sally Ride’s 64th birthday. As a geeky kid who loved space, I loved the annual surprise of a new science textbook and finding the Sally Ride sidebar that discussed her achievements as an astronaut and scientist. Yet as a kid, what stuck with me about Sally Ride was that she was the first woman I saw in a book referred to by her title: Dr. Ride. There was no wondering if she was Miss or Ms. or Mrs. depending on her age and marital status. For the first time in my life, I saw written in a book that there was a woman you could call just Dr. Ride, thank you. Even now, that tiny thing means a lot: a literal particle of gender nonconformity at an age when I didn’t know that was what I wanted so much; a signal as loud as an airhorn that you could achieve something and have it change the way you were addressed and known in the world.

Honestly, this was brought on because Google marked the occasion with a series of animated doodles on their homepage. The full doodle page also includes a post from Dr. Ride’s partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, on her career and the Sally Ride Science legacy. Autostraddle reposted their wonderfully detailed 2012 obituary.

And this review of Lynn Sherr’s 2014 biography on Dr. Ride closes with a line from the book that I can’t forget: “Being first was fine but she didn’t want to be the only one.”

desk lunch – 2015-05-21

Brought to you this week by EXHAUSTION. I moved into my fifth apartment in Philadelphia this weekend. I only have to unpack the kitchen and then I can finish putting everything in the places they’ll stay until I move again in 2-3 years. I have a makeup mirror that I can’t hang up in my bedroom anymore and it’s resting on my desk so I can better embrace my Lady of Shalott aesthetic. Tirra lirra by the train tracks seriously will someone organize my kitchen for me.

How do you not understand that a vigorous and generous financial aid system is relevant for ALL students, because it ensures your kid will be going to school with people from vastly different class and income backgrounds?
I guess that did not necessarily seem like a plus to some people.

The Nicoles at The Toast are the college counselors I wish I had at my tiny Catholic high school way back when. The link above has much better advice than such stunning observations from my high school’s counselor, like: well, with those PSAT scores you won’t get into an Ivy League school, so just go to [state school everyone in my class attended, like in SAVED BY THE BELL: THE COLLEGE YEARS, a show that NO ONE enjoyed. And didn’t Kelly DATE HER PROFESSOR?]. I never went back to said counselor’s office, and I didn’t bother asking for useful advice like how I could get application fees waived or whether it was even possible to negotiate a financial aid package.

I can’t be too bitter because in the end, my chosen school came through with an aid package that covered the sizable tuition bill. However, I’m still paying off four years’ worth of expensive room and board. It’s these really boring, common, money-related considerations that make me the worst person to play if you could change one thing about your life: the answer is always GO BACK IN TIME, GET TO COLLEGE FOR LESS.

On Monday I saw Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood video about 15 minutes before Nicki Minaj and Beyonce released Feeling Myself and… I LOVE THEM BOTH. SO MUCH.

Look at these two complementary celebrations of female wish fulfillment!!! First there’s the hyperfashionable desert meetup where you eat burgers and tick off the benchmarks of your incredible professional success. Neither person begrudges the other their success and the burgers are incredible, as is your hair and makeup and everything about you.

Then there’s the other side of The Dream, where you have so much money you invite your squad to shoot a four-minute action movie. You celebrate your success by creating this lavish piece of work. You get ZENDAYA TO THROW KNIVES. You engage your supermodel bff in Xena-level kickboxing that would make Sappho throw down her lyre to watch. Top all that off with a sci-fi aesthetic more interesting than the $250m blockbuster with a robot in the title and I’m here for every second of it. (Except for the music. Oops.)

I talked to my agent about it, who was really supportive, but referred to me as “powerless” in the situation. I understood what he meant—that I had no leverage with which to make this editor respond to me—but the word struck me, because I don’t feel powerless at all. I feel exactly the opposite: that they need voices like mine. That if they don’t take them, it’s their loss, not only morally and aesthetically but (in the long run) financially, and no one will wait for them to catch up with the new culture we’re creating. We’ll just go ahead and create it.

It’s worth reading the above from Monica Byrne, a writer with an offer from WIRED to write a pop culture column. Her first batch of interesting pitches were rejected, and the second batch never acknowledged. It’s an awful thing to have the offer of a steady gig slowly drop out from under you, but this excerpt struck me for the truth of its optimism. Work that grows from where you are, from your experiences, from the life you’ve lived, can’t be ignored. (She said, more to herself than anyone else, because there’s nothing more difficult to convey than GENUINE HONESTY. Typing those two earnest sentences was the most painful thing I’ve done all day.)

Related: Byrne also published her anti-resume last year, a detailed spreadsheet of every lit mag submission, fellowship/residency application, or query to an agent sent since 2007. That’s almost 600 submissions with a success rate of 3%. It’s both humbling and reassuring that my own acceptance rate can dream to aspire all the way to 3%!! (We’re currently at better than nothing!!! percent.)

In fact, I think that sick girls will outlive everyone in the coming zombie apocalypse. You will never meet better tactical thinkers; we know which hours of the day we can go to the grocery store without running into a teeming horde of toddlers who’ll try to kick our canes out from under us (a weekend foray to Trader Joe’s is frankly excellent supply-run preparation in this regard). We know with eerie precision how many steps it’ll take to get to any marker in a room, and we can plot the best courses to conserve our energy.
where is the lie

desk lunch – 2015-05-14

Brought to you this week by Anna Chlumsky’s beautiful long-overdue freakout on Veep. 10,000 Emmys to both her and Ianucci for crystallizing in 100 seconds the life of almost every woman on the planet: we can’t have nice things because we tried one and it sucked.

Because what if Iago’s motivational difficulties, and his definitional rhetoric, really do not operate at cross purposes at all? What if Iago’s inability to describe his own motives without contradicting himself, and his diagnostic rhetoric, which scorns any opinions about the world that are not useful to him—what if these two monsters give birth to one another?

First: this essay is long. It is long, it’s funny, it’s engaging, but it takes a while to reach the point it’s trying to make: that the tragedy in Othello, and specifically what motivates Iago to bring the world down around their ears, tries to portray the limitations of a systematic, or hyper-rational, mind. Think of it as Spock’s dilemma in “Amok Time”: the hyper-rational person with unbreakable rules of conduct realizes something is wrong, but the way they run their life doesn’t allow them to identify the cause or the cure. In any case, I found it interesting to read a theory of how an unforgiving system could eventually collapse under the weight of its own mechanism.

I was never the best. I’m still not. I don’t say that because I’m trying to be deep or grab sympathy from the world, I say it because the past year of job searching has dug that fact into my cranium. From countless unanswered applications, to the countless “We regret to inform you…,” job hunting becomes a game of how confident can I be before I break.

I loved this for its relentless optimism. If I had to walk away from my 20s with only one thing, I would take this newfound ability to shrug off failure and continue to ram my head against a wall until it gives. I don’t know that it would have done much good to learn it earlier. I’m glad I have it now.

The act of explaining: It’s as if, before you speak, you have to relight the room you’re standing in. Dim this, walk in a lamp or two, replace a bulb. Can you see me now?

Another long essay, this one a review of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts using a memoir-through-vignettes format that made it such a weird and captivating read.

Solgangsbris, a poem by Kenzie Allen
It’s this life I want, this valley
between the hills and high places,
the steppes of what, so far,
I have known.

You should follow The Offing and we should move to Norway.

If I bought this for my mom, she would literally weep for joy and I would never hear the end of it. I would hear stories, daily, about her and Robert, so I need to link this here and remember it for the next important gift-giving occasion. Then I can visit my parents’ house and look upon A PORTRAIT OF ROBERT DOWNEY JR IN 19TH CENTURY RUSSIAN REGALIA.

desk lunch – 2015-05-07

Brought to you this week by One Direction’s “Fireproof,” a very fine musical sedative that gets me to stop thinking/panicking for almost three whole minutes at a time!!!

This starts another argument between husband and wife, mild at first, but then it peppers and there is this thing that distance does where it subtracts warmth and context and history and each finds that they’re arguing with a stranger.

A phenomenal short story by Lesley Nneka Arimah, published in Granta and a winner of Commonwealth Writers’s short story regional prize. This was distractingly good, like I have to leave the house ten minutes ago but NO I DON’T NO I CAN’T I WILL FINISH THIS. So load it on Pocket or- just be late. It’ll be worth it.

REALLY PERSONAL OPINION: I’m over Avengers: Age of Ultron, the ~theatrical cut in theaters right now. I saw it opening night and I had fun! I had my friends, my bucket of soda, purse candy, and a long-term solid affection for the MCU that even casting Baskingshark Crumbsbucket as Doctor Strange couldn’t totally smother. Then the movie happened and, for various reasons, I found it disappointing and forgettable. Literally- apparently Chris Evans had 50 minutes of screentime and I can only account for maybe 12 of them. Forgettable. I’m over it.

LESS PERSONAL OPINION: While I’m over AOU, I’m not over discussing AOU because I’m fascinated by the conversations that surround every aspect of this movie. See, the conversations around last year’s The Winter Soldier centered on the themes of its story (contemporary “preventative” warfare; the surveillance state that makes it possible; every single thing about the dual figure of Steve Rogers/Captain America in the real/fictional American psyche). In conversations about AOU, story barely figures because the plot points were sloppy and forgettable. So far the best takeaway from AOU has been the way it made every writer I know leave their theater with a loud and firm I NEED TO WRITE ABOUT THIS. Here are two essays very much worth reading:

I’m not here to bury or praise Whedon, or the larger Marvel universe, or even Avengers: Age of Ultron;
I’m just a girl, standing in front of a movie universe, asking it to give her narrative and emotional consistency.

I went with the cheeky excerpt because to quote any one part of this first part is to end up quoting the rest. This piece uses the concept of “points of care” as a straightforward way to describe how you can lay out the stakes for any given character in a story. For the Avengers in AOU (the central Avengers with 3-5 appearances in the MCU each), those points were developed throughout Phases 1 and 2, and AOU the Phase 2 finale meant to cash in on that prior development. My main disappointment with AOU came from this fundamental difference between the movie promised and the one delivered. Marvel invested in characters over the course of years, and their big return to this reluctantly-formed team completely ignores that they’re wildly different characters from the characters who teamed up three years ago. This essay does a great job of articulating the storytelling failures that characterized the movie.

Once the movie came out, there were a metric ton of problems with how the character’s story arc was presented. And after everyone digested all that, the backlash started. A backlash that seemed centered on Joss Whedon as a person, and not on having a real discussion about the movie.

This io9 piece takes a look at Black Widow’s AOU context- not in-universe context, but an overview of our talk around her role. This reviews the buildup to Black Widow’s role in AOU/the MCU in general, the reception of her story in AOU once the movie came out, and the backlash/fallout directed at Joss Whedon when it turned out that his take on Black Widow was out of tune not just with Phase 2 but also with his own characterization in the first Avengers movie. Also, for this piece in particular: don’t read the comments.

To keep the diary was to defend against memory loss; the prospect of forgetting seemed to Manguso a fate worse than death. But her fixation on capturing every detail didn’t feel quite right either.

I think I’ve kept a journal almost my entire life, from the cute hot pink ones still buried somewhere in my parents’ house to the dark green moleskine in my bedside table right now. It’s difficult to keep a journal and this piece from Vela has stuck in my mind for just that reason. I’ve kept a journal for so long, I don’t know why I keep it, what I hope to get from it, or how it affects my writing. Questions that need evaluating, maybe in… my journal?!

That night, my wife and I began scouring real estate listings, and almost immediately warmed to Satchel-on-Hudson, a lovely village two hours north of the city…. Life out here is placid and wonderful, and has afforded me the time and space for things I could never do in the city, like jarring my own salsa and not living in New York.