On Surrender


Apparently, a key indicator of how well- (or how poorly-) controlled my anxiety is, is how much I’m meditating. As in, I tend to wander from the mat when I feel like my life is unfolding in a more or less manageable fashion, only to drag my scattered, recalcitrant, self back to my seat when I just Can. Not. Deal.

Which is why I was meditating earlier today, for exactly that reason, the whole not-being-able-to-deal thing: Too many competing obligations and responsibilities—no single one actually costs that much in terms of time or attention, but while I can manage 5 things with some equanimity, I just start to go squirrelly when the things number in the DOZENS (well, only two dozen—but turns out that two dozen things a day is 1.5 dozen too many). Too many different people, wanting or needing too many different things. And just too many Provocations. So many Provocations: IT, HR, the road, the guns, the ignorance, the prejudice, the stubborn, benighted, commitment to doing things badly, unethically, stupidly, and/or hatefully.

I don’t want to be anxious, distressed, or angry. But I’m all of those, too often. Remember all those f*cks I vowed I was going to stop giving? Turns out I’m useless at not giving a f*ck. Or, more accurately, I’m way too good at giving all the f*cks about all the Provocations, without seeming to change a single one of them, which is, in a very important way, one of the most provoking things of them all. 

So to attempt to deal, to get a grip, to give slightly fewer f*cks in order to give my poor mind a break, there I was, meditating, or trying to, which means I was trying to stay focused on the breath, no more and no less…and in actuality thinking obsessively, ruminatively, and with a lot of very genuine hostility about all the Provocations, and about how much time and energy I waste trying to counteract the Provocations, and how much additional time goes into composing all the speeches in my head wherein I imagine telling the Provocations just how wrong and obstructionist they are, plus all the time wasted scolding myself for being so easily and distractingly provoked in the first place.

All this time that I was very much not focused on the breath, a very kind, mindful woman was speaking in gentle tones about the theme of this particular meditation session, which was “surrendering to what is.” We were several minutes into the session before I realized that’s what our theme was, because I was too distracted by the unremitting, uselessly-imaginary battle going on in my head, in which I was (channelling Brienne of Tarth) absolutely, stubbornly refusing to surrender in my noble defense of Reason and Justice. 

I tried to focus on the breath. In. Out. In. Out. The kind, mindful woman reminded me of just how much distress we experience because we insist that things must be different than they are. I kept breathing, and tried to accept her argument, to surrender to it.

Nope. Nothing doing.

That is, I know she’s right…kind of. I’ve worked on this in meditation, and therapy, and self-help books, and Oprah’s magazine. I’ve made a lot of progress, really! I am far, far more accepting of What Is, of Provocations over which I have no control, than I used to be. That’s Progress. 


(see, this is how the non-surrendering always goes, always starting with “but…” escalating to “moreover” and then spiraling out of control from there…)

But: there are things in this life—Provocations—that are so provoking at best, so terribly destructive at worst, that we cannot, must not accept them. Nor can we surrender to them. Sure, you can’t control whether you enjoy this person’s company, or despise that one, or fall in or out of love with the other. You really (alas) can’t magically transform yourself to be more clever, or beautiful, and thus more successful, desirable, or loved. Certain things just Are the Way They Are. Moreover, WE are just the way we are, and, as the kind, mindful woman advises, surrendering to the inevitability of being ourselves is probably the most compassionate (most difficult) move we can make. Yes. Agreed.

But: the Provocations are things that are, that should not be, don’t need to be, oughtn’t to be. Moreover: no kind, compassionate person who cares, not just about the peace of her own existence, but about the well-being of others in the world—no good person can just let those Provocations stand.

Sometimes the Provocations seem relatively inconsequential: the little mind which insists on a foolish consistency, the bureaucrat or functionary who puts their need to feel important ahead of educating, healing, or, simply, helping to make others’ lives easier. These Provocations are, in the grand scheme of things, petty—and yet, how insidious such selfishness and complacency and obstructionism can be! When we are distracted, worn down, side-tracked, and aggravated by these seemingly-petty, unnecessary, obstacles, we are thwarted—a little bit here, a little bit there—in our efforts to teach, to create, to care. The energy that we want to put into being good gets sapped, and—sadly—it’s too easy to do harm, to respond with pettiness—which can never fix the initial insult that provoked us and so just ends up becoming a Provocation to someone else.

The hurt and resentment and self-protective stubbornness fostered by those petty provocations makes it harder for us to prevent the really serious ones—the ignorance, fear, intellectual or moral laziness, or selfish indifference which fuel prejudice, hatred, and violence.

Would it be better for me, more relaxing, if I just let go of my anger and distress when confronted by petty, bureaucratic tyranny? Almost certainly. But: if I surrender and accept mediocrity and incompetence so that my life can be easier, I run the risk of making life more difficult for others, which seems very wrong.

Would it be better for all of us, easier, to just surrender to what is, to accept that we live in a hate-filled, violent culture where too many of our neighbors believe that the way to really feel like they’re somebody is to take power, happiness, safety, and life away from others? Of course it would be easier—it has been easier—which is why racists, misogynists, homophobes, and every other kind of bigot can hijack nightclubs, theaters, schools, communities, and laws.

That’s where I draw my line in the sand. I don’t know if resisting, kicking and fighting, will change much—it often doesn’t seem to—and it’s certainly not going to make my life easier, or less stressed. But: too much of what is, just shouldn’t be. I can neither accept it nor surrender to it; moreover, nor can you.

Instead: we can accept love, kindness, thoughtful courtesy, learning, creating, and caring. We can surrender to the uneasiness, the messiness, the vulnerability that ensues when we don’t hide behind self-centered indifference. We can accept that it’s not just understandable, but necessary, however uncomfortable, to combat ignorance and hatred. We can accept compassion. And sometimes we can, we must, surrender to the anger, the outrage, which motivates action.

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On Continuity


(Content warning)

As it happens—and I say this without any defensiveness at all, honestly, really, because I’m secure enough in myself that I don’t need to prove anything about my attractiveness and worth by ensuring that you all know this—I’ve been on several actual dates in the last year. But if I haven’t dissected, catalogued, stuffed, and mounted every single one of them, and put them on display as artifacts of my history (and proof of my attractiveness and worth), I’ve had my reasons.

In some very few cases, the dates have gone well enough that to even reveal that much strikes my superstitious mind as the utmost, fate-tempting, folly—and consequently, I’ll say no more, to forestall jinxes. Far more typically, the dates were just more of the same—confrontations with incompatibility; provocations to impatience, ennui, and occasional pity; recoil from physical and personal qualities I could never have anticipated would bother me, until they assumed alarming human form on this or that barstool, throughout the city, from one tedious week to the next. Time spent, for stories just not worth telling.

So I can’t tell you the really, really good stories (yet), and I won’t bother you with the demoralizingly-dull ones…which thus only leaves the truly, truly awful ones. (And there are fewer and fewer of those, because my writerly desire to accrue material has been gradually replaced by a wiser desire to husband scarce resources). I’m not sure that these awful stories are ones I should tell, or that you need to read. If I tell a story that’s funny, or maybe bittersweet but heartening, then maybe I’ve added some good to the world. But if I tell a story that might distress you, and yet change nothing, then is it worth telling? You might feel sympathy for me (and heaven knows, I do love my sympathy); you might feel both personally and generally outraged. But you won’t be able to do anything to change its outcome. In which case, what will this story actually do for you? And never mind you, what will telling it do for me?

This particular tale of romance and seduction took place in the bleakness of last winter, but I’ve held on to it since then, not because the incident left me especially hurt, but rather because the malign gloom of last February had already weighed me, and my writing down, quite enough, to the point where I felt (as I so often do) like the Lady of Shalott, stuck with her loom and her mirror and her curse. I was “half sick of shadows.”

Why do I feel compelled to tell this story now, instead? Well, now is…not then. That thing, then, is done, finished, not the thing that is happening—no longer the thing that is immediately and factually a moment of my life, a thing to be endured. Now it’s just a thing that happened—to me, incidentally, though it could just as easily have happened (and has, and does) to anyone else. Now it’s a thing that happened that I can mine and exploit for the purpose of telling stories to you, for you (fine, yes, for me).

Rightly or wrongly.


Once upon a time, when the city was under siege by winter, and we all felt the weight of the snow pressing in on us from all sides, keeping us from going anywhere, doing anything, seeing anyone, A. and I reached our limit and had to Get.Out.

And not Out to just any old place. Not at all. Instead, we seriously and earnestly did what we were supposed to do, which was to Get Ourselves Out There. We didn’t do something we actually wanted, for no better reason than that we wanted it; we did what single women are enjoined to do, and which we grudgingly accede to, so that we can say we did our due diligence. We got Out There and—heaven help us—went to look for men.

We had discovered that one of the newest things in dating is…cocktail parties. That is, everyone is so fatigued, disillusioned, fed up, and over all the self-promotion, and lying, and photoshopping when you shouldn’t and not photoshopping when you should, that the prospect of actually meeting other human beings, live and in person, seems marvelously novel. The big online companies (there might just be one giant OmniDate by now, studying us and moving us around like chess pieces) in their infinite wisdom make arrangements with a bar here, or one of those paint-your-own picture outfits somewhere else, invite us all, and then leave it up to us to make Romance happen.

Not surprisingly, we’re not much better at it in person than online: a few of us stand around haplessly, edging toward the perimeter of little conversation circles, hoping the cute guy talking to the woman less attractive than ourselves will lose interest in her and focus on us; or if we’re holding our ground in the circle, strategically shifting a hip or shoulder to include the cute guy, or keep out the creepy-looking one who’s been skulking around with a socially-underfed look, and whom we are all hoping won’t attempt to talk to us. As might be predicted, every physical type we don’t like is over-represented. Too many beards, too much indifferent dental care, too many badly-fitting clothes. Men strike up conversations, ask me what I do, then, failing to register it as anything significant or interesting, start holding forth on something I’m kind of an expert on, and when I gently suggest an alternative to their opinion, insist that they have to disagree with me. Because this is how they provoke interest and attraction, by insisting that their target is wrong about pretty much everything as a gambit for expounding on how right they are.

Finally, I end up talking to someone who seems quite reasonable. Professional, very liberal, apparently on sound financial footing, living in a nice neighborhood and not in his car, fit, well-read, appreciative of a good vocabulary. We joke about how we could make the online dating screening process much simpler if we just gave a few multiple choice questions on vocabulary and history (“Which of the following is the president of Africa?” Or “A soporific is a) an especially absorbent sponge; b) something you put on sunburns; c) related to the word terrific; d) all of the above”). He watches Homeland and other approved tv shows. We exchange stories about our sports injuries and our stubborn refusal to obey doctors’ advice to just lay off. From this conversation, we make inferences about one another’s values, status, intelligence, and lean-to-fat ratios. Since we’re actually in the same room, each can assess whether the other is attractive. The results are favorable. A. is at this event with me (and beset by a succession of unfortunate hobbits), so I have the advantage of having her impressions too. We agree that my candidate seems perfectly nice and worth seeing again, not hobbit-like at all in appearance, though we’re concerned that he might be a little too earnest, a little too mild-mannered.

He and I trade numbers. After the appropriate interval, I hear from him—he asks me out and we continue to exchange messages in the days leading up to the date. He’s glad he met me, and looking forward to getting to know me better over dinner. And a good dinner too—no Panera or terrible seafood place where no-one but tourists go—French food and everything.

The actual date goes really well. Though I’m a bit self-conscious at first, I start to feel comfortable with him. I make a few somewhat-arcane pop culture references and he gets them; we have a good exchange that ranges from the original SuperMan series on tv with the improbably-fleshy George Reeves, to spelunking, to the question of whether liver is ever edible. Somewhat atypically, we don’t really get into anything too terribly personal; most people can’t resist talking about their romantic history at least a little bit, and dropping a few hints about what they’re looking for—but we don’t really get into any of that. I take that as a good sign, that he might—according to standard dating advice—prefer a certain amount of healthy reticence as part of getting to know one another in a more relaxed way.

And of course, through the whole meal, he’s watching me, I’m watching him, continuing to take one another’s measure.

As we leave, he offers me a ride home. I say that’s not necessary, I can take the train very easily. But it’s miserably cold and our city is still barely navigable on foot, and the date has gone well. I make the calculations we make: he’s attractive, but the concern about him being a bit too earnest and mild-mannered persists. I’m not absolutely smitten, but I’m interested, and I’m definitely cold, so I figured I’ll take the ride, but will thank him politely and leave it at that.

I’m sorry—maybe this story isn’t as gripping as it could be. Well, I’m not quite done yet:

After a completely pleasant but innocuous drive, he pulls up to my house and stops the car. He asks a few questions about the neighborhood, which I answer, talking a little bit too much out of nerves, as, of course, this is a pivotal moment in any date.

He looks at me significantly. We all know this look. I, of course, can’t avoid remarking on it a bit clumsily: “You look like you’re going to make a move,” I venture. “I am,” he says, and does.

Ironically, it was just the day before that I’d been talking to a class about the perils of the Rochester-type hero, who, after 150 years of evolution culminates in Robin Thicke and Christian Gray and Jian Ghomeshi—that self-appointed dominant man who takes what he wants, and who knows what we want better than we know ourselves, and is all too willing to show us, because even though we say we don’t want it, or say nothing at all, they know we do. Editorializing pretty freely, I had warned the men and women in the class that such a man is more trouble than he’s worth, and is, in real-life practice, a menace. You don’t want to be him, and you don’t want to date him, I said, drawing on my seniority and wisdom, to save these poor, impressionable, young people from having to learn the hard way.

Which is one of the many incongruous thoughts I had in my head as this earnest, mild-mannered non-hobbit-y municipal lawyer attempted very energetically and roughly to get my clothes off in the front seat of his car. Instead of the relatively chaste good-night-this-could-be-the-start-of-something kiss I was expecting, he was All.Over.Me.

Thanks to our horrible New England winter, I was swaddled head to toe in so many layers, the man would have needed to be an Egyptologist armed with heavy-duty bandage scissors to actually get at anything important. Which didn’t keep him from trying—he clawed my parka open, trying to get one hand down and the other up. I wasn’t scared. Rather—and this is the familiar experience—I felt slightly dissociated from what was happening. The whole situation seemed absurd, surreal: when he suddenly hit the button on my car seat to full recline, I thought, Didn’t this come up in Happy Days, as a move that Fonzie could pull off but Richie could not?

I wasn’t exactly cooperating, but confused by what was really happening, I wasn’t fighting either. Because I had—had—thought he was quite nice and attractive, and had been curious to see where things would lead, I kept expecting that the present frenzy would settle down into something normal and pleasant.  But it just didn’t (this whole episode was maybe 5 minutes? 10?). He did pause at a certain moment (“Oh good,” I thought, “now it will be normal and pleasant??”)—to suggest we go up to my apartment. I realized that he thought things were going really well. I declined, saying, as one does, that I didn’t want to move too quickly. He said, “well, it’s not like it’s our first date.” I didn’t argue the point with him; I didn’t see the point in debating much—I just wanted to get away. I insisted I had an early morning, so needed to go in. He walked me to the door, where he attempted to maul me further (and I actually have to use the world “maul,” which is supposed to be for rabid dogs and starving bears, in a sentence pertaining to my life). I left him grinning, proud of himself for scoring so well on this oh-so-successful more-than-first date.

The text I received the next day seemed to come from a completely different person: exactly the normal, sweet, complimentary, note you’d expect from someone you’d want to see again, looking forward eagerly to the next date. I felt like I’d been with both Jeckyll and Hyde in one evening. This was definitely not the text of a man who had any idea that his behavior was dangerously close to assault.

But it wasn’t assault, was it? I felt surprised, angry; what might have been hot in another context, with another person, had instead been unpleasant, annoying, distressing. And the incongruity between his demeanor when we met at the cocktail party, over dinner, in his earnest and polite text the next day—and what he had been like in the car and on my door step—all left me very confused. Could I be misinterpreting what happened? Perhaps I misremembered? Perhaps I had sent mixed signals? 

I told all of this to A. as she made me dinner.  I asked, “Do you think I’m over-reacting?” Arrested in the midst of stirring her red sauce, A. stood in her floral apron, wooden spoon suspended mid-stir, a look of revulsion and horror on her face. “No!!” she exclaimed. She was aghast. Everyone I’ve told has been horrified on my behalf. My therapist was appalled. My friends’ therapists have been appalled. “No,” A. said firmly. “He was wrong, not you.”

I texted the man back, explaining that we wouldn’t be going out again. I could simply have sworn at him, but instead, I doubtless wrote him more than I should, and yet (unlike him) was taking pains to be accurate and clear. I concluded by saying, “I’m really confounded by the trajectory of the evening, and wish I’d been more assertive about my own needs sooner. I ended up unscathed, but seriously dismayed and disappointed. I want you to know this, because I really hope that my being honest with you now will save other women from similar experiences.” I didn’t hear back from him.

What I hope happened was that my message hit him with the full force of a Damascene epiphany—that the sudden realization that he hurt me, and has almost certainly hurt other women—knocked the breath out of him, and left him quaking with disgust and shame. I hope that he talked to a friend or a therapist, and took a good long look at who he is, and how he relates to women. I hope that he looked at his son—oh yes, he’s someone’s father—and vowed that he will teach that young man that you never, ever, thoughtlessly, greedily, aggressively seize another person without their consent. That’s what I hoped would happen, but of course, I have no way of knowing. It’s just as likely that he cursed his dating fortunes, for consistently wasting his time on one crazy woman after another.

And every day, the news is filled with stories far, far worse than mine, of people saying, and taking, what they want, and then petulantly blaming the other for complaining about it.

You might not think so, because I’ve just written 2500 words which might suggest otherwise—but I’m really fine about the whole thing. That man’s behavior—clueless and clumsy? misogynistic and violent?—didn’t leave me traumatized, or feeling dirty or used, or frightened. I did—still do—have moments where I wonder what I did that made him think his advances would be welcome, or what I should have seen, sooner, to avoid the whole situation. I did—and still tend to—blame myself for being too trusting and open. Because I should feel badly about the vulnerabilities posed by my own good nature.

And I confess, that a couple of days after that very awful date, as I was schlepping from office to gym to apartment, from routine, to productivity, to solitary laziness, back to routine again, only with the added burden of snow, slush, darkness, and cold…I confess that there was a moment where I nearly succumbed to a wave of exhausted despair. This man, in and of himself, was nothing more than a nuisance. But what was so demoralizing, was that it wasn’t just that one—it was the dozens and dozens of them—the ones who seemed great but who didn’t want me; or who were probably great but whom I couldn’t bring myself to want; or the ones who could barely look after themselves, with no friends, no impermeable roof over their head, no hobbies, no interests, no health insurance, no values, no sense of humor, no capacity for care or respect that wasn’t childishly needy or menacingly and tediously controlling, no ability to be with me without hurting me in ways both great and small. How many more, I wondered, could there possibly be? How much more could I Get Myself Out There? How many more such dates could any of us possibly endure?

Asking those questions, as I slogged through winter, I almost—nearly—stopped. My courage nearly failed me.

But what a depressing story that would be! I was composing it in my head, and got to that point and thought—


No, all of them do not get to drag this story down. I’m not one of those postmodern types who has to defy narrative conventions, and disrupt the readers’ need and expectation of a happy ending in favor of how things really are, which is random, and entropic, and bleak. Call me old-fashioned, but I will insist that the story turn out better than that, that it won’t have a tragic ending, or just some edgy, blank, openendedness. Nuh-uh. This is not that kind of story. I’m not that kind of protagonist.

So the denouement of that particular chapter, only one of a much larger, much more gratifying, story, the plot of which is still in the phase of rising-action with no anti-climax in sight—went like this:

I had a moment where my courage nearly failed me.

And then I shook it off, and just kept going.

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On Envy


Trying to name the seven deadly sins is like trying to name Santa’s reindeer—by the time you’ve listed 5, you forget which ones you started with, and can’t remember what you’ve left out, and then wonder why there has to be so many of essentially the same thing anyway. So: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. I think. But those seven seem excessive: aren’t lust, gluttony, greed, and envy all about wanting what you can’t have, or wanting more than you deserve? And sloth involves wanting too, although in that case it’s a desire for comfort without working for it the way others have to. And anger is often prompted by being frustrated in all of those desires, which tends only to fuel them more rather than satisfy them (and, no, leaving lust out wasn’t accidental).

Yet isn’t pride at the root of all of them? either overweening pride, where you believe that you deserve something, anything, everything as much, if not more, than others; or maybe the pride that wars with shame, where you suspect that perhaps you’re not getting what you want because you secretly don’t deserve it, but you can’t muster the humility or grace to keep yourself from being angry that you don’t have it anyway, which only makes you more angry with yourself.

One thing worth noticing here—in this conception of sin, it’s not specific actions or behaviors or results that are (at least not directly) the problem; rather, you’ve fallen from grace when whatever you’re doing is motivated not by virtue—chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility—but by vicious, self-absorbed desire.

All of which is enormously helpful in understanding pre-twentieth century western art and literature, but, for someone like me, protestant by birth, more pagan by disposition, not easy to apply in real life. Though now that I come to think of it, I bet that one reason artists and writers represented the conflict of vice and virtue to the point of obsessiveness for hundreds of years is that the move from theory to practice is tricky for all but the most saintly among us.

I think my greatest sins, or at least the ones that I’m consciously troubled by, are anger and envy—and we can’t have those without pride, so throw that in too. The anger…that one I’ll save for another time, or you can just find me on social media where I air many of my grievances (but not all, because there are so, so many!) with regularity and fulsome detail.

As for envy…envy and jealousy have hounded me for as long as I can remember. Things I have been envious about in my life: being allowed to wear jeans (when I was 6); being able to run fast or hang on better (because I was never as fast or strong as the others); being a normal size and shape for our age (and not too big in the wrong places too early); not having to wear glasses; getting 10++ on our social studies maps (what kind of teacher even pits children against one another on the basis of 10+ and 10++??); being popular with the other girls; being liked by the boys; being asked to dance; being more outgoing; being more ambitious, or focused, or disciplined; singing, writing, dancing better and more; sacrificing more for art; knowing exactly what to do and what to be when you grow up; being leaner; being more relaxed; making more money; just being better.

Or, in other words: why don’t I have what they have? why do they get what I want? are they more popular, relaxed, wealthy, slim, loved because they’re better than me, or because I’m being unfairly overlooked (because maybe they really are better than me)? Why do success, money, love, health, easy relationships, good vision, nicely-aligned knees, natural talent, expensively-bought opportunity—why does all of what I might like or need come so much more easily to them than to me?

These are deeply neurotic questions, and, obviously, very self-absorbed ones—and knowing that doesn’t make anything better, because now I’m not just envious, I’m greedy, angry, and proud. (Not to mention frequently fatigued by the workings of my own willful mind, which tends to makes me slothful).

Our contemporary dogma of self-improvement and self-love dictates that we mustn’t be so hard on ourselves; that we should, instead, practice self-compassion and focus on gratitude for everything we do have. This advice is what we call problematic. I confess that injunctions about relaxation/forgivenness/gratitude administered by people who get to make a living being relaxed, forgiving, and grateful (yoga and tai-chi instructors, Oprah) make me rather livid. If it were that easy for me—not you, enlightened one, but me—to watch my anxiety and envy float by like clouds in the sky, or leaves in the current, don’t you think I would have established the habit long, long ago, and would now also be teaching yoga and mindfulness instead of writing fretfully about the jealous restlessness which has fueled too much of my career up to this point??

(So add that to the list: I also envy people who can practice mindfulness).

We’re advised to practice gratitude in the form of giving ourselves credit for what we have achieved—material success, status, milestones of “healthy adult development.” Yeah, that doesn’t work. I find it very hard not to make invidious comparisons. Maybe I do have many wonderful qualities, maybe my life is full of wonderful things, including my own hard-won accomplishments—but isn’t there a danger in that kind of appreciation, where what makes it possible for me to be appreciative is an awareness that I have things that many other people don’t? Even worse is when I have looked at people I’m jealous of, and consoled myself that while I might not have their money, success, or romantic happiness, I’ve also escaped the very things—loss, debt, disappointment, foibles of looks or personality—that might make them unhappily envy others.

That is, I don’t need to be envious, because look how enviable I am!

Well, that’s no good. No good at all. That kind of gratitude is just a disguise for seemingly-intractable pride, with the additional temptation of schadenfreude. A recipe for being insufferable, to myself, if not to others.

(Also, incidentally, this mindset is one of the major pitfalls and distractions of being a subject within neoliberal, capitalist ideology. But let’s save that topic for another day.)

Something I have noticed in recent years, which might yet save me: as I’ve gotten older, and as the world keeps getting stupider and more imperiled in so many troubling ways, while others make valiant, hopeful struggles to save it in others—a lot of the stuff that used to matter so much as motivation for both envy and ambition…just doesn’t, now. I try very hard not to think too much about the degree of jeopardy we’re in—never mind as individuals, as a whole species—but insofar as that menace is always lurking in our peripheral vision, it does provide a bit of perspective. As does age, and the inevitability of death. Anything could happen—tomorrow, next year, or in the next 10 seconds—and fretting about professional and material status is a tremendous waste of time that we just don’t have. And there’s so much randomness to our lives—when you’re younger, everything seems so high stakes, and your success and failure seems to hinge entirely on you—how hard you work, how good, or pretty, or thin, or interesting, or ambitious, or whatever you single-handedly make yourself. But with enough experiences to form a more representative sample, you can see that while you can—and ought—to make an effort, to take responsibility, to be active on your own behalf, what you can actually control is a mere drop in the bucket compared to all the stuff that you can’t. Genes. The way your circumstances shape your personality, intellect, and looks before you’re even capable of neurotic awareness of such things. Class. Sex. Race. The luck of the draw of what country and decade you’re born in. The randomness is incalculable.

And for that very, overwhelming, humbling reason, the randomness has become, oddly, very comforting. I’ve started to become much better at accepting that I’m who and where I am just…because, and, while I could make myself quite crazy (and have done) trying to influence one tiny portion of my otherwise implacable fate, I’m capable of moments of contentment when I’m able to just enjoy the ride. Envy, pride—and all the greed, gluttony, and anger that goes with them—bother me much less (I do, however, have a newfound appreciation for sloth, and lust, which have been given an unfairly-bad rap). I’m a long, long way from being enlightened, but being less envious at least makes me feel lighter, and perhaps makes the practice of virtue a little bit easier.

There. That’s something to feel grateful for.

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On (Im)modesty


If we accept the premise “horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, and ladies glow”—then that makes me a horse.

Far from looking dewy and slightly sparkly, like the semi-adolescent models in fitness magazines (what do they use on those girls? vegetable oil and craft glitter?), I swelter, exude, lather. I drip. I’ve come close to doing myself an injury in fitness classes, slipping on my own self-made puddles of sweat. The puddles don’t glow, nor do I.

For that reason, when I work out, I try to strike a balance between satisfying our laws of public decency, and wearing as little as possible so as to ensure maximal evaporative cooling. Which is why I was really irritated when I tried out my new sports bra. If you’re any bigger than a 32A, finding a sports bra which keeps your breasts comfortably strapped down without creating breast-like lumps elsewhere on your body becomes an ongoing obsessive quest; so when I found one that fit decently, on sale! I bought it in hurried triumph. I noticed in the dressing room that the cups were padded, but had assumed that I could take the foam out (possible with many major brands). But no: not only was that padding completely sealed into the bra’s architecture, an extra little tag chirpily drew my attention to the “extra petals, for modesty!” Petals?? I read this tag when it was in one hand, and the bra in another—meaning that I couldn’t take it back, and that I was, as a result, doomed to be weighted down by an overheated, extra-sweaty, saturated, but petalled, bosom—all for the sake of modesty.

But whose modesty is being (forcibly) protected here, and why?

It’s a confusing time to have a chest. On the one hand, my gym’s ad campaign dares us all to bare it all. The shameless co-opting of actual activism for the sake of marketing garbles more nuanced meaning, but the more crude point for the female consumer is that somehow our empowerment and authority depend on being more or less topless in public, as long as we conform to traditional expectations about beauty, combining the radically political with the radically fit and hot. To the barricades! Fight for liberation and freedom… with all the spare time and energy that you don’t have because you’re doing a triple-header of spin, conditioning, and yoga every day and have given up sugar!

If you can manage to get cut, then gym culture is happy to encourage you to parade around as nearly naked as possible—except not completely. Your lycra should look like a second skin, asserting the fact of your body very clearly, while also pretending that you’re not completely, dangerously human and female. You have to be vigilant about the fit of the crotch in those yoga pants, and you must definitely have modesty-petals in your sports bra, so that your gender and sex are as anatomically and socially accurate as Barbie’s. You pay a lot of money for workout clothes and evening wear and bathing suits which make it clear (to whom?) that your milkshake can bring everyone to the yard—and then go through contortions in the change room, putting your bra on over a towel, so that no-one ever sees you actually naked.

Meanwhile: a state representative in New Hampshire has the temerity to defend women’s right to breast-feed in public, and is attacked with stunning vitriol by her fellow (male) elected officials; Fb has a tendency to censor confusing and upsetting images, such as women feeding babies, or bare chests which would be completely unproblematic on a cis-gendered male body, but which suddenly become provocative on a trans-gendered person; young feminists campaign to “free the nipple!”; older feminists hesitate to say the word out loud in their classrooms for fear of getting in trouble with human resources; we’re taught to be terrified by breast cancer (though no-one can tell us when to get mammograms); we feel rather edgy with our Save the Ta-tas! t-shirts in support of breast cancer awareness; but we get embarrassed mentioning them in polite, mixed, non-sexual conversation, even though we count on the girls to get us into impolite, mixed, sexual conversation (and HR reminds us that neither is ever acceptable in the workplace). We know that we make our chests, along with rest of our bodies, targets if we foolishly take the risk of going out—to work, to a bar, to a political rally, in the street, on the train—anywhere really, where our chests could give us away as female, and incite everything from catcalls to assault, which is always our problem, for calling attention to ourselves and not keeping harm at arm’s length. 

If we’ve grown up with a chest, we’ve learned to be simultaneously obsessed with, afraid of, and humiliated by our own bodies, all the time.

What’s wrong with us? We’re not born this way. Plenty of us have now-mortifying pictures of ourselves at 5 years old, topless on the beach—and no-one cared: not the other children, including boys, not our parents, not the authorities, not politicians, and—because those were the blissful prelapsarian days before a heedless parent might put a photo like that on Fb, and then have it commented upon in every vile crevice of the internet—not random pedophiles and misogynists and Mrs. Grundys. No—there is a time in life when a chest is just a body part, and not a source of angst or agita to either onlookers or its owner. If you’re born male and stay that way, generally speaking that time lasts your whole life—your chest can be any size or shape, but there’s really never any external pressure or judgement on you to do anything about it. Yes, I know, men suffer from body image pressures too; but as horrible as a man might feel about his body, he still has the social and legal rights to be cold at the office, or to go topless and petal-less at the beach, or at a nationally-televised sporting event, if he wants to. For female people, the time when they can be carefree about their chests is pretty brief, ending somewhere after that mortifying beach photo—somehow, we all agree that that chest becomes increasingly problematic, and stays that way for most of a female person’s conscious life.

Well obviously, you might say—you can’t let little girls/teenage girls/adult women/breastfeeding mothers/sun-worshipping seniors run around naked in public, where every terrible pervert could stare at them and plot vile crimes or degrading sex acts or just made somewhat uncomfortable…But we’ve just established that male people can run around in exactly that condition at any age. Why is it different for female people—with the notable exception of when people are paying them to do exactly that? Feminist author Caitlin Moran has an easy test that applies here: “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’” (How to Be a Woman).

Please don’t worry—I’m not advocating letting anyone’s 8 year old run around topless! —because unfortunately we do live in a world where they would be leered at, and coveted by perverted people, who would then blame the little girl for inciting their perversion. But that’s exactly my concern:  we’re teaching children to be afraid of and for their own bodies for the rest of their lives, all so we can keep them safe from the perverts, or protect “good” (male) people from their own base desires. Isn’t the real problem here the unequal, oppressive, irrational, hateful, and generally-messed-up relationships that organize our culture, of which perversion, sinful temptation, and base desire are the ugly result? Why are adults fetishizing children? why are men (often the same ones who think that they deserve to drive and vote by virtue of their superior reason) so weak in the presence of the demonic female body that they need to cover it from head to toe (while also depriving it of the right to drive or vote), or stone it into submission?

While children anywhere, or disenfranchised, oppressed women almost everywhere, can’t be faulted for not making this their fight—those of us living in relative freedom can. If a woman wants to nourish her child in public the way any mammal, by definition, would, then the only correct response, if you feel you need to make one—and unless you have some direct stake in the feeding of the child you almost certainly don’t—is “can I get you a more comfortable chair?” If an adult person of any sex or gender makes an informed decision about what to do with his/her/their body, which might include taking their top off at the beach, or cutting the damn petals out of the sports bra, or practicing modest dress and a covered head as a sign of humility before their deity—then you just let them do it. If you’re in public and you happen to notice that a person’s body seems female, no matter how covered or uncovered it is, whether you find it attractive or not, whether you find yourself overcome by desire, or disgust, or confusion—you simply leave it alone. You don’t touch it unless invited to do so, you don’t judge it, you don’t comment on it, and you certainly don’t hurt it. It’s not our job to keep you at arm’s length, to cover ourselves in embarrassment or fear, to pretend that we don’t have a body, to be disgusted or afraid of it on your behalf.

Socially, legally, sexually, theologically, economically, medically—in general, the only body with which you have a right to meddle is your own. Not mine, hers, his, or theirs. It is not the job of those of us walking around in female bodies—however we came to inhabit them—to protect you from what we are. 

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On Getting On With It

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.1.84-89)
You have to be careful about making New Year’s resolutions. As all sorts of research on behavior and motivation explains, changing deeply-ingrained habits is really hard; changing some of the fundamental characteristics (being introverted, super-energetic, anxious, optimistic, etc) which make us who we are—is next to impossible. And yet this is exactly the stuff we go after with our New Year’s resolutions: I resolve to stop stress-eating (which is really misery-eating because I have a horrible boss who I’m afraid to stand up to; or fear-eating because I’m lonely and convinced I’ll never find anyone; or frustration-eating because I can’t find the courage I think I need to make the changes in my life that would really make me happy). If you make a resolution without understanding what problem you’re really trying to solve, then you’re likely to do things which undermine the best intentions, like choosing an unrealistic time frame, or being wildly ambitious. You go out strong (you give up food for a week and exercise like a fiend), crash hard (stop using your expensive gym membership, eat a whole tub of sour cream and onion dip with a big bag of chips), then feel ashamed and angry at your failure—all of which makes it even harder to try to change your behavior again the next time.

So, as I’m making my resolutions for this year, I want to be sure that I choose the goals that match the problems, that I make a reasonable and achievable plan, and that I give myself lots of encouragement and reward for making good efforts.

Let’s apply all that sensible advice to my own situation. My resolutions are as follows:

1. dance more (as soon as I get some tendonitis under control)
2. work on my French more
3. write more
4. read more
5. speak my mind more in my writing and in my relationships

In other words—I want to be more fit, youthful, focused, organized, creative, expressive, and interesting. Really, just more more. And in order to meet those goals, I would have to somehow obtain a radically different personality, not to mention a radically different job. I would need Virginia Woolf’s “500 a year, and a room of one’s own.” And for the amount of dancing I want to do, I would also need to have much of my connective tissue swapped out entirely. As far as I can tell, neither remedy—being independently wealthy, 3-D printing of replacement tendons—is currently possible.

But if I look carefully at what’s really keeping me from becoming this other version of myself—or at least, a version who does more of what she really loves and values—it’s not the absence of a wealthy patron or science-fiction-y medical breakthroughs that’s the problem; rather, it’s my own insecurity and fear. I don’t have unlimited time to be a renaissance woman—I’ve got a day job which makes modest, but nevertheless substantial demands on my time; but I don’t have time to dance and read as much as I need or want to because I’m a terrible procrastinator. I can occupy myself really productively, doing the less important things as an easy way for me to feel both competent, and also less guilty about not facing up to the higher stakes stuff, which I conveniently don’t have the time to do on top of the other busy-ness. I don’t write more, or speak more openly and honestly to people, because I’m afraid of doing the wrong thing, of looking dumb, of offending someone. If I finally do face up to the difficult things, I hesitate, and stammer, and offer all manner of softening context to try to preserve others’ good opinion of me, which often results in the thing not getting done properly at all. And, often, rather than face up to things, I set conditions: I’ll work on this, or do that, once I’ve done pretty much everything else—and funnily enough, there’s always pretty much everything else that absolutely, necessarily, vitally needs doing before I take on the thing that frightens me the most.

Take this post for example. So, I kind of got caught up with a lot of things in the summer—there was a lot of very pleasant diversion; there were also a couple of work-related projects that haunted me, like Frankenstein’s monster, reminding me at every step of my creative and professional failings. I made a rule for myself, that I would get back to my blog As Soon As I Got Those Two Things Done. I’d reward myself, I said, for enduring various trials by getting back to my little creative efforts. Except of course the monstrous jobs stubbornly resisted completion (exorcism), so nothing got finished, or even started.

Then the lack of starting started to become its own problem, its own source of embarrassment and fear. You know that thing, where you know that you should call that friend, but you get busy with other things, and time passes, and so you just kind of don’t, and then more time passes and you start to feel embarrassed for not calling her, and then your dread and mortification start to overwhelm your desire to reconnect, and you start ducking her—once your good friend—in grocery stores, or pretending that you didn’t see her at the gym because you weren’t wearing your glasses, and you generally act childishly avoidant, rather than face up to the discomfort of taking responsibility for your own actions? It’s been kind of like that, only with writing.

Do you know that I’ve been working on my Great Return to Blogging since September? I have started and abandoned several drafts, writing and re-writing and never finishing one single post because all that work just wasn’t saying what I wanted to say. What I was doing was writing an elaborate apology, and I wasn’t allowing myself to write anything else until it was done: confession and penance. And yet (it only took me four months or so to realize this) no amount of apologizing, or defensive excuse-making was ever going to be enough: you can do all the masochistic penance you like, but if you haven’t actually sinned, you’re never going to be granted absolution. Especially when the only one acting as inquisitor and judge at this auto-da-fé is me.

I’ll spare both you and me an elaborate analysis of my psyche explaining how I got caught up in this vicious cycle of procrastinatory avoidance and hobbling anxiety. It’s all just silly.

New resolution: be mindful of when you’re being motivated by unreasonable fear, and rather than avoid it, face up to it, and stop giving a f*ck (My 2015 resolution was to swear more. I haven’t sworn as much as I could have because I was afraid people would disapprove; but that’s just one more f*ck I’m going to stop giving!)

I know perfectly well that this is far easier said than done. Where’s my careful analysis of problems and motives, causes and effects? where’s my plan? my reasonable time-frame? all my achievable steps and encouraging rewards? Who cares! These are f*cks I can’t be bothered to give!

When I want to do something, and start thinking, oh but I really should do X so that the world continues to approve of my good behavior, or I can’t fail at that project if I don’t actually do it, or I mustn’t say what I think in case I’m judged as unpleasant, or I shouldn’t do that thing that’s FUN because it’s not mature or dignified enough—then I must remind myself of how little f*cks I—or, importantly, anyone else who matters to me—give.

(Don’t worry—I’m not an idiot, and I totally grasp the importance of discretion, judgment, and diplomacy. I also realize that I can neither afford, nor reasonably expect, to just chuck every responsibility, petty or significant, that I have. But it’s not the responsibility that’s a problem, it’s the excessive fear and giving-of-f*cks that has to go!)

The simple act of using a really bad word (even with the SFW asterix) over and over again is really liberating! Even better, I just got something written and didn’t even notice time passing–I had twinges of conscience, passing thoughts that perhaps I should be doing the ten other things that would make somebody (who? my mother? my guv’nor at the office? the anxious, f*uck-giving version of myself?) satisfied, but then I ceased giving so many f*cks, and did what I wanted to do. What I needed to do. What it was actually, unapologetically fun to do. The next time you see me fussing about how best I should spend my time, remind me: New year, new you. Give zero f*cks, and get on with it.
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On All the Excuses for Not Writing More


  1. Ego depletion: your brain really does get tired, and you really do have finite reserves of will-power. Let’s say your to-do list has 20 completely disparate things on it (each item representing at least 5 emails, 3 scheduled meetings, and 6 attempts to reschedule them once the people involved in the first 5 emails fail to hold up their end of things in a timely fashion), and every time you try do item #3, someone drops by your office (the door of which you can’t bear to close because you feel trapped like a mistreated Targaryen dragon sealed and chained in the darkness of a Meereenese crypt) to talk about items #6-11, or, even better! items #21 and 22. The mental effort you will expend to stay focused, “productive,” polite, and non-violent (or at least minimally-sarcastic) will so exhaust your stores of self-control and self-discipline, that you’ll be good for nothing else but lying on the couch in a stupor, binging on Outlander and a bucket of Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookies.
  2. Consequently, plagued by guilt, haunted by every impending beach trip between now and your retirement, and brainwashed by misogynistic capitalism into thinking that your worth as a woman depends completely on how you look in a bikini, the little will-power you have left is just enough to get you to the gym.
  3. And/or: profoundly and irrationally irritated by a) your to-do list; b) everything that gets between you and your to-do list; c) your own procrastinatory self—you take the inbound train rather than the outbound one after work, and go to the gym to lift, hit, dance, and sweat until you feel better. Whether it’s (2) or (3) that gets you there, you’re at the gym for 2 hours. Then you go home to the couch, Outlander, and cookie bucket. (Yes, you’re aware that there’s a vicious circle element at work here, thanks).
  4. You do a ton of writing—tons and tons of careful research arranged into a deceptively-baroque, devastatingly-insightful, analysis of some urgent cultural issue, which you bring in on time, only to be told by your editor that, while it is, indeed, delightful, it’s not what she wants at all (because she refused to tell you what she did want at any earlier part of the process), and could you please re-write this tiny passage here? and here? and here? Just a few trivial revisions, affecting only, oh—piff, nothing at all!—7000 words, which will be read by 5 people in the world if you’re lucky, not counting your parents.
  5. Repeat (3).
  6. While watching Outlander, you spend all the slow boring bits (i.e., where the earnest 20th century husband is clothed) reconciling gym, dance, work, and social schedules to find time when you can write what you really want to write. You go to the award-winning cafe to eat pastry and Create. The smell of organic bacon smoked over free-range apple wood in a smoker built lovingly by hand by a weedy hipster youth proves intensely distracting. The harsh, file-on-metal tones of confident, loud, over-paid, under-thinking people on their break from all of those jobs which pay better than what you get—are even more distracting. So, instead, you waste most of the carefully-plotted writing time taking online quizzes about which Game of Thrones character you should date (I get Jaqen H’ghar, which makes complete sense as I would crush on the guy who’s emotionally unavailable because he’s a sociopathic religious fanatic and assassin).
  7. Repeat (3).
  8. You try it again. This time, no messing around. You go to the library, that temple of quiet study and exalted intellectual pursuit. You can’t settle anywhere. There’s a noxious smell. Two kids have never learned (how? HOW??) that you don’t talk at normal volume in libraries. Two other well-raised kids are whispering politely—and you learn that you have the neurological thing opposite to the thing that makes you feel soothed by whispering. Judging by the steady whistling sound, someone near you has a deviated septum and Just. Doesn’t. Care. This guy over here takes first one, then two, then—as your horror steadily mounts—three pieces of gum and steadily stuffs one after the other into his mouth and proceeds to chew. That guy is playing Grand Theft Auto, without earbuds. That guy is clipping his nails. The security guards don’t do a single damned thing about any of it. No-one cares but you. Determined to stay and work—to Create, remember—you take refuge in the stacks. Sitting on the floor, in blissful auditory and olfactory peace, you’ve just opened your laptop, and have your fingers poised, tingling with pent-up brilliance, over the keys…and a security guard is standing over you, come to discipline you—you!!—for sitting on the floor. You flee, feeling both persecuted, and angry with yourself for caring about being persecuted. You console yourself by applying grand literary references to your non-grand situation:  “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”
  9. Repeat (3).
  10. You’ve done tons and tons more writing. It’s good stuff, but also honestly, searingly, wrenchingly true, and, after a winter of isolation, rejection, suffering, insult, and near-assault—you have to concede that it’s just a teeny bit (just the littlest smidge) dark. A couple of people have mentioned that your writing makes them sad. You’re not sure you want a reputation as one of those brooding, self-obsessed, lyrical-but-oh-so-intense female memoirists. And, since you have nothing else in the pipeline, the world must languish, insensibly depriving itself of the exquisite tristesse and poignancy of your touching history.
  11. So you decide that you’ll start a new piece of comic brilliance instead. But then you have to look up that quote by Tolstoy about how all happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and then you see an update on Facebook, and then you realize that your neighbors have finally stopped doing their- and-their-friends-and-relations’ laundry, so you can finally wash your sports bras, and then you remember that you haven’t swept the floors in two days…and then it’s just too late, and you have to finish season two of the Americans.
  12. You get asked out on a date and have a good time. The second date goes well, and the third…except for that one thing he said in passing that could mean 10 different things. You wander around the apartment absent-mindedly cleaning things, trying to telepathically decipher the black box that is another human being. You then have to go for drinks with your girlfriends to forensically re-construct the events and meaning of every minute of each date, and to deconstruct, with relentless incisiveness, every emoji used in every text the man has sent you (“is that really a crying face, or an Android-iOs translation problem…??) Your psyche taunts you in an incongruously-Mancunian accent, “You know nothing…”—because you really do know nothing. Until you go on another perfectly-enjoyable date and all that stuff you were worried about turns out be truly nothing. All of this is extremely time-consuming, and since bad things continue to not happen, you find you have nothing to say publicly about any of it.
  13. Mad Max comes out. You call your parents. You go to a weekend-long fitness camp. A friend is in from out of town. The snow is melted, you’ve got a new battery in your car, and you can finally go to Ikea for that thing you were sure only Ikea could provide. It doesn’t fit. You have to go back to Ikea. You get invited to a poetry reading. You need to spend 4 hours going through every possible combination of airline fares and schedules in order to plan the perfect itinerary to visit your parents. You check Facebook again. And again. The season finale of Game of Thrones demands protracted analysis and conversation with everyone you know. You realize your 10-class card for ballet is about to expire. You have two unused salsa classes. You go to dance classes. You start composing an indignant letter to Amazon about how the concept of “MommyPrime” is offensively patriarchal and discriminatory, until you realize that they have no way of knowing that “Pierre” is not a real over-indulged, Montessori-coddled child (birthday April 3), but is, in fact, your stuffed panda. You (and the panda) get a free trial month. You can’t help yourself and you buy season three of the Americans. Your hair, which yesterday was fine—completely fine—is suddenly impossible and it has to be colored and cut immediately. You need a filling replaced. You start a really good murder mystery. You go to the office and become enraged by everything that either is on your computer when you wish it weren’t, or should be on your computer but has been inexplicably taken away by IT on the capricious whim of their tyrannical sysadmin. You feel very busy, but thwarted. You write about not writing as a way to get some writing done.
  14. Repeat (3).
  15. You go on another date.
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The Figure in the Carpet


Other than a pathological faith in jinxes and charms—fingers crossed, wood knocked—I’m mostly quite a rational, skeptical person. If there really were ghosts, why do they only appear at night, and only in closets, attics, basements, hallways, and bathroom mirrors—but never during daylight, on the bus, or at a department meeting or yoga studio? If angels could really guide us—wouldn’t they, of all supernatural beings, be ethically obligated to guide us all the time? If they have information that could help us, but hold out until we pay someone ($30 for one reading, special combo price of $45 for two)—wouldn’t that make them…demons? And raise troubling implications about free will? (questions that have kept philosophers employed for centuries). And if crystals and stones resonate with power, surely I’d have noticed by now and been transported to other places and times, preferably one where I’d have to marry the best looking, best educated, yet most sensitive warrior in order to save the whole rebel cause …oops—now I’m getting mixed up with the plot of Outlander. The point is, if tea leaves, or runes, or chicken bones, or gas venting from a fissure in the earth’s crust could really inform our behavior, surely we’d all be a lot better off than we are…?

I’d be delighted if there were really were magic in this world—the literal kind. How cool would that be! But instead, we’re all just Muggles, stuck with the figurative varieties of magic instead—the intersection of imagination, inspiration, insight, and instinct which allows us to make, and perceive patterns of meaning, in everything from painting to science to poetry.

Disappointed in my sorcerous and alchemical ambitions, as we all must be, I’ve come instead to deal with patterns (or the lack of them) for a living. I analyze words and the patterns we make out of them, I teach other people how to do the same, and I help them when the patterns fail. In this kind of work, we sometimes invoke the image of the palimpsest, or Henry James’ figure in the carpet, the pattern beneath the pattern, discernible, but only to the trained eye. As Poe’s detective Dupin and Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes know, you can be looking right at all the information you need, the vital clue can be hidden in plain sight—all you need to do is stop looking, and start seeing.

But as I said, sometimes the pattern fails, or something clouds your vision, and we sometimes need a little bit of help to clear the fog away. As these posts make abundantly clear (to me, at least), I experience a great deal of stress and frustration in my personal life because I’m often staring right at something important and am nevertheless unable to see it, usually because I’m hoping to see something else.

Which is why I’ve been curious about tarot cards for awhile. Of all the so-called divinatory practices, tarot is the least supernatural-seeming, the least occult. Many practitioners believe that their readings emerge not just from the cards as material objects, or as a set of symbols, but from the energies of both the reader and the one being read. The cards don’t make patterns, they reveal patterns unfolding in the universe on a metaphysical, perhaps mystical scale. I’m not sure how far my own belief—or suspension of disbelief—can go in that direction. But I’m attracted to the idea that the cards provide a symbolic framework within which we can create, or discern, patterns less cosmic, more personally relevant. This doesn’t have to be a scientifically-valid process, so much as an artistic one. This makes sense to me.

So I tried it out.


New Orleans is one of those cities that, partly by accident, partly through self-conscious cultivation, has become a thoroughly gothic space. Buildings which are crumbling and decrepit and blank by day provide the environs for all manner of decadence and mystery (or the promise of it) by night. Part of the city’s allure comes from its long association with magic and ritual, voodoo most notoriously, but encompassing all things mystical. There are dozens of self-styled mystics, diviners, and psychics in the city, setting up shop to read your leaves, and runes, and cards, everywhere from the precincts of the cathedral on a Wednesday afternoon, to smack dab in the midst of the drunken brawl known as Bourbon Street. One recent Friday night, I noticed a young woman sitting at her card table while music blared from every storefront, frat boys staggered past sipping 200-proof slushies, and, alarmingly, a group of very inebriated women tottered along in high heels, balancing themselves on their toddlers’ strollers while the poor little creatures within clung, bewildered, to their sippy-cups. Perhaps the tarot reader could operate in that setting—the only one, seemingly, who could—but I figured the cards would wait until I could find something on the quieter side streets, and in the more reassuringly-sedate light of day.

My first attempt was in the most banal of settings—the brightly-lit convention floor of a large hotel, the kind where you can easily forget which city you’re in, the decor, unflattering lighting, and feel all designed to be completely, offensively-inoffensively generic. At a conference on pop culture, some of the academic experts on tarot (because if anything’s interesting, it’s worth studying academically) were doing one-card readings. Before directing me to pick my card, the reader asked me to envision my ideal day. This seemed a reassuringly non-mystical, therapeutic practice: knock off the fretting and planning and just remember what matters. I thought about being with loved ones. Immersing myself in nature—sunshine, warm water, breezes, birds singing. Dancing. I took a deep breath, and drew my card. And she said, “This card is about the pleasures of childhood, of simple, joyful playfulness.” As she spoke, I remembered standing in puddles, watching the water wash over my rain boots; then of letting my toes squish around in the muddy shore of the creek. I felt instantly happy—then promptly felt tears starting in my eyes, for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which was that I was overwhelmed with how uncanny it was to have those images and that card. Was she reading the card, or me? Was I somehow radiating some meaning that was inaccessible until the reading unlocked it? Were those images, and the merry contentment they evoked, with me all along? If so, why did I need a graduate student in a dress to shuffle some cards before I could see it?

I had to try more.

New Orleans is the kind of place where the hotel concierge can recommend everything from the best beignet, to where you can get a seance. Sure enough, she had a recommendation for me, and a coupon.  I followed the directions on the slip of hotel note-paper to a shop in the French Quarter selling crystals, and offering a menu of mystical services. I declined the combo discount (tarot plus past-lives, palms, tea leaves, those suspiciously-mercenary angels, or runes), and was shown into a curtained area where a young woman (almost certainly another graduate student) in a floral dress was ready with her deck. We started with a general “spread,” then focused on relationships; she didn’t ask me anything about myself—work, personal life, ambitions, worries. My cards revealed…wait: is it bad luck to be too public with one’s readings? Or, does doing so create a kind of tarot placebo, of self-fulfilling prophecies…? I’ll tell you this much: the cards suggested that I was emotionally and psychically burned out in some areas of my life, consumed by negative energy—not my own, so much as that of other people, thanks very much. But she also saw lots of good things, lots of potential.

Then we did a spread for romance. She said, “These cards show a person who is charming, and fun to be with, but who is also demanding, who gets his way, who takes more than he gives.” She looked up with some concern. “Is this someone you’re currently seeing? Or someone you saw recently?” I said, “No, though you’re describing several of the people I’ve dated in the last four years.” She replied, “Perhaps that’s what we’re looking at, though the cards suggest something more current. If this isn’t a person in your recent past, it might describe someone you’re going to meet…?” I felt a bit of a chill: “I have a date two days from now,” I said. “Draw another card,” she prompted. She paused, then said, “This is the card for heartbreak.” I inhaled. “Is that meant to be a prediction?” “No,” she replied, “More of a warning: Your other cards show that your path is a good one, for some time to come; you’re content with your choices, with who you are; you’re content being alone if you need to be. Sometimes the universe just places an obstacle in our way as we’re on our journey—but if this person is an obstacle, he doesn’t need to be anything more than that.” I said, as much to myself as to her, “So. I must be vigilant….”

After the session, I drifted around the streets for awhile, absent-mindedly looking in shop windows, trying to make sense of what the reader had told me. I had been startled by how relevant everything had sounded. The cynical analysis would be that, like a good astrologer, she provides information generic enough to apply to anyone. But I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, I think many, if not most, of the people who engage in these mystical practices believe, to one degree or another, in what they’re doing. There might not be much magic, but I don’t think there’s much deliberate deception either. We’re all drawn to divination for the same reasons—we want to believe our lives have structure and sense, and that the events which befall are us are something more than arbitrary.

More importantly, what I felt, as I drew my cards, was that I wasn’t being read, as either a mark, or as a passive text. Instead, I had felt engaged in a creative process that allowed for both of us to be simultaneously reader and writer. The cards provide the materials—the units of meaning—from which the tarot reader knows how to assemble a text, like a poem or a painting; then I bring my own experiences, interests, needs to bear in my response, creating an interpretation that adds to my sense of where I am at the given moment. In this particular experiment, at this moment, the process of collaboratively analyzing symbols felt very familiar; and, very interestingly, it  prompted me to think through a few things in a new way. I felt I’d been nudged along in my perception, like someone had gently held me at my shoulders to turn me in the right direction, from looking right at the pattern to actually seeing it: not there, here. Ah-hah! I said out loud, in the middle of the French Quarter (occasioning no interest whatsoever): I’ve been looking everywhere for things that have been hidden in plain sight, right in front of me all along.

That night, a friend and I tried a fashionable restaurant in the French Quarter. By fashionable, I mean that we struggled to get a reservation, then as soon as we were seated, we were promptly ignored for 15 minutes until I accosted some other section’s waiter to fetch ours. More moments passed, when, on the brink of our overcoming all kinds of social conditioning and hunger to simply walk out, our man appeared. “Allrightallrightallright!” he announced, with Magic-Mike authenticity. “Sorry for that delay! I was in the back.”

He was welcoming, and eager to get us set up with drinks and food; he bustled off with our orders, headed to The Back, content that all was going as it ought. My friend was somewhat mollified by his hospitableness, but I wasn’t having it. I was suspicious of what had kept him in The Back for so long (Is The Back part of the restaurant? if so, what goes on there that held him up? Is The Back some kind of indeterminate existential state, as in, “sorry for the delay in getting my act together, but I was in The Back”…?). I felt like I’d met his type before. “In my experience, you need to be wary of men our age, who are friendly, wait tables for a living, and are obviously missing several teeth. None of the first three criteria are absolute, but any one of them in combination with the last: damning.”  We found the obviousness of this pronouncement hilarious and unsettling. Magic Mike proved me right, and failed to earn much of a tip.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

Two days later, back in Boston, I had the date I’d mentioned at the tarot reading. I went with some trepidation. On the one hand, the man is educated, knows how to make pastry, and is French. On the other hand, online, he’d been cagey about what he does for a living, except to say that he was embarking on a huge adventure, personally and professionally. In his messages he said that he hoped he wouldn’t scare me too much, and was confident that, if nothing else, I’d find his story interesting. After the tarot reading, I thought perhaps I just shouldn’t bother; but then, because of the reading, I had to, just to see.

And what do you know?: the French guy’s work visa (waiting tables) was about to run out, but that’s ok, because he’s confident that once he goes back to France (next week??) he’ll be able to get an entrepreneur visa which will allow him to come back to the US to start his pastry business, that he’s funding with his savings! It’s all fine! He has kids, and he sees them all the time, and is teaching them how to cook, but his ex-wife has sole custody because she’s in her 40s and she has figured out how to have a job with benefits and a green card! Everything is fine! It’s all so exciting!

“Have I scared you yet??” he asked, expectant.

What scares me, I thought, but didn’t say, was that for the second time in as many days, I’m having a perfectly good dinner thrown off by a man my age, who’s very friendly, waits tables for a living…and is obviously missing several teeth.

I thought of the tarot cards, and what the reader had suggested about obstacles. I thought about patterns, some more obvious than others—for example, my own pattern of trying to talk myself into liking every stray man who crosses my path for fear that I’ll never come across another, and consequently having my emotional energy drained and my time wasted. I thought of Sherlock Holmes: stop looking, P2, and see.

The Frenchman, proud of himself for ransoming his children’s college fund for an appallingly-harebrained scheme, was still talking. Then he said again, “Well, that’s my scary story. What about you, P2?”

I looked; I saw.

I thought a bit, and said, “You know what? there’s nothing scary about me at all…and I think that’s just fine.”

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