On the Refusal of Service

One of the pleasures of a certain kind of Boston life, is to spend an afternoon reading and writing in the Public Library. The BPL, like all libraries, is an amazing phenomenon, a space dedicated to learning, to the sharing of knowledge by the creators and grateful consumers of all manner of media. And as anyone who spends a lot of time in libraries knows – as anyone who loves learning knows – the values which make that sharing, that generosity, of knowledge possible tend to associate with other kinds of generosity, like, for instance, offering hospitality, refuge, safety. As a recent episode of This American Life put it, the public library is truly a magical Room of Requirement.

Which is why is should be no surprise that the BPL, like other libraries, is a magnet for all kinds of people on any given day – those who come here to work, who come for diversion, and those who come here because a “clean, well-lighted place” filled with books, newspaper, and peaceable people is a wonderful respite in the midst of a city that can often be hard, unwelcoming, and unkind.

That is, the library attracts a lot of Bostonians who might be homeless, or indifferently sheltered, those who are not privileged, not well, and not in a state where they can accept much help from others, if there are even any others to offer it.

If you go to the library a lot, you’ll see them, wearing more clothes than the weather would encourage in the summer, or too few in the winter, maybe sitting with a book or a paper, maybe not, often surrounded by several bags or bundles, the belongings they have to keep with them wherever they go for fear of having someone take the little they have.

In a city like Boston, this all tends to become so much background – because what can anyone do about it, surely that’s something for the City to take care of? I’m no better than anyone else either – caught up in whatever urgent rushing around that we all do, I steer a path around the person talking to themselves; I do that thing, where someone asks you for change and somehow it would be rude to pretend you don’t know what they’ve asked, but it’s all right to instead avoid eye contact, give an apologetic shake of the head, a sympathetic, whispered “sorry” – and keep walking by. What do we know of how our disadvantaged neighbors manage to find something to eat every day, or where they go at night if they’re not sleeping rough, or where they find a place to bathe or clean their clothes? We don’t know, because we don’t want to, and the structure of our lives makes it possible for us not to.

A couple of years ago, I was passing through the newly-renovated atrium of the library’s Johnson building, the space bright, welcoming, and bustling with patrons, when I noticed a younger woman just…standing still. Everyone else was on their way somewhere, and she…wasn’t. I tried not to stare, but kept looking, as my brain registered a disconnect between what I was expecting to see – perhaps a college student, dressed casually for an afternoon of studying – and what I did see, which was that, while her clothes were unremarkable, they were also filthy, as was her face, and her hair wasn’t fashionably tousled, it was in fact tangled and stiff with dirt. As people flowed around her, she stood still, staring intently at something and nothing, clutching one of those quilted, floral bags that you pay quite a bit of money for at the mall, so that other people recognize with approval that you’ve all paid to have the same bag – only her bag, like the rest of her, hadn’t been washed in a very long time.

I didn’t stop. (Did you?) And if I thought about the young woman much at all it was to wonder selfishly (callously) if BPL security was going to nudge her out the door before her dirtiness disturbed other patrons.

Which must have been what happened, because I saw her again the next day, only instead of being in the library, she was across the street, in Copley Square. She was still filthy, still standing still, still staring fixedly ahead of her. I wondered if it was the library’s beautiful 19th century facade that held her attention, or something, someone, else, as invisible to passersby as the woman herself.

And she was there the next day, standing still, staring at the library. And she was there most days after that. I first saw her in July; and she was still there, standing, staring, well into the fall, into the onset of winter. At some point, as it got colder, she appeared with a new-looking parka, though she kept the same shoes – once some kind of loafer, now shapeless and down at heel – and had no socks, even in the damp cold and November wind. She’d have been warmer inside the library, but as far as I could tell, she wasn’t going back in, though the fascination of the place remained. She continued to stand and stare.

Obviously, she had somewhere to go at night. Right? Surely she wasn’t sleeping on the streets? Someone had given her that coat, but what help did she have beyond that? She wasn’t any cleaner; did she have food? This young woman was very clearly unwell, very clearly vulnerable. Was she safe?

Asking these questions upset me. But what could I do? (because that’s what you ask, when you don’t have the combination of care, motivation, and knowledge to override your social conditioning, to override your discomfort, and act, but then you can say that at least you were upset). Why didn’t the City do something?

I thought about this woman a lot, and about the many other people like her in so many ways, but, who, unlike her, were somehow able to satisfy the library’s security, and have, at least, a warm, peaceful place to go for a few hours of the day, who could maybe use the library’s bathrooms for a bit of cleaning, a bit of dignity, who might be able to sleep, knowing they’d be safe, that their belongings would be safe too. I thought of the Richard Selzer story I often teach, “Toenails,” a parable of charity which takes place in a public library, a story which I use to prompt my students to think more empathetically (good for me, teaching empathy, when I was so overflowing with it myself that I did nothing for this young woman). I thought, if someone, if the City, if whoever was supposed to be caring for our neighbors were going to do something, the library would be the ideal place to do it.

Surely I couldn’t be the only person to have that idea?

(So I could wait, in hopes that someone else would have the idea, and would do the thing that I didn’t know how to do.

And where were you, at that same time?)

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an NPR report on how some libraries, recognizing the role they play in their communities as a refuge to a variety of people, have begun hiring social workers, and training librarians in how to help patrons with more than finding books, connecting them with vital social services as well. Wonderful, I thought. Someone is doing something after all.

Then I went to my library, the BPL, one of the oldest and most venerable institutions dedicated to welcoming the public within its doors, and encountered this sign at the entrance:

If these rules were only designed to limit bad behavior – loud talking, the noisy consumption of pungent sandwiches in the quiet study room – I’d be grateful for the library’s crack-down. Apparently other patrons felt the same, as I’m sure these rules came about after one too many visitor had complained. After all, the library might be open to all, but not to all kinds of bad behavior, right?


I thought of the young woman (one person, somehow visible when it’s so easy not to see the many others). I thought of how badly she needed shelter, and how poorly equipped she was to meet the library’s criteria for admission; how if she had the ability to present herself as neat, and tidy, with no offensive smells or offensive needs, she might not have been drawn to the library at all; she wouldn’t have stood, staring at the library for months. Indeed, this checklist seemed designed deliberately to be unachievable, and to give security the right to turn away a lot of the people who most need the library to be refuge, who most need somewhere welcoming to go.

Because if it’s not the library, where else, exactly, can they go? Who else will welcome them?

Whoever made the complaints that led to this Code of Conduct: will you take care of those whose behavior, whose existence, is objectionable? Excluding those people from the awareness of deserving patrons like ourselves (because we don’t think we’re the same, do we?) won’t make their problems go away, and will, in many cases, make them worse. Someone should really do something about those people, we all agree, except that it won’t be me, or you, or our public library, but surely this will be taken care of somehow, by someone.

We can sleep easy at night, and use our library with a clear conscience in the morning.

Can’t we?

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On Being Off

“Do nothing, and everything gets done” (Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh)

I just spent the last two months unplugged.

That is, for the last several weeks, I’ve been on a social media diet, on a retreat from all forms of electronic communication, in self-imposed rehab from an addiction to emails, texts, posts, updates, inboxes, likes, alerts, followers, threads, forwards, saves, pins, and links. #digitaldetox

Did you notice?? Did your social media universe seem a little dimmer, did its gravity feel off, because I wasn’t in it? Now that you know that I wasn’t there, does that explain any unaccounted-for FOMO that you might have felt during those two months, a sense that somewhere I was doing something more interesting that you wish you were doing too? Did the negative space created by my absence make you jealous and vaguely resentful that you weren’t also absent? Because presence or absence in the digital realm are now metrics of individual worth: if the time I invest in social media is time well spent, it’s in return for being noticed, for being taken note of, for making my #influence felt, for mattering.

I guess I spent two months not mattering.

It felt pretty good, actually.

Of course, it’s not like I went cold turkey, completely off the grid. Some technological tools are so useful, so necessary, that I couldn’t avoid using them: navigating, making sure I had a clean place to sleep every night, paying my bills, getting library books, making sure that I wasn’t mistakenly ordering entrails in restaurants, or saying yes to dangerous or illegal activities on the beach…And while I am unlikely to ever be fluent in Catalan, my phone is, which turned out to be surprisingly useful.

Nevertheless, I was grateful that the last several weeks often took me places where I could neither receive nor be received; where I could escape my cage because there were no bars; where my little triangle of connectedness was just an outline of nothing, more negative space: for days at a time, I couldn’t plug in even if I wanted to.

Helplessly unplugged, I was healthily unaware of every instance of cruelty, idiocy, and bigotry that would occur in the course of a day at the local, national, and international level; I couldn’t check my work email at the bureaucratic and tail-chasing level. And at what we call the social level, I couldn’t follow the latest announcements of happiness, or indignation, or helpless passive aggressive lashing-out (and I couldn’t inflict exactly the same on anyone else either).

I did miss feeling informed about current events, and connected to the lives of people I genuinely care about, but who are too often too far away; I missed being able to use social media for the use we were all originally sold on, which is as a tool for building and maintaining communities and friendships.

But, in the absence of all that positive connectedness, I was also able to withdraw from the negative, exhausting entanglements which, if they weren’t deliberately manufactured to distract and addict, have become indispensable in keeping us hooked, consuming, consumed. Un-connected, I became aware of just how disconnected I’d become from too many other important parts of myself.

Unplugged, I stopped having long, protracted arguments in my head with everyone from the GOP, to certain colleagues, to neighbors, to a cousin or acquaintance or two; I stopped mentally composing diatribes which I would (could?) never post, where I would devastatingly lay down some Truth that would first shake each one to the core, then effect a revolutionary course-change in their behavior, then become a viral sensation that would build my brand. For two months, I had no brand. I was unproductive, and relieved from the pressure to make myself a product. No consumption of media, no consumption of me by the media.

Instead, I followed the advice of author Jenny Odell in How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, to try to reset my attention, to stop attending reactively to whatever provocation was pinging at me in any given moment, to choose to be attentive, to be present.

I had been afraid that my attention had been so fragmented and splintered by posts and push notifications and messages and memes that it was broken beyond repair, that I’d never be able to focus on anything again. Being able to formulate a thought, plant a seed, let it grow, prune and trim and coddle it to fruition – being able to think without being buffeted by the clamoring thoughts of others – came as an enormous relief.

I read books – not articles, not headlines, not posts, not snippets of paragraphs, but actual books. Like summer vacation when I was a kid, I lay down in a shady spot with the intention of reading for just a few minutes, only to emerge from a literary fugue state two hours later. And when one book was done, I put it down and started another. I wrote. I sat with my feet in the creek, and let a sapphire-blue dragonfly land on my outstretched hand. I watched the wind ripple through fields of grain and riffle the tops of trees. I gardened, canned apricots, ate cherries off the tree, watched the sun set, strolled through the orchard, helped a friend build a staircase. Over bread, cheese, and cheap wine with ice cubes, we conversed at length about the health of trees, how to keep flies out of the composting toilet, why creativity seems so hard in the midst of urban professional life. We talked about art, and our childhoods, and dogs. We talked to the dogs, when they came over for belly rubs, tired out from chasing bees and chickens. Turns out, Williams was right: so much does depend “upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens.”


I couldn’t live that life indefinitely. (Could I…?) Vacations end, and responsibility – signified by dozens of accumulated emails, in turn signifying meetings to schedule, proposals to write, policies to develop, research to do – grinds back into gear, and the next thing I know I’m sucked back in to all of it, posting on social media again, idly scrolling through other people’s posts, skimming headlines, listening to a podcast on mindfulness, turned up to drown out the high energy music of the gym, the unwanted soccer games and children’s cartoons on the subway, the tedium of waiting in line at the grocery store, the agitation of being a thinking, feeling being in an age of violence and chaos.

People unplug all the time, which we know because the first thing they do when they plug back in (as one must, sooner or later, mustn’t one?) is make a big production out of how transformative it is to be unplugged, preferably integrating the experience into one’s brand identity. #simplicity #enlightened #enviable

Will my experience be any different? Was two months spent turned off enough time to calm mind and nerves, to renew focus, to reconnect to what I really value (rather than trying, frantically, to avoid everything I don’t)? Was that period enough to, if not transform me utterly, at least to insulate, or inoculate me, to give me greater resistance against the pernicious infiltration of all those bits of data which accumulate, proliferate, and suffocate attention?

I hope so. The point of unplugging, of being Off, in all senses of the word, was never to do nothing, and keep on doing nothing. On the contrary, as Odell argues, it’s when we feel like we’re doing everything – all the information, all the posts, all the attention, all the #socalledinfluence – that we’re conveniently distracted from doing anything, that is, anything organized, focused, meaningful, revolutionary. Do everything, and nothing gets done. Rather, what I hope will stay with me, as I return from my absence, will be the knowledge of what it’s like to be comfortably or uncomfortably present, as the fundamental condition of doing something.

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On Rules


“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.i)

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Emerson, “Self-Reliance”)

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (H.L. Mencken)

“But people don’t do such things!” (everything by Ibsen)

My therapist, to her credit, has the self-discipline to control her facial expressions and body language whenever I say things that are, obviously to both of us, absurd.

So when I mention that I’ve lately been accused of acting as though the rules don’t apply to me, she nods sagely, reaches for her pen and notepad, and focuses intently on adding to her abundant session notes – gestures I’ve come to interpret as her tactful way of suppressing the urge to guffaw uproariously and ask “Have these accusers of yours ever met you??”

—Because we’ve both had to endure hours of me anxiously perseverating over every rule, convention, and policy that brushes up against my life, and which I fretfully try to obey, even as I’m flinching and chafing at their touch. Far, far from thinking that the rules don’t apply to me, I go to therapy because somewhere along the line I became convinced, in the perverse self-centeredness of the incorrigible neurotic, that ALL of the rules apply to me, or should, or someone else thinks they should, or I think that someone thinks that I should think that they should. Not that any of that obsessive thinking guarantees that I (can/will/do) follow all of the rules, and not that all of the rules that govern my daily life are the ones that my shadowy accusers, sadly lacking in imagination, would expect. Nevertheless, far from leading a lawless, ungoverned, ungovernable existence, the problem of how, and whether, to follow rules (and what will happen to me if I can’t/won’t/don’t follow them) occupies much of my waking conscious thought.

There are three categories of rules (because of course there are rules for taxonomizing rules)

  1. I think we can all agree that some rules are necessary, beneficial, even inarguable, such as those governing gravity, etiquette, and grammar; plus all the guiding commandments, shared by major religions, ethics, and traffic law, to do with not damaging, maiming, or destroying what belongs to others, like portable property, bodies, feelings, or ecosystems. The problem for me here is not adhering to these rules myself; on the contrary, I take these rules—rules—so seriously that I suffer agonies of indignant distress when they’re flouted and abused by others. That language, traffic, social interaction, and our relationship to the natural world all *work* so much better, so much more pleasingly, when we’re all consensually-organized with the same principles, a literal or figurative grammar for life –  seems so obvious, that those who violate these rules are, at best, to be pitied and offered help to overcome their incapacity, or, at worst should be ostracized, cast out, put somewhere out of harm’s way, where their depraved indifference to the welfare of others can be contained. …. which remediation doesn’t happen nearly enough (as in: at all) leaving me a miserably-helpless witness to the unnecessary chaos and violence that seems to characterize the world.
  2. As if that’s not enough, then there are the idiosyncratic, personalized rules of my day to day existence (which I think should govern everyone else, but which I’ve come to realize are unenforcible beyond the confines of my own fraught inner life). The pricks against which I kick are, as often as not, my own invention, or (so I’ve been told) superstition, or an exaggeration of some punctilio that doesn’t matter a whit to anyone as much as it matters to me. As a small sample:
    • You must finish what you start – which is all very protestant and productive until it becomes compulsive. This rule got me through grad school, and got me married. It’s also why I hated grad school, and certainly, if ironically, contributed to me not being married. This rule also doesn’t serve me well when it comes to boxes of chocolates or doughnuts (see a related rule about avoiding asymmetry and uneven quantities). The inverse (perverse) hazard with this rule is that if finishing whatever it is you’re starting involves risk (to body, career, bruised and delicate heart) then you can obviate that risk by simply becoming paralyzed, hence never starting the thing in the first place.
    • Or: You have to eat dinner before dessert, unless it’s an afternoon cookie, which then has to be consumed during the time of day recognized as “day,” because if you eat it at say 5pm, that’s obviously evening, and hence roughly the province of dinner, and to eat a cookie right before a salad is not only to invoke the ancient curse (“you’ll spoil your appetite!”) but is an inversion of the natural order of things, and, simply, anarchy.  – Until dinner is over, and then it’s time for desserts involving sugar, but never anything savory from the conclusion of dinner to the start of breakfast – which meal is, of course, more in the realm of sweet – unless it’s brunch, and then you’ve just fallen through the looking glass of culinary surreality. Brunch, as you can imagine, makes me a little stressed. The combination of pineapple on pizza is an unthinkable abomination.
    • Or: You must not backtrack. You must be active and burn calories. You must not spend money frivolously on things like cabs or subway tickets. Taken separately, each rule might be innocuous enough; but combine them into one tyrannical diktat, and even the most banal trip to work or gym becomes a small military campaign, and every holiday a grueling forced march. This meta-rule requires spending hours pouring over maps of the smallest of hamlets – like Paris or San Francisco – to plot elaborate peregrinations, from every must-see museum to culturally-representative bakery to macabre guidebook oddity, in 12-hour circuits of 20 kilometers or more, which originate and terminate at, but cannot include, the hotel, until the circuit is actually complete, by which time you’re faint and footsore and kind of hating Paris or San Francisco, not to mention yourself.
    • And, variously: It’s bad luck to let pennies lie. If you spill salt, you have to toss some over your shoulder, wherever you are, including crowded public transit. If you don’t carry gear for every weather or health eventuality, the one thing you’re not kitted out for will be the thing that leaves you wet, bedraggled, overheated, hypothermic, or learning the words for “rash” and “ointment” in multiple languages as you negotiate the health care systems of multiple countries. If you see the first star of the night, or have birthday candles to blow out, you *have* to make a wish, BUT the wish has to be utterly stripped of any actual desire that Fate could trace back to you. And as has been well-codified by tales of fishermen, cobblers, idle princesses, and that ghastly story about a monkey’s paw, you must never, ever, give shape through words, to other people, or inside your own head, to things that you really want to be true, such as “this love-interest will return my affections!”; “that stab of pain I felt does not mean that I just tore something that is vital to my ongoing athletic performance and mental health!”; “this article that I’ve been hiding under my bed will get published by the first editor I show it to, thus opening the door to writerly success and hitherto unprecedented, non-neurotic, artistic self assurance!” That is, everyone knows you must NEVER make a selfish wish or one that seems benevolent but can have disastrous consequences because obviously you’ll invoke the wrath of malign and capricious supernatural powers.
  3. Finally (no delusions here, there’s nothing finite about this list), there’s the boundless morass of rules that are invoked as policies or guidelines, or (ghastly) assessable outcomes, which hold sway over our professional and personal lives with Newtonian rigor, even as they exhibit quantum capriciousness: uncertain, unpredictable, refusing to hold still long enough to be measured, grasped, or challenged. These are rules that might be enshrined in handbooks and conduct codes and goal statements; they might have the status of lore, that which doesn’t need to be documented because vague, paranoid fear has far more oppressive power than any mere bullet point in a memo. These are the rules which cause degrees of symbolic violence, where arbitrary differences of power and belonging are given the status of natural facts. These are the rules that are simply The Done Thing, common sense, taken for granted. And these are the rules that make me truly a little nutty: a deep-seated impulse to be obedient and win approval compels me to follow them; a streak of contrariness – orneriness – compels me to question them; some lapse in my youth or childhood renders me incapable of following them with docility or even good grace; at which point the mania to Stay Out of Trouble kicks in, but not sufficiently to keep me in line, just enough to make me agitated that though I want to want to comply, I just can’t/won’t/don’t.

This last is the category of neo-liberal, industrialized, capitalist, life: 9-5 schedules; dress codes; pretty much any policy or habit formulated for the perpetuation of a bureaucracy; acting one’s age; several levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; and, in fact, most things that we’ve been taught ought to occur on figurative pyramids, ladders, escalators, or scales, like the acquisition of property, career goals, sexuality, or the conduct of relationships.

I’m a pragmatic person, really, and, as we’ve established, a bit compulsive and classically neurotic, which means that since childhood I’ve been very good at following these rules, bending my own will to do The Done Thing in exchange for whatever phantasm of a reward is on offer: money, promotion, the relief (comfort!) of having all the levels of all the pyramids, scales, and ladders in place – to the extent that I’m now in a position in life where I’m supposed to formulate, perpetuate, and enforce them for others. Sometimes people even ask me for advice about how they can follow the rules as well as I do, which makes me feel, perversely, simultaneously gratified (I’ve managed to Stay Out of Trouble!) and disappointed with myself. Because the big promise of doing The Done Thing is that sooner or later, all the things will be Done, and you don’t have to keep doing them anymore – which is all, of course, nonsense, because the giant panopticon of our lives ensures that if it seems like the world is running out of things for us to DO, our internalized sense of shame and fear of being caught not Doing fabricates some new item to add to our existential To-Do list. These rules are the instructions for carrying out discipline, that is to say, of  ensuring that society keeps functioning by keeping us all preoccupied with Staying Out of Trouble. Because, as the ethicists remind us (now on major broadcast television and streaming), if we’re ever tempted to not Do the Done Thing, we can test it: if everyone stopped doing that thing (or if everyone decided to do whatever harebrained anti-social anarchic thing is in question) what would happen to society? Answer: society would fall apart. Fall. Apart. People Don’t Do Such Things – except some do, and while occasionally they get slapped down for their impertinence, sometimes they actually shift the collective notion of what is done, what must be done, to what could be done…and the planet keeps turning, and everyone is actually better for it, and wonders why no-one did something sooner.

As much as the world falters with the rules of category #1, the more I’ll champion them. These rules are the the mechanism by which we meet our obligations to one another and our poor planet, and far from asserting freedom by flouting them, we make everything worse for one another (unless you’re trying to do clever things with gravity, in which case, that’s cool). And as I get older, I become more and more fond of the rules in category #2, because they’re just me, and I’m learning to be fonder and more patient with myself – which has the totally predictable consequence of allowing me to be more lax with some of my stricter dictates (but not the ones about pizza or making wishes – if you think you can take chances with either, then when the punishing Fates come knocking, I don’t know you). 

But the rules of category 3 are just so much oppressive brainwashing, and we all need badly to be deprogrammed.

Doing that work on yourself is hard, as our therapists’ copious, patient note-taking could attest. If you’ve been well-indoctrinated to ensure that you Stay Out of Trouble, it’s hard to believe how living life in Trouble could be advisable, let alone navigable. Where’s the safe path between foolish consistency and living in a box in an alley??

Trying to answer that question (live it) is an ongoing project. Perhaps one first step any of us could take is to catch ourselves: if we’re upset when someone breaks one of our category 3 rules, before we point, whisper, and accuse: “who do they think they are, acting as though the rules don’t apply to them?” ask ourselves, “where did I ever get the idea that the rules have to apply to me?” 

And before we shun, or enforce, or inform, thinking, “But people don’t do such things!” we could challenge ourselves:

“I wouldn’t do such a thing…but it might be fun if I could.

And I can.

I will.”

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On Urgency


“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor)

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” (Samuel Johnson)

One of the stories that we like, is the one where the main character is somehow confronted with their mortality – perhaps a diagnosis of fatal illness, or the experience of a catastrophic accident, or the confrontation with another’s brutality and violence, or the visitation of a succession of spirits from past, present, and future. Maybe the character survives, preferably, for narrative purposes, undergoing an escape or rehabilitation that is almost as traumatic as the initial crisis (learning to walk again, cutting off one’s own arm to escape dying alone in a crevasse). Or, maybe, there’s no option but to surrender to death. The appeal in these stories is partly the suspense: will he survive the surgery/find a doctor who can cure him/learn to walk/cut off his own arm in order to escape the crevasse?? But we also like the didactic thrust: whether the character is able to learn the lesson or not, we can learn – we should learn – that there’s nothing quite like a brush with death to clarify one’s priorities.  Our protagonist is forced to stare into the existential abyss, and, confronted with the prospect of ceasing to exist, of no longer being with friends or loved ones, of being mourned – or, most horrifying, not being mourned at all –  realizes that everything he’s thought gives meaning to his existence (usually heedless greed, self-absorption, the pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of compassion and connection) has been not just pointless, but wrong. If he’s lucky, he gets the chance to start over, with priorities radically re-aligned. But whatever the outcome for the protagonist, the lesson for us is that we don’t have to, and must not, wait for such tragedy to befall us. We can act to change our lives now.

These are stories of individual fragility, and of moral urgency. Time is the figurative loaded gun that is aimed at all of us; mortality will take each of us out sooner or later: so what are we waiting for? But it’s easy to mistake a complacent recognition of this very abstract thought for actual action. Yes, sure, the story has taught me that life is short, and I must cherish it, so now I’ll go to yoga and have a bath; maybe I’ll have an extra glass of wine. Lesson learned. And then the story gets forgotten, pushed aside by the exigencies of the everyday: work to do, bills to pay, immediate obligations to be met to keep ourselves out of trouble in the short term, and maybe to buy us comfort in the long term. And after all, things aren’t so perilous in the here and now, I’m not in any immediate danger, there is no crevasse, no random serial killer, no supernatural meddling, no real gun, no real threat.

Except, of course, that there is.

And never mind the usual hypotheticals, like disease or accident, that are more personally menacing in our imaginations. Don’t tell me you haven’t been paying attention to the news. Climate change is the loaded gun pointed at all of us, threatening catastrophe.

We know how this story is supposed to go: the urgency of the peril is supposed to prompt clarity, to re-align our priorities, to get us to wake up and act. It’s not like we’re helpless – we have the knowledge, and the technology we need, we just need to use it, collectively, and on a global scale. And yet, we do…not enough, and anything short of enough, in this case, is nothing.

What are we waiting for?

Since this isn’t a clever, fictional, morality tale, but our actual mortal lives we’re talking about here, the question isn’t rhetorical. We should not – must not, cannot – wait.

And yet – what are you doing right now? Reading this while at the gym? while you’re eating soup at your desk before going to that meeting about that bureaucratic thing? while you’re sitting on the couch watching some series about a dystopian future? while you’re sitting in the tub with your wine practicing good self care, because you know how to enjoy life and be in the moment? while you’re writing your little blog because you’re hoping that words count as action, though you’re pretty sure that’s not going to be sufficient?

What are we waiting for?

I’m kind of surprised – at myself, as much as anyone else – that we all continue to go to work and school every day, spending our time as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening. Spending our energy.


 – As opposed to dropping everything we’re doing to overhaul our society and economy NOW.

I suppose many of us are waiting to be told that everything’s going to be ok, that the threat is overblown, that everything’s going to be fine (please, will it be?). Maybe it seems a bit of a luxury to be worried. Too many of us are run ragged trying to keep our heads above water in this economy – paying bills, going to meetings, working for the mortgage, the minimum payment on the credit card, the hot water heater that just blew, the kids’ college fund, the health insurance that won’t be enough to cover the treatment. Too many of us have our ambitions held hostage by inequality, injustice, oppression. If we’re lucky, we’re merely tired, burned out, and lacking time, money, energy. Perhaps we don’t have the permission or power to change, or believe we don’t. All good reasons, we think – if we can think – to keep on doing what we’re doing. 

And I suppose a lot of us are taking it for granted that if there’s something important to be dealt with, our government is will take care of it. Yes, that “government,” the one that’s been ground to an absolute stand-still in a paroxysm of bigotry, childish pettiness, and breathtaking idiocy. We’re all hoping that the people’s representatives will get shaken out of their fit of hysteria soon enough to take intelligent, enlightened action – but perhaps the rest of us can’t afford to wait for that to happen.

But then – what would that really involve? When we read the moving stories, and nod thoughtfully, and get inspired, and think: I must change my life…we usually only take fleeting, superficial action, not because we’re superficial necessarily, but because to really change your life, to really change the way we all live, to reject everything we’ve been taught is valuable and reliable, and live in a way that is truly different (because our survival depends on it) – where do we even start? Shouldn’t someone else go first? What choices would we make differently? What would we cut loose as inessential? What radical action would we take to protect what truly matters?

And if I have to act, and you have to act, and we have to act together…we’re in the embarrassing position of realizing that we’ve lost the skill, the habit, of collective action, of taking risks, and making sacrifices for a larger, necessary, good.  We don’t want things to be different. We don’t want to be uncomfortable.

But it just doesn’t matter if we’re insulated by denial (if we’re lucky), paralyzed by terror if we’re not. This isn’t fiction, that we can respond to, or not, from the safe remove of the quotidian and familiar.

We need to wake up, and act.

The priorities are simple.

Consume less. Waste less.

And make more – knowledge, art, care. Teach, create, give, nurture.

Nothing could be simpler.

Nothing could be harder.

We’re staring down the barrel of a loaded gun (our own, that we thought we could  handle, and which, in the nature of guns, has been turned against us).

That gun is on a hair trigger.

What are we waiting for?

How do we want the story to go?

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On the Energy Needed to Overcome Activation Barriers

Things that don’t conduce to getting writing done:

emergencies; interruptions; personal failings; hobbies; other people’s good writing; other people’s intimidatingly- better writing; good tv; dirty bathrooms and dirtier laundry; baking bread; running; ballet; ecstatic dance; lyrical dance; naked dance; snowshoeing; friendship; romance; sex; cuban sandwiches and manhattans; travel planning, travel pleasure; germs; pain; maintenance of the Strong Independent Woman – Urban Edition (hair, nails, massages, personal training, doctor, dentist, pharmacist, imaging, therapy); inefficient transit; poor sleep hygiene; not being a morning person; anxiety; obsessive compulsive traits; tedious students and colleagues; interesting and inspiring students and colleagues; committee meetings; email; social and political instability; activism and protests; stupid bureaucratic things that should take 5 minutes and take 50; stupid technological things, ditto; gifs of baby otters and swearing parrots; dictionaries; language courses; malfunctioning smoke detectors; family; sunny days; trees; birds; water; sky; wonder; curiosity; restlessness; shame; desire; envy; sloth; greed; anger; gluttony; needing to stop and look up the Seven Deadly Sins because no-one can ever remember all of them at once; not enough peace and quiet; too much peace and quiet and oppressive silence and loneliness; devices; cold; darkness; accidents; the unpredictable; the uncontrollable; pernicious neurosis; the weird tension of needing to create something and not being able to get over oneself long enough to settle down and just write.

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On Welcoming the Discomfort of Tears



“After adolescence, human empathy matures, and adults might cry in reaction to the suffering of others…Strong positive emotions from a reunion, team victory or moving artistic performance might cause adults to cry, too….[But] there are two major consistent triggers for adult crying. ‘The first is helplessness and powerlessness…the second, separation and loss.’

… If you think your emotions are regularly getting the best of you, chat with your doctor about it just in case — an underlying condition like depression or anxiety could be causing you to cry a lot. ‘There is no specific amount of crying that is a problem.’”

(“How to Stop Yourself from Crying,” The New York Times, 15 October 2018)

One of the most influential and venerable sources of information in the country just told me that I don’t have to cry.

It’s an odd article—the author isn’t telling me that I shouldn’t cry, or not exactly. But the framing of the advice, not to mention the fact that both author and at least one editor thought the article ought to exist in the first place, suggest that crying is a bad thing that readers can, might want, and ought to avoid. At a minimum, you don’t want to be caught crying…anywhere? At work, certainly not. 

An accompanying article on “Why you shouldn’t feel bad about crying at work” makes it very clear that you should feel bad about crying at work, as the author and his interview subject explain how, if you must cry, you can downplay its occurrence. We get the idea that while some mild welling up is an acceptable excess of emotion, crying excessively (honestly?) in the presence of others is a sign of weakness, instability, and might (just incidentally) be a sign that an employee is in trouble. Or that the employee is trouble: if you’re crying all the time, “your boss is probably going to worry about how much stress you’re under and whether you can handle the demands of the job.”

What I’m hearing – when I and everyone around me seems on the verge of tears multiple times a day – is that the thing to do with our emotions is NOT examine them for what they can tell us (about, for example, whether our working, social, political, and environmental lives are profoundly out of balance) – but rather, to do what it takes to avoid crying in front of others….Because others might be embarrassed and confused by your feelings? Because you’re not surrounded with people who understand and care for you and want to comfort you, but because you’re an anomaly in a world of otherwise stoic, disciplined people who are all Getting On With It, and your indulgence of frustration, grief, anger, and alienation is just getting in the way…?

“If you identify potentially fraught situations beforehand, you can limit your emotional response.”

Let’s just slow down and examine that oddly disembodied claim, shall we?

Here’s a sample of potentially fraught situations which might prompt me to cry:

  • being tired
  • having your mind and energy colonized by an onslaught of bureaucratic tasks of varying urgency and uncertain purpose
  • not being listened to
  • being interrupted, and still not listened to
  • being lonely
  • promising yourself that you’ll go to dance class to rejuvenate your spirit after an especially soul-sucking day only to find the class has been cancelled
  • being so busy (with what?) that you don’t have the time to eat (or stay hydrated, or close your eyes, or go to the bathroom, or take a pill for the headache/nausea/anxiety that you can’t seem to shake)
  • being confused by what it is exactly that you’re supposed to DO to change ANYTHING and even if you had the least clue, not being sure where to start
  • needing to get somewhere and having all public infrastructure fail you
  • being betrayed by someone you trusted
  • missing someone you love
  • being too far away from friends and family
  • being terrified by the absolute peril facing this whole planet
  • being grief-stricken at the depletion of our environment
  • being outraged by seeing your elected government slide further into fascism and oppression every day
  • witnessing your fellow human beings being disrespected, unregarded, and violated in more ways than you could think possible
  • ignorance
  • cruelty
  • selfishness
  • indifference
  • being really, really tired.

The question I have is not, how do I stop myself from crying? Rather: how is it that we’re all going about our business—working, shopping, investing, sitting in meetings, sitting through tv—as though everything is normal?

Why do I want to limit my emotional response? Why should I? Why should any of us?

I think we need more tears. I suspect that the first steps in trying to enact revolutionary change are NOT

  • saving face
  • denying your own emotions to protect other people’s comfort (and by “comfort”  I mean, a desire not to confront the fact that we’re all going to have to get a lot more uncomfortable if we want to save everything we really love)
  • denying that we care, that the suffering of others hurts.

Today, I think we should all go out into the world, and in exactly those places where crying would be least welcome, least convenient, most messy, most provocative—we should let the tears flow. We should weep, snivel, howl, gasp, cry.

We should feel.

We should demand that the others around us feel too, as an essential impetus to think.

We should turn to one another for comfort.

Then we should decide what to do next.

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On Exposure


I guess it was inevitable, something we all knew was going to happen. Can’t stop the march of time and all of that. I’ve crossed some kind of boundary, passed a marker on the path, and the days of naive youth are beyond me.

What I mean is that I’ve entered that phase of life where I can regularly be seen naked in public.

I’ve been more naked, more often, in the last two years than since I was two. 

“But people don’t do such things!” … is what someone always cries out in an Ibsen play right before a major character is driven by overwhelming personal and social forces to do exactly the thing that she oughtn’t’ve, in a shocking fashion.

Exactly. How much of our socialization insists on our NOT being nakedly exposed to the world? The conditioning to keep covered up, literally and figuratively, goes pretty deep, reinforced with threats of the direst consequences. I’ve had that anxiety dream playing regularly in my poor unconscious my whole adult life. You know the one, where you’re walking down a street, or standing in a crowded bar, and suddenly, by some accident, you find yourself without clothes, and very confused about how next to behave (“maybe if I don’t let on that I know I’m naked, no-one will notice…?”), but, oddly, no-one seems to care, until out of nowhere there appears – middle of the street, middle of the bar – a toilet which begins to overflow uncontrollably, and when you try frantically to stop it (somehow it’s all your fault) THEN everyone notices you’re completely starkers, and every neurotic fear of being singled out and judged is happening All. At. Once. In your dreams, people do do such things, and promptly find themselves fleeing from a tide of effluent while the whole world watches. 

My current experiment in public nakedness is not at all like that. There has been surprisingly little anxiety (at least on my part, though I can’t speak for onlookers), and, so far (mercifully), no overflowing toilets. More pertinently, there hasn’t been anything accidental about it. It turns out that, in waking life, professional, respectable, North American, women-who-are-no-longer-twenty must do a certain amount of planning, and often exert themselves considerably, to be purposefully naked in public.

I started a couple of summers ago, by dipping my toes, and a few other parts, in the water, with some innocuous skinny dipping, which I can now authoritatively say is nudity for amateurs (that is, there wasn’t enough of an audience). One escapade took place well under cover of darkness, as part of a very tipsy reunion with dear high school friends, at the beach where we used to hang out (clothed, if any of our mothers are reading this). A few weeks later, at a suburban lake, I was bolder, and bared it all during daylight. Well, I was bare under the water – I only had my bikini off while submerged, and even that didn’t last long, as my companion lost his nerve, worried that we’d make the police blotter in the town newspaper: “Police identified the suspects, found nakedly enjoying a cool swim on hot day, as a once-reputable local businessman in the company of a suspicious woman from the city.”

Nothing too madcap about either of those instances (is there?) – but the seeds of temptation were sown. After a long, cold, overly-layered winter, when the chance to visit a clothing-optional beach presented itself (once, and then again, and then another time after that), I took it. Yes: opportunity knocked, and I opened the door wearing nothing but a sun hat and a smile.

Insofar as youth is wasted on the young, when I actually was 20, painfully self-loathing, and prematurely, dourly, responsible, you couldn’t have paid me (and by you, I mean one – you can stop blushing and looking awkward) to take my clothes off in front of other people. Unlike now, when I would happily strip off for money (in the context of modeling for ART, thank you, because I’m classy like that). Once, in college, my boyfriend and his friends thought it would be great fun to spend the day at Wreck Beach in Vancouver. Once there, everyone in the group shucked off their clothes, and gloried in their lack of inhibitions – which only made me cling all the more stubbornly to mine, plus a few extra on their behalf. I was surrounded by nakedness – I was excruciatingly  aware that, with clothes on, in that social setting, I was being not just recalcitrant, but weird…and having that pointed out to me by some of those smugly-disinhibited friends was exactly what resolved me to stay that way. 

Years have passed, and now, here I am, making other people uncomfortable with my self-satisfied discovery of bodily liberty. Somehow, something shifted in my thinking, and my reasons for staying covered up began to seem less important than my reasons for stripping down.

I might sometimes go starkers (as in “bare naked”), but I haven’t gone starkers (as in “barking mad”). The climate where I live is inimical to nudity, if not fatal, for a good portion of the year, and forbiddingly uncomfortable for most of the rest of it. But, with the right combination of sun and water (preferably in combination with travel, where the weather’s better and no-one knows me) being naked outdoors is really quite nice. I still think those friends were smug all those years ago, and should have just accepted my modesty without making me feel badly about it – but they were right about the pleasures of having nothing but a LOT of high-SPF sunscreen between you and nature. 

And you often get a lot of that nature almost completely to yourself. There are certainly places (not the American Northeast) where nakedness is no big deal, to the extent that nudists, naturists, and the naked-curious can spread out their, um, belongings in designated sections on the most crowded public beaches. But in parts of the world where going au naturel is considered de trop, the clothing-optional beaches tend to be thoroughly off the beaten path. Once found through word of mouth, nowadays the internet makes them easier to research and find, but you have to be be looking for them, and usually involves a lot of truly-harrowing hiking on steep cliffs to get to them. This is where the exertion comes in, along with motivation, and a profound determination not to end up a regrettable headline in a Google search about all the weird ways in which your compatriots have died in the world: “Canadian killed in fool-hardy attempt to flaunt naked body in hostile natural setting.” Having survived the trek, you can’t be blamed for feeling a certain sense of entitlement, that you’ve earned the right to be however clothed or naked as you damn well please. And, thanks to that same remoteness, there really aren’t many people there to protest. Interesting social effect: people determined to remain dressed are made so uncomfortable by determinedly-naked people that, combined with the relative inaccessibility (and, often, dearth of bathrooms) the former happily cede the field to the latter.

Many naturists – and I, apparently, have become one of them – believe, earnestly if eccentrically, in the elevating experience of being completely at one with the elements. Recent research has found that nature bathing has a measurable effect on both physical and mental health – and it stands to reason that if you get some benefit even while swaddled head to toe in quick-drying technical pants and no-wrinkle camping shirts, those benefits can only increase the less you have between yourself and le plein air.

So, total immersion in natural splendor is definitely one of the more appealing reasons to seek out a clothing-optional beach. But—obviously—they also make for fantastic people watching. You get to see, well, everything, whether you want to or not. There is no better place to do anthropological field research on contemporary trends in body hair. At a minimum, you’ll see ALL the variations of male genitalia and you’ll have your suspicions confirmed, that men like to keep track of where everything is by holding onto it. Often, that’s a completely benign action (I’ve had this conversation, where a male friend says, “what, you mean women don’t watch hockey or The Great British Baking Show with their hands down their pants?” to which I reply on behalf of all women, “um, obv, NO, gross.” To which he replies, with genuine sympathy, “that’s too bad!”) But sure, it’s possible (likely) that you’ll see some creepy guy out of the corner of your eye (don’t look directly!) and not be quite sure what you’re looking at, but, yep, that’s what he’s doing all right – hanging out on the beach, just masturbating, NBD. 

Somewhat unsurprisingly (with that previous image still in mind), the politics of the gendered body follow us to the nude beach. You see more naked men than women at clothing optional beaches, and fewer by themselves. The beach itself might be quite safe, but it’s hard for women to feel safe, alone, in any kind of public space; and if it’s one thing to fend off uninvited conversation, let alone unwelcome advances, when you’ve got a parka on in the middle of the rush-hour commute, it’s quite another – more than many of us have the energy for – to deal with that behavior when you’re in the middle of nowhere with no clothes on at all. So it’s more typical to see women at nude beaches in a group, or at least (and this is not an endorsement of patriarchy, just a resigned, pragmatic concession) with a man. Even so, you have to remain vigilant, and, again, determined to avoid the headlines: “Canadian killed on remote nude beach after accepting kind offer from stranger to show her an interesting view from that isolated stand of bushes over there.” That’s where it’s useful to have some company, preferably male, at a minimum someone who’s a bit more alert and worldly than one’s trusting Canadian self.

The people who are sketchy at the nude beach would be sketchy and unwelcome anywhere. What’s really cool about nude beaches, and the naked world in general, is just how respectful the majority of people are. It’s not that such spaces exist in some kind of edenic, prelapsarian, asexual innocence; on the contrary, if we’re prone to sexual speculation when we’re in fully-dressed company, or when we’re only partly dressed (you know, like at the beach), then being naked amongst naked people isn’t going to make such thoughts any less likely. I mean, you can see them, and they can see you – sex is going to cross your mind. But if you believe that “clothing-optional” guarantees “a seething mass of infamous and perverse behavior” where neither adults, children, or pets are safe from molestation, you’ve been looking at too much fictional nakedness on the internet. Of course, there are clothing optional beaches which are popular for their, um, social potential; I’ve been told that there are resorts set up with the explicit (in all senses of the word) intention of facilitating shenanigans between consenting adults. But for as many people who want to get naked there are as many who simply want to get naked, and do nothing more racy than eat a ham sandwich, read The New Yorker, and enjoy the sunshine. Here’s a mind blowing idea: sex – do you feel like it, do you deserve it, can you enjoy it, are you safe from it, do you just want to forget about it for 5 damn minutes – is more of an imposition, a problem, when you’re surrounded by confused, shamed, shaming, clothed people, than when you’re one naked person amongst many.

You know what kind of people go naked in public? Mostly, just ordinary types like me or you, of all ages, shapes, and conditions: college kids, families with children, couples, groups of friends, those who are beautiful because of fitness and good fortune, those who are beautiful in their honest, unapologetic humanness.

When, at 20, I refused to take my clothes off on the nude beach that was because, in a fundamental way, I thought my body was ugly compared to the others I was with – well, compared to all others, really. I hate that I felt that way then, and that I’ve wasted so much mental energy, passed up so much fun, feeling that way about myself ever since. I wish I’d been able to see, then, what I’m learning to see now: those naked people – this naked person – can be happy in their nakedness. It’s a relief to just BE, amongst other people who are also just there to BE. Of course, there’s still observation and comparison and competition playing in the minds of at least some of us – that’s the mindset too many of us are trained in, and deprogramming yourself doesn’t come easily – but this is important: being naked with all these strangers, you find that trust and acceptance (of them, of yourself) comes much more easily than judgement.

Last year, a friend and I took part in our first World Naked Bike Ride (yep, it’s a thing, and I did it again this year). We spent an hour going back and forth between talking ourselves into it, and giving one another a chance to back out – but finally we gripped hands, took a deep breath, and the next thing we knew, we and a couple hundred of our neighbors were wearing a lot of body paint and few to no clothes, riding our bikes through the streets of our city on a Saturday night to raise awareness for cyclist safety and body positivity. People stopped in their tracks; they left their tables and rushed to restaurant windows; the kitchen staff left dinners on the stove and ran out onto the sidewalk; college girls looked with desperate awkwardness at their phones; twelve-year old boys gawked in grateful amazement. We sang, we danced, we took off more clothes, we made an absolute spectacle of ourselves. We were seen – and photographed, and filmed, and posted – by I-don’t-even-know-how-many passers-by. It was absolutely exhilarating. We almost certainly offended a good many people, and confused a lot of others. But mostly, onlookers were cheering, and laughing, not with derision, but with delight – did they think we were crazy? almost certainly. Did they also kind of admire us for our brazenness? I’m pretty sure they did.

More importantly – I admired us for our bravery. I admired myself, exposed to everything, ashamed of nothing. 


Too often, we dress and undress not to protect, adorn, celebrate, or show respect, but to exploit, shame, and police ourselves and one another. Why? Don’t we have better, healthier, kinder things to do? I’d be the first person to point out that there are plenty of very good reasons (weather and chafing, for starters) NOT to take one’s clothes off in public; indeed, sometimes, for some of us, modesty can be the more powerful, radical choice. What matters is that, whether we choose a lot of clothes or few, we get to decide; we get to ignore the disapproving, shaming voices around us, within us, and, instead we can make the conscious, deliberate, terrifying, exuberant choice about how to care for, live in, and love these fabulous bodies of ours. 

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