They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some of them are slim and easily recognizable as such, they can look clumsy or elegant, others are shaped like a flying saucer. In our advanced age, some of them even have a brain and — almost — a life of their own. Although at some point they also need a human hand, so they can start work: vacuum cleaners.

The food of vacuum cleaners is dust which, as any electronic microscope reveals, also comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, both organic and inorganic: dead skin cells, paper fibers, dust mites, synthetic fibers, grains and pollen, and in some cases coal dust, asbestos or other harmful particles. The best way to see airborne dust is to observe a room flooded with light. It’s more fashionable these days to talk about microbes that live all over our bodies, bombard us with their genes and are even a part of dust. This is where scientists are on the front lines of discovery. But let’s stay with plain, classic dust for a minute or two. More… “Dust Never Sleeps”

Since the seminal book by sociologist E. Digby Baltzel, Puritan Boston & Quaker Philadelphia, in 1996, articles by a range of thought leaders appear episodically to remind us that Philadelphia is a city still on the edge of greatness. But a deeper understanding of Philly shows that the city is a paradox for becoming a great city and there are advantages to being on the edge.

For total population, while not as big as the Apple, LA, and Chi-Town, the City of Brotherly Love has been battling three newcomers in the Southwest and holding its own as one of the most populated cities in the US. While not the paragon of hospitality, Philadelphia gets high marks by tourist magazines for being inviting to several subgroups such as the LGBTQ community and young African American professionals. Funny thing though, as locals we may not be the best guides to the most popular sites to see; seeing the liberty bell and other sites in Old City quickly become a faint memory from grade school. We are more likely to take you to the Whispering Wall (Memorial Hall Park), to find the statue of Chief Tedyuscung in the Wissahickon, or visit the Devil’s pocket and Swampoodle blocks of Philly. More… “A City on the Edge”

“I have had many talented people ask me how to get into the comic book business. If they were talented enough the first answer I would give them is,‘Why would you want to get into the comic book business?’ Because even if you succeed, even if you reach what might be considered the pinnacle of success in comics, you will be less successful, less secure and less effective than if you are just an average practitioner of your art in television, radio, movies or what have you.” — Stan Lee, 1971 1

“I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything . . . It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things – or old things for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories. Stan Lee was a guy that knew where the papers were or who was coming to visit that day.” — Jack Kirby, 1989 2

It’s a complex world out there, filled with millions of people creating millions of things and influencing our lives and culture in ways we can’t always fully grasp. But we’re a simple species, barely able to keep it together long enough to pay the bills and get the kids to soccer practice. So we create some shorthand myths and mnemonics for those aspects of our world that might not interest us much beyond acknowledging their existence. To wit: fine art means Picasso and Da Vinci. Classical music is Mozart and Beethoven. Napoleon was a short French guy in a funny hat. And Stan Lee created Marvel Comics

Except that he didn’t. At least, not entirely. But for those uninterested in the history of the American comics industry (i.e. most people), the complex debate about who exactly was responsible for the creation of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and whatever else is coming soon to a theater near you, probably comes off as so much nerd talk — it’s easier to just say Stan Lee did it. He was the one who kept showing up in the movies after all, displaying a loveable cornball character of his own devising. More… “The Problem with Stan Lee”

I knew Walden was a dangerous book from the first few pages.

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad” I read, “and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.”

I remember looking up when I read these words to see if anyone was watching me. I was alone, sitting in the English Resource Center, which was a small library controlled by the English teachers in my high school. On most days, there were a handful of students hanging around — all members of an unofficial clique of mostly freshmen and sophomores who liked reading and discussing books. This is where the literary magazine Savannah was cut and pasted together, literally, twice a year, and where six of us hatched a school newspaper in our sophomore year. Kids came to the ERC to read, hang out, think revolutionary thoughts, and practice our best avant-garde poses. There were several second-hand couches and chairs, which together formed a sad little lounge area; an adjoining office with a mimeograph machine, typewriters and filing cabinets; and of course, the books, which were displayed in several creaky free-standing bookshelves that leaned forward from the white-painted cement-block walls, threatening to collapse into the center of the room from the sheer weight of intellectual curiosity. The shelves were jammed with novels and literary nonfiction — some philosophy and history too — and the air in the ERC always carried a faint whiff of paperback, that mouldering acidic smell that any collector of books will immediately recognize. I had thumbed through nearly all of these books, discovering for the first time names like Hemingway, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. More… “Steal This Book”

Howard Hughes was one of the most significant and impactful figures of 20th century. Tycoon, movie producer, and philanthropist, Hughes was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a romanticized epic about the Hughes’s ascent as rugged individualist willing to combat the film industry, risk his life experimenting with airplanes, and manhandle classic Hollywood’s greatest actresses. The film also represents his eventual move toward complete isolation, his obsessive compulsive disorder encouraging him to seclude himself into sanitary screening rooms while watching and re-watching films. The film presents Hughes as a complicated but passionate man. Scorsese is nothing if not a film fan and The Aviator does much to unpack the ways in which Hughes’s foray into filmmaking contributed to Hollywood. The movie celebrates Hughes as a visionary and rugged individualist. He is reiterated as a folk hero. Like a true femme fatale, walks in Karina Longworth’s new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, which serves to provide more depth into Howard Hughes, looking not only at his work, but using his personal relationships to help illustrate his significance as Hollywood magnate but also addressing aspects of his character. The book not only challenges this image of Hughes as hero, but uses Hughes as a Trojan horse to unpack Hollywood’s ethically murky legacy. More… “Subverting Seduction”

In other words, the man who is born into existence deals first with language; this is a given. He is even caught in it before his birth. — Jacques Lacan

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Laypeople are often fascinated by the law — fascinated, and also horrified. Unsatisfactory outcomes, of which there are not a small number, are almost the least of their objections. They are frustrated by the law’s obfuscations and its inwardness, and they resent the condescension of lawyers. Lawyers, in turn, are frustrated by how much laypeople miss in their account of the culture of the courts — how much, in short, they don’t know they don’t know.

The law serves a crucial public function, but the courts often appear to operate in ignorance of that function. This is why intelligent lay commentary on the law is important. Laypeople see things that lawyers have stopped seeing and raise issues that lawyers have assumed away or given up as intractable. Their commentary aerates a closed system. Occasionally it even embarrasses the legal profession into reform. More… “Balloon Meets Pin”

The best rock and roll performers have tended to make impetuousness a virtue. We learn of accounts of how Brian Wilson labored over studio creations like Pet Sounds and Smile for ages, but the more readily available go-to examples of rock and roll inspiration center on Bob Dylan leaving in a given take despite microphones picking up the scrape of his jacket buttons on his guitar, or the Animals nailing “House of the Rising Sun” in a single early morning attempt. We like the idea of genius rising up in one inspired moment, and we also like the idea of an artist being secure enough in what they’ve just wrought to let it ride, knowing that it is more than good enough — it will last.

Within the Beatles, John Lennon had a famous — or infamous — lack of patience when it came to recording. He wanted a number in the can, and he wanted to move on to the next. Better yet if it was one of his songs and not Paul McCartney’s, given their more or less friendly completion. Friendly enough, anyway, that they’d help each other out with tips, newly added bits, criticisms. For the band’s early period, Lennon was easily the most productive composer between the two. If you go back through the discography, you’ll see that he dominates. There is a shift around the time of Revolver, when McCartney pulls ahead by the same margin. The death of manager Brian Epstein in August of 1967 led to a big McCartney growth spurt in terms of handling the bulk of the songwriting and directing the group. Lennon, simply, seemed to acquiesce, which hadn’t seemed to be in his nature up until then. There was a combination of burnout, a giving in to lethargy, but also a change in how songs were going to be written. More… “Revolution Carnival”

There is a lot more that goes into a dinner invitation in my home than comes out in a casual, “you should come over for dinner!” Many see dinner at a friend’s house as no big deal, but the political history behind historical and even modern dinner parties cuts to the core of what it means to be social animals, to leave ourselves vulnerable to critique and open to friendship. Or at least it does for me, a Millennial plagued with at least a few stereotypical conditions: a healthy dollop of social anxiety, a preference for technological communication, and concerns about what makes me really an adult.

I spent most of my 20s meeting people on “neutral” ground – cafés, bars, restaurants, school – places that provided the ambiance and food options for me rather than making me do all the work. While I rarely saw those locations as fancy, and we didn’t always love dining hall food in college, those locations didn’t intimately reflect on me the way a dinner in my home does. The restaurant was a middle ground, a space where we could appreciate it or dislike it without claiming it as our own, as part of ourselves. More importantly, I had only had my own bodies to reckon with for potential judgment; people judging other people’s bodies is no new thing, but many people have the luxury of putting on a clean outfit, brushing their hair, and pretending like everything is fine, whether it is or it isn’t. I had a lot of rough days during my 20s, but when I met someone for coffee, I got to choose how much they saw of my stress, while my home was often an untidy wreck behind closed doors. More… “Reviving the Dinner Party”

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Olivia Gatwood is a poet, performer, and educator. A Brave New Voices, Women of the World, and National Poetry Slam finalist, her poetry has been featured on HBO, Huffington Post, MTV, VH1, and BBC. Her latest book, New American Best Friend, reflects her experiences growing up in both New Mexico and Trinidad, navigating girlhood, relationships, class, and sexuality. Olivia is also a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery and has performed internationally at over 200 schools and universities.
Ever since discovering Olivia’s poetry on Youtube at 16, her words have become a constant in my life. They’ve made their way into sleepovers, my irrational horror at the doctor’s office, and early-morning bus rides. They’ve helped me in times of uncertainty, encouraging me to take pride in the things I was once ashamed of. Olivia was kind enough to speak with me about her work and experience as a poet, Title IX educator, and her upcoming book, set to release with The Dial Press/Random House in 2019.

More… “Ode to Olivia”

Returning to the States after two years in Poland – during which I had married, taught English, and witnessed the rise of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law – I suggested to my wife that we live in Philadelphia.

I had always liked the city, not least because I owed my existence to it. Somewhere in its folds in 1941, my father, a student at Penn Law School, met my mother, a nurse at the Children’s Hospital. As parents, upriver in New Jersey, they introduced my brothers and me to the zoo, the Franklin Institute, Connie Mack Stadium, Elfreth’s Alley. Years later, as a student at Villanova, I took the Paoli Local in to watch Big Five basketball at the Palestra and, one memorable evening, strippers at the Trocadero Theater. In my junior year I bought my first pair of round tortoiseshell glasses – the same style I wear today – at Limeburner Opticians on Chestnut Street. More… “Out of Philadelphia”