I've heard only 2% of widows are under 40. 18 months after I married my second husband, I became one of them.

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I love cold, dark mornings. I love stretching just past the warm spots in the sheets and feeling the icy air brush across my toes. I love the way the pillow pushed under my shoulder cradles my head in softness, and I love to roll over and wiggle the curve of my hip into my husband’s side, tucking my cold feet around his warm ones.

I used to love that last part, anyway. Lately, in my sheet-swaddled semi-clarity, I reach for my husband’s hand before I realize that he’s not in bed with me any longer.

When you fight reality, you will lose.
More… “The Club No One Wants to Join”

35 years later, do we love Empire Strikes Back because of Lando and Boba Fett – or Shakespeare and Oedipus?

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Poster from the original theatrical release of Empire Strikes Back, 1980.

The stand-alone popularity amongst Star Wars films of The Empire Strikes Back has always put me in mind of that old line of eight out of 10 dentists preferring one type of toothpaste over another. Empire, which is marking the 35th anniversary of its national release on May 21, is routinely cited as the ne plus ultra of the series. If someone tells you they prefer the original picture, A New Hope, you tend to think they’re a bit of a fuddy-duddy, fond of retro serials, while the Return of the Jedi adherents probably like stuffed animals too much, and prequel fans are trying to hard to be different, or are else very young.

Cards out: I’m one of those people who think the first film is easily the best, the one Star Wars film that could exist without any of the others, made with that same daring and innocence that can make first novels so appealing. But as a kid, when I played with my action figures, it was Empire I was thinking about, perhaps because it does the most to move the overall narrative along, with some real plot humdingers, aspects that, as you get older, you realize contain some pretty creepy, downbeat stuff.
More… “The Enduring Empire

Why photograph Theo Jansen's kinetic sculptures, the Strandbeests? Well, why photograph anything alive?

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STILL ALIVE
Why photograph Theo Jansen's kinetic sculptures, the Strandbeests? Well, why photograph anything alive?
BY MORGAN MEIS

If you are lucky, and if you happen to be on the Dutch shore of the North Sea, and if it is a windy day (a not-unusual occurrence), you just might see a new sort of creature walking down the beach. This creature will be walking in fits and starts, activated by gusts of wind, animated in one part of its “body” and then another. Atop the creature, you will see sheets of fabric that look like sails of a small ship. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that the rest of the creature is made entirely of plastic tubing, what’s known as PVC. PVC stands for “polyvinyl chloride.” The white plastic tubing you’ve seen in thousands of bathrooms and kitchens is PVC. Upon even closer inspection, you’ll notice that the creature is made of PVC and nothing else. You’ll ponder that for a moment. Nothing but PVC. How does it move, then? Isn’t there a motor somewhere? Aren’t there electronics on the inside telling the creature when and how to move? You’ll become shocked and disoriented by the realization that the creature isn’t controlled from anywhere else or by anyone else. It is simply walking of its own accord, having a little stroll on a windy day along the beaches of the North Sea, as if it were alive.
More… “Still Alive”

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Just as the controversy over PEN America’s award to Charlie Hebdo recedes into the distance a new issue has erupted over at AWP concerning the placement of Vanessa Place on a subcommittee. A petition at Change.org opens:

“We find it inappropriate that Vanessa Place is among those who will decide which panels will take place at AWP Los Angeles. We acknowledge Place’s right to exercise her creativity, but we find her work to be, at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist.”

It did not take long for AWP to agree to the demand:

More… “Vanessa Place Vs. AWP, Woody Allen, and more”

Godless Americans vs. God-Fearing Russians?

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A modern Russian Orthodox icon commemorating the Butovo martyrs

In the future, will God-fearing Russians defend Christianity against decadent, godless American atheists? The very question would have perplexed American Cold warriors who defended both America and Christianity against godless Russian communists in the 1950s and 1960s.

But consider the data. According to the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, the number of Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians rose from 31 percent in 1991 to 72 percent in 2008. In the 1970s, the exiled Soviet dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn scandalized Western liberals and his Soviet persecutors alike by calling on Russians to return to their Orthodox Christian roots. Under Yeltsin and Putin, this appears to have occurred. Putin led the mourners at Solzhenitsyn’s funeral.

While Russians are rediscovering religion, Americans are abandoning it. Between 2007 and 2014, according to Pew, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians plunged from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.
More… “The Future of God”

In Eileen Chang's Naked Earth, holding on to reality in Maoist China means living in the details.

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In an early scene of Eileen Chang’s 1956 novel Naked Earth (reissued this month by NYRB Classics), Liu Ch’uen – a young, enthusiastic new participant in Chairman Mao’s Land Reform movement – watches the “struggle session” of a local landlord’s wife. The woman has been brought into a courtyard to make a confession before the student recruits, Party members and local villagers. The landlord’s wife is frightened and pregnant.

As they approached the low flight of stone steps they saw that a thick rope hung down from the eaves. It hung loose, swaying a little in the breeze. Several tenant farmers were standing around, looking nervous. The atmosphere was thick, as if somebody had hanged himself here and the body had just been taken down and removed.

More… “Struggling Through”

In a spa town in the Swiss Alps, you'll find snow-capped mountains, chocolate, goats... and soon, the tallest hotel in the world.

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THE TOWER
In a spa town in the Swiss Alps, you'll find snow-capped mountains, chocolate, goats... and soon, the tallest hotel in the world.
BY BERND BRUNNER

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by skyscrapers. A poster with the skyline of Manhattan graced the wall of my childhood bedroom. And I belong to the slowly disappearing group of people who have gazed upon New York not only from the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center, but from the viewing platform of the vanished World Trade Center too.

Now a spectacular new project is underway in Switzerland that immediately drew my attention: a skyscraper in the middle of the mountains. The location is the village of Vals, in the canton of Graubünden. Even in multilingual Switzerland, Graubünden is remarkable: with native speakers of Swiss German, Italian, and Romansh, it is the country’s only trilingual canton. This spot in a beautiful arm of the Anterior Rhine valley is home to about 1,000 people. Approximately the same number of sheep are said to live there as well, but perhaps that’s just a rumor. The planned building will be 80 stories tall and soar 1,250 feet into the sky. That’s 23 feet higher than the Federation Tower in Moscow – which currently qualifies as Europe’s tallest building – and exactly as tall as the Empire State Building minus the antenna. However, a building now planned for St. Petersburg will come in at over 1,312 feet, reclaiming the top spot for Russia. Of course, all these structures are small potatoes compared to the world’s tallest building, which boasts 2,722 feet and is located in Dubai.
More… “The Tower”

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Loose cannon Pete Townshend of The Who gives a fascinating interview to Rolling Stone. Supporting his group’s latest last tour, a marketing fiction the guitarist himself has a hard time taking seriously, Townshend talks about his Sixties contemporaries Robert Plant and Bob Dylan as well as offering this moving death bed fantasy:

More… “Pete Townshend’s last wish, The Bloom (Harold), and more”

On eye contact, staring, gazing, appraising, and looking at.

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“Eye contact” is not as well-defined a concept as it seems. As a child, I had an idea that true eye contact required a perfect eye-to-eye lock: my right eye looking into the other’s left eye, my left eye looking into their right, and vice versa. This, of course, is impossible; you have to pick one eye, or a point somewhere near the eyes on the face, in order to focus your gaze. The paths might randomly cross, but they don’t meet and stop. When standing near someone at a party, or sitting on opposite sides of a desk, holding eye contact is tricky — not because of the intimacy, but because you have to move your eyes around to take in their whole face. Counterintuitively, the illusion is easier to maintain if the person you’re looking at is farther away.
More… “Ways of Looking”

How fantasy is killing the space opera

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Cover art for a 1973 edition of A Princess of Mars by Gino D'Achille

The setting of post-apocalyptic fiction, a venerable genre of science fiction, is a future in which today’s technological civilization has been destroyed by some global catastrophe — nuclear war, a plague, a meteor impact, a new Ice Age. The survivors of the disaster find themselves living in the conditions of a new medievalism, or perhaps a new Stone Age. Often to survive they must battle against zombies or mutants in the ruins of once-great cities. Now and then, in post-apocalyptic tales, the primitives of the future uncover shining relics of our forgotten industrial era — a computer, perhaps, or a spaceship.

Something similar has happened to the science fiction shelf at the bookstore in the last few decades. Stories about space travel and robots and domed cities in a gleaming high-tech future have all but disappeared, while the shelves groan under the weight of multi-novel series about medieval warriors in magical kingdoms, like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Aliens from other planets in the solar system or other solar systems are on the endangered species list. Their place in the ecosystem of the imagination has been taken by vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, and, sometimes, repressive governments.
More… “The Lost Frontier”