1. It’s been a while since we checked in with Heather Havrilesky and her exceedingly awesome “Ask Polly” column over at New York magazine. Bear in mind that it’s an advice column, so it’s filled with all sorts of impossible prescriptions, but she writes it in such a breathless, discursive manner that the format manages to be subverted, somewhat. The net effect is that of a torrential downpour of compassion, wit and wisdom. Given the demographic of that magazine, perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the principal themes, both of the letters and her responses, is the relationship between expectation and performance–the gap between who we feel we should be and who we actually are, and how this plays out professionally, romantically, psychologically, etc. So it’s something of a crash course in horizontalized, lower-case law and grace (for self-pitying elites). Having just preached a sermon (to myself) about the futility of ladder-climbing and status-seeking, I found the reply she wrote to “Somewhere Between Panic and Dread”‘s question about whether or not they should just give up on writing to be particularly relevant. The observations apply far more universally than a single vocation:

habitualjudgmentEvery single freelance writer in the universe out there who isn’t a best-selling author understands what you’re saying. But the best-selling authors understand, too, because someone else is always bigger than them, and their next book needs to be a best seller, too, or it’s all over. The pressure never ends. Maybe Stephen King can’t relate, but he can still remember pushing the boulder up the hill for years. That’s writing. I know a few best-selling authors, too, and their lives have not been transformed beyond recognition. Writer brains will do their thing with any level of success under the sun…

So what do you imagine that “breaking through” will do for you? If “breaking through” means being “chosen by Oprah” and selling lots of books and having a lot of Twitter followers, then it’s clear enough why you’ll never be motivated by that vision. It’s an arbitrary, abstract vision that has nothing to do with how you want to live or what you actually want to express or bring to the world. I would submit that you’ve created this imaginary “finishing line” because you’re tired and you need a giant golden carrot to keep you moving forward…

A few weeks earlier, addressing the question “Why Is Everyone Succeeding But Me?”, she expands on the same idea, speaking from personal experience:

wernerInstead of valuing the fact that I’d already had a chance to make weird stuff myself, instead of leaning into the things that I already loved to do, I wanted to chase down other people’s definition of “success” and “glory.” I didn’t pay attention to how it felt to create and work hard; I paid attention to the imaginary life that would be my reward if I succeeded at the “right” thing.

Part of the problem was that I couldn’t feel my accomplishments, because my brain was too busy scolding me for not doing enough. Nothing was enough… And now, thanks to the magic of the internet, we’re all exposed to each other’s accomplishments to an unprecedented extent… It’s no longer easy to ignore the fact that lots of people are accomplishing impressive things with their smarts and their talents. When you see people succeeding at great things, when they seem to be BASKING IN THE GLORY of those accomplishments, it’s easy to eat yourself alive instead of just working hard at your own peculiar stuff, the stuff you do like nobody else… Glory is exactly the kind of imaginary abstraction that haunts you when you’re procrastinating.

She ends the column by imploring the reader to shout “I AM AN OLD NOBODY AND I LOVE WHAT I DO.” Anne Lamott would be proud.

2. Over at The New Yorker, editor David Remnick reports on the aftermath of the Emanuel Nine shooting, and one of the chief questions he explores is the different ways that the radical public forgiveness was received within the black community.

The tradition of forgiveness in the black church is long. In 1974, six years after Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down in Memphis, his mother, Alberta Williams King, was playing the organ at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a hundred yards or so from her son’s grave, in downtown Atlanta, when a young man, firing two pistols, killed her and a church deacon. But, just as Martin Luther King, Sr., had forgiven his son’s assassin, Christine King Farris forgave her mother’s killer. “Hate won’t bring my mother or brother back,” she told the magazine Jet. “It would only destroy me.”

James H. Cone, an exponent of black-liberation theology whose books include “Martin & Malcolm & America” and “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” grew up in rural Arkansas and in the A.M.E. Church. The forgiveness shown by the relatives of the Emanuel Nine was hard to understand for anyone “who hasn’t had to cope with that kind of powerlessness,” he said. “It’s victory out of defeat. It is the weak overcoming the strong. It’s ‘You can’t destroy my spirit. I have a forgiving spirit because that’s what God created me to be. You are not going to destroy that.’ When they forgive, it is a form of resistance, a kind of resilience. It is not bowing down. That is misunderstood by a lot of people, even black people, and even some black ministers. It’s part of that tragic experience of trying to express your humanity in the face of death and not having any power.”

3. On a completely different note, Jim Windolf uses some recent reports about the nefariousness of almonds and water(!) to take us on a tour of food-related fears in his short article, “Why Everything is Bad For You”. The conclusion packs quite a punch:

Health-scare stories, even those that are not overblown, draw their special power from the fact that we go through the days denying our mortality. Each one reminds us anew that there’s no way out. Unable to avoid this tragic and absurd-seeming condition, we lash out against our fates by finding fresh reasons to make a villain out of the one thing that is doing its part to keep us alive: food.

4. Humor: Funniest thing I’ve seen this week was McSweeney’s list of Things God Does When He Closes a Door. But hardly a day goes by when Mallory Ortberg doesn’t post something ridiculously clever on The Toast. A couple of recent examples include “A Style Guide for the Dystopia” and “Comfortable Children in Western Art History” and perhaps best of all, “Signs The Vaguely-Named Building In Your Local Strip Mall Is Actually A Church And Not A Coffeeshop-slash-Art Space”. A couple standouts:

  • The Lift Ticket, if you are not in a ski town
  • The Vagabond Depository
  • The Cobbler’s Tools


5. That’s an uncomfortably appropriate lead-in to Dan Brooks’ article for The NY Times Magazine, exploring the response to what is being called history’s “largest work of conceptual art”, AKA Banksy’s new Dismaland theme park. Brooks is especially interested in how sarcasm has become the kitsch of our age–that when it comes to art, an over-reliance on sarcasm betrays an alarming insularity and ideological laziness. It works as a self-congratulatory shorthand, in other words, rather than anything genuinely expressive. Then again, Banksy has always made a, well, art out of skirting the line between propaganda, shock and comedy:

Ah, sarcasm: the very highest form of wit. In the dictionary, “sarcasm” is still defined as the use of irony to convey contempt. But what we call sarcasm, especially on the Internet, has become less a technique than an attitude: a contempt so settled that it doesn’t bother constructing ironies. I submit that this sarcastic attitude, which presents itself as the perspective of a knowing few, is actually one of the dominant aesthetics of our age. Sarcasm is our kitsch…

3e963d377ab84-23-1-169x300The defining feature of kitsch is that it preys on our desire to feel art succeed. It follows the formula of meaningful expression and exploits our willingness to manufacture the sensation of meaning… Sarcasm is a natural fit for partisan news aggregators, because it relies on a calculated appeal to shared attitudes… Kitsch banks heavily on these shared attitudes. It substitutes them for artistic insights, and it relies on its audience’s agreement with them to produce a feeling similar to profundity. Sarcasm works best when people already know what you mean. By the same token, you don’t have to think society has become crass and venal to enjoy Banksy, but it helps.

6. Music: The big buzz this past week was Ryan Adams releasing his cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Speaking as a long-time Adams/Whiskeytown fan, while I salute the project and really dig a few of the tracks (“I Wish You Would”, “Clean”, “All You Had to Do Was Stay”), I prefer Taylor’s originals. That said, it’s depressing how quickly and reflexively the Internet backlash machine does its thing–taking something that is unexpected and fun and turning it into a stone in the gender wars before dismissing it completely. All in less than four days. There’s no winning. Sigh. But cheer up: in the sentences-I-never-thought-I’d-write department, apparently Pope Francis is releasing a prog-rock record, Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward!. Oh and the new New Order disc is twice as good as I was expecting.

7. Social Science Breakthrough of the Week has got to be this:

ROBOT | Liz Garbus from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

8. In a wide-ranging long-read for Aeon, Alana Massey asks whether she really wants the Net to forget her teenage self, a reflection that is alternately poignant and frightening. Key line might be:

Whether a person would delight in the movie of her life or be humiliated by it might be determined less by her predisposition to sharing online than by how thoroughly the record of her life was digitised, with or without her consent.

9. Finally, while we’re on the subject of technology, we’re having a blast finishing up the new issue of The Mockingbird. (Now is the time to renew!). Yours truly just submitted a list of TV’s Best Techno-Fables, and as a preview, here’s the most present-tense entry, the one for Mr. Robot:

Only one season in the can, but this Fight Club-inspired thriller had more than a few discerning viewers surprising themselves by tuning in to the USA Network. Mr. Robot is a supremely fresh take on the unstable-yet-brilliant hacker archetype, the story of Elliott Alderson and his quest to take down a sinister conglomerate. Sounds corny perhaps, but the production elevates it to something else—from the cinematography to the casting (which includes a welcomely refurbished Christian Slater) to the plotting. All the techno-babble is window dressing for a rich cocktail of intrigue, ambition, and cynicism in which God complexes get filtered through an admirably low anthropology. The main chord the series strikes, however, is that of loneliness, the way technology isolates us from others, how the yearning for connection and the fear of vulnerability feed off one another. Some great father-son dynamics in there as well. Gripping stuff.