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1. Let’s begin with “The End,” The Times’ heartwrenching but incredibly moving series on death. This week’s entry, “The Heroes of Burial Road” by Catherine Porter, chronicles how, in response to unaffordable funeral costs and an unfathomable death rate, a shocking number of deceased Haitians have been left unburied. It’s a gut-punch of a story, terribly affecting, but, as with so many things of this weight, a swift flume for grace in practice.

Porter details the way a patchwork of various workers have come together to bury the dead and help bring dignity to the families of those who couldn’t afford funerals: “All of the men on the burial team grew up poor. Many were orphans. They see themselves in the bodies they pick up, particularly the children.” Their leader Raphaël Louigene has become a messiah of sorts, a symbol for all causes, and people throw themselves at him when they recognize his face.

“You don’t know when you will pass into eternity,” [Mr. Louigene] says, looking back at the white van, where the burial team is unloading the mournful cargo. “One day, I will become like them. We are not here for long.”

…The fanfa strikes the upbeat, brassy tune of “Papa Emmanuel.” The Haitian hymn carries a special meaning for [Father Frechette, founder of the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti], ever since Mr. Louigene sang it so passionately one day, carrying bodies from the morgue, that his neck veins bulged.

The lyrics seem written for this place — at least, as it was.

Beyond the mountain is a valley

There will be my abode forever.

2. Given the likewise dismal (and unrelenting) headlines re: sexual offense, it seems Esther Perel’s new book couldn’t be more perfectly timed. The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity suggests that compassion in the face of “unruly desires” can be more helpful than judgment. According to Zoë Heller’s New Yorker review, The State of Affairs finds Perel (whose work we’ve discussed before) destabilizing the moral righteousness of the cheated-upon—a totally offensive move for anyone who’s ever been there:

“To look at straying simply in terms of its ravages is not only reductionistic but also unhelpful,” [Perel] writes. Affairs can be devastatingly painful for the ones betrayed, but they can also be invigorating for marriages. If couples could be persuaded to take a more sympathetic, less catastrophic view of infidelity, they would, she proposes, have a better chance of weathering its occasional occurrence. When people ask her if she is against or in favor of affairs, her standard response is “yes.”

A 2017 Gallup poll revealed that Americans still “deplore” adultery, yet it continues to happen (and with increasing frequency). Heller writes, “We are eating forbidden apples more hungrily than ever, but we slap ourselves with every bite.” And despite Perel’s unconventional advice, ultimately, her stance is pretty traditional: she’s committed to the commitment of marriage, and her focus is always on how to make it work.

…no amount of expanding or softening the boundaries of fidelity will ever outwit the human desire to transgress. “In the realm of the erotic,” Perel writes, “negotiated freedom is not nearly as enticing as stolen pleasures.”

This—the impossibility of absolute romantic security—is the bracing moral at the center of Perel’s book. There is no “affair proof” marriage, she warns… To love is to be vulnerable. Relationships can inspire varying degrees of trust, but trust is always, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts it, “a risk masquerading as a promise.”

A sobering conclusion to be sure; but thankfully it comes as we draw closer to Christmas, which is a time to remember the one promise that is not, and never has been, “a risk”—a time to celebrate the arrival of a love that will not let us go.

3. Buuut (needle scratch) while we’re on the topic, might as well bring up Wesley Yang’s powerful farewell to Lorin Stein, former editor-in-chief of The Paris Review (and so-called “scoundrel”). Yang’s inside scoop—balanced but critical—is well worth the read, and he ultimately joins the group of voices, alongside Perel, calling for less judgment and more compassion as we continue to look with greater honesty at the tumult of libido (ht RS):

Sex is an intractable conundrum rather than a solvable problem. But that does not absolve us of the obligation to try to make better arrangements to minimize the chance that people are victimized by it. But we should attempt this in full recognition that there may not be a satisfactory way to render safe and tractable the will to domination and subordination that radical feminists rightly see as bound up in sexual desire without summoning up a will to purity and control—and vengeance—at least as destructive as the thing it opposes. […] As the changes accelerate, feminists should remember something they know well from their own experiences with men: Nobody is so dangerous, to themselves and others, as a person or collectivity that wields power without acknowledging it.

4. Ok, it’s definitely time for some humor. For which the holiday season is ripe: don’t miss this one from The Bee: “Jesus Criticized For Culturally Appropriating Human Nature.” But my personal favorite, from McSweeney’s, is yesterday’s “Sun Tzu: The Art of the War on Christmas.” Best advice for waging said war includes: “During ‘Jingle Bells’ look at Larry from accounting and mouth the words Batman smells…Set out the latkes in the break room…Feign disorder, and crush them.”

5. In technology, ex-Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya has been making headlines for speaking out against the very thing he helped create, social media, which he says is “ripping apart society.” Yikes…! In a talk last month with Stanford grad students (referenced in the video below), Palihapitiya confesses:

I feel tremendous guilt… The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a solution. My solution is that I just don’t use these tools anymore, and I haven’t for years…

We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded in these short term signals: Hearts, likes, thumbs up. And we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth, and instead what it really is is fake, brittle popularity that’s short term and that leaves you even more, and admit it, vacant and empty before you did it. Because it forces you into this vicious cycle about what’s the next thing I need to do, because I need it back. And think about that compounded by two billion people…you don’t realize it but you are being programmed.

6. Along similar lines Bianca Bosker from The Atlantic reviews WeCroak, an app that pings you five times a day with a friendly reminder that you are going to die. Just what you wanted, right? These reminders buzz in your phone “at random times and at any moment just like death.” As Bosker points out, the most interesting thing about WeCroak is how it compares to other ‘mindfulness apps’:

…WeCroak is a serious downer. Whereas Calm greets me with uplifting prompts to “take a deep breath,” WeCroak interrupts to warn that “the grave has no sunny corners.”[…] Still, I do not immediately delete WeCroak, and by the fourth week, I begin to enjoy its company. Trembling with nerves before giving a talk to a group of strangers, I get a ping: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” What’s a little public speaking next to the terrifying finality of my inevitable demise? […]

Despite buzzing me five times a day, WeCroak comes to feel less obtrusive than the other mindfulness apps on my phone. These apps are meant to be an antidote to Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram—the sorts of digital media that, according to my Calm meditation coach, are creating “an epidemic of overwhelm.” The irony is that although mindfulness apps promise to help us disengage from our devices, they also have incentives to keep us tethered—and they use many of the same techniques as the Facebooks of the world.

“Our community generates more meditation minutes than any other app,” boasts Insight Timer, sounding distinctly un-Zen. 

Bosker hails WeCraok as “the anti-app,” saying that it catches her on Twitter mid-scroll, reminding her that time is limited.

Social-media platforms seduce by providing a distraction from the tedium of everyday life—the awkward silences, boring waits in line, and unpleasant thoughts, chief among them the fact that we, and everyone we love, will kick the bucket. WeCroak makes escapism feel futile: We’re all going to die. The phone buzzes for thee.

7. This documentary, now available on demand, looks incredible:

8. At WSJ, Stephen Miller takes a closer look at a word we’ve found pretty unsavory these past few years: “curation” (which, you may have noticed, Palihapitiya uses above) (ht MM):

Let’s face it: We are all curators. We try to take care of the people we love and make wise choices about a variety of things. We curate our profiles online, choosing to present our best face. One columnist observes that “so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves.” A website named ArtOfCurating.com has as its motto: “A well-curated life is a happy life.”

A well-curated life? To me this sounds comically pompous. Yet the notion of curating has a certain appeal. Who doesn’t want to be known as a person with discriminating taste?

Or is “curating” a linguistic fad, like “groovy”? A few years ago Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press, told the author of “Curationism” that “it’s entirely possible that in, say, 2018 someone will look at [the use of curate as a verb] and say, ‘Ugh, that’s so dated, nobody says that anymore.’ ” Don’t bet on it.

I appreciate Miller’s “Don’t bet on it,” because, as trendy as the word may sound, it also gets at something undoubtedly universal, inescapably natural about humans, which is that we’re always on the lookout for approval, and we’re willing to go to great lengths, to perform outlandish dance numbers, to get it.

9. Well I can’t wrap up this weekender without mentioning Advent, at least once, as we close in on its third week. Here’s a beautiful reflection from Tamara Hill Murphy, who describes what happens when, gathered around the Advent wreath, she reads the Bible with her family (ht RS):

In the middle of it all, we giggled at the juxtaposition of our everyday American lives with the often-preposterous imagery spoken by blustery Old Testament oracles, wonder-struck gospel witnesses, and alarmed visionary writers of the apocalypse all converging in an infant born in a small-town shed.

It wasn’t just the language of scripture – rod of Jesse, a virgin birth, bowls of wrath, ancient betrothal customs, plowshares and pruning hooks – that struck us as strange. Hope itself is absurd. In her poem “After the Annunciation,” Madeleine L’Engle concurs:

This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.

…I began to take comfort in the absurdity of the Advent narrative: a tiny nation of people who have been living for centuries in the darkness of unmet hope and unfulfilled promise finally receive what was prophesied in the form of a baby king born in a stable to a virgin mother and anxious father. The incarnation makes shepherds into royal guests and barn animals into silent midwives.

Strays:

For the first time I realized that his addiction was bigger than either of us. I bowed my head and thought, I can’t fix this. It was the moment that I let go. I told him, “I can’t monitor you all the time. I love you, I’m here for you, and I’ll always be here for you. But I can’t save you.”

  • The Annihilation trailer looks promising (intense tho). I read Borne by Jeff VanderMeer and was unimpressed. But I’ve heard the Annihilation trilogy is of a higher caliber. At any rate: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh…and Gina Rodriguez? Is it February yet?