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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”

Jonathan Clarke is a lawyer and critic living in Brooklyn.

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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”

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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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”

Laura Leavitt is a writer and teacher living in Ohio. She has written a variety of pieces about travel, young adulthood, and food culture, including pieces at The Hairpin and Roads and Kingdoms. She blogs about living a disorganized life at Messy Mapmaker.

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This is the last piece we worked on with D.B. Jones who died on the morning of October 29th. Jones was a great advocate for our publication, was always wonderful to go back and forth with about edits, and he had a wonderful way of simplifying everything to the root. We will miss him greatly.

Sometime in the year 2000, I think, I came across a news story reporting that explorers had found the source of the Amazon, the world’s largest river. The group making the discovery was an international, 22-person expedition sponsored by three of our most potent supporters of scientific research: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and the Defense Department. With the aid of satellite mapping technology, laptop computers, and the Defense Department’s global-positioning satellite system, the explorers located “the point of flowing water the farthest distance from the mouth” as a tiny stream high on a slope of an 18,363-foot mountain in Peru called Nevado Mismi.

Having grown up with a love of exploring and a fascination with maps, I could relate to this story and imagine what an adventure it must have been. Half a century earlier, when we were 11, my friend Owen and I went on an analogous venture one August day and made a structurally similar discovery: the source of Shrine Park Creek, just outside of Leavenworth, Kansas. The creek arose west of town, winding eastward through Shrine Park before entering the city limits. In town it meandered through an industrial area, then inched past a row of tarpaper shacks and oozed through the city dump before emptying into the Missouri River. More… “The Source”

D.B. Jones is a retired Drexel professor of film and the author of three books on Canadian documentary film.

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Sylvia Plath has a way of showing up in everything I do. I find her in the essays I write, the things I say, the movies I watch — even the clothing I choose to wear. She is ever-present, ever-changing, working her way into my writing and conversations. I spoke with Emily Van Duyne, a writer, scholar, and feminist, who has also been heavily influenced and shaped by Plath, an American writer and poet best known for her novel The Bell Jar and poetry collections such as Ariel and The Colossus and Other Poems. Emily Van Duyne is an assistant professor of writing at Stockton University in New Jersey, where she is also affiliated with faculty in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Harvard Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Meridian, and Literary Hub, among others. She has written many essays about Plath and is currently at work on a critical memoir called Loving Sylvia Plath. You can tweet her @emilyvanduyne.

More… “Pondering Plath”

Camille DiBenedetto is a staff writer for The Smart Set and an English major at Drexel University. In her free time, you can find her watching romantic comedies, listening to slam poetry, or rereading The Summer I Turned Pretty for the 27th time.

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The opening movement of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others can be described in many ways: bracing, informed, thoroughly engaged with history, disturbing, even profound. I would, however, describe it simply as reassuring. Consider that I’ve just designated the beginning of her text a movement. If I possessed more poetic leanings, I might contend that it functions as a stanza. Its title is measured, artful, a statement that can be read multiple ways — as an opening clause (Regarding the pain of others, comma, here’s what I have to say) or as a commentary on the act of regarding, of viewing, of assessing and appraising human beings in a state of pain and suffering and death. It is in its literary-ness that I find comfort and reassurance, and in its author’s commitment to truly essaying its subject matter (representations of violence) that this volume shines with a lapidary efflorescence. Sontag’s deeper topic, however, is a consciousness of our shared and frangible humanity. More… “Sparing No Pains”

Sean Hooks is originally from New Jersey and presently lives in Los Angeles. He teaches English and Writing at the University of California, Riverside and Fullerton College. Recent publications include Los Angeles Review of Books, Bright Lights Film Journal, Akashic Books, The Manhattanville Review, and Pif Magazine.

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I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and my mother was a working woman who didn’t like to cook. Although she dutifully made dinner for us every night, these were perfunctory and repetitive meals: meatloaf made with Catalina salad dressing, spaghetti with tomato sauce and occasional meatballs (also made with Catalina salad dressing), roast chicken (overcooked), and instant chocolate pudding or Jello for dessert. I looked with envy at my friends whose stay-at-home moms prepared things like veal parmigiana and shrimp scampi, baked alaska and pineapple upside-down cake.

At the time, convenience foods were sparse, limited mostly to canned foods. For many years, my idea of vegetables were greenish things floating in yellowish liquid that were dumped in a saucepan for 30 minutes so whatever taste and nutrition they contained had been boiled away. Another familiar adjunct to our meals was cream of mushroom soup — flavored lard to be added to casseroles, dips, or anything that needed a fat and sodium boost. Also, pork and beans: snippets of fat drowning in a salty mush and introduced alongside the occasional boiled hot dog (my mother saw hot dogs as low class but made an exception by serving them under the name of frankfurters). Finally, there was the much-loved macaroni and cheese — elbow macaroni and Velveeta — served to us when our parents went out for dinner. More… “Dinnertime and its Discontents”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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Rafael Casal is a poet, rapper, producer, writer, and actor. Over the last ten years, he and his longtime friend and collaborator, Daveed Diggs, wrote, produced, and starred in their first film, Blindspotting. The story revolves around best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) during the last three days of Collin’s probation. As the days progress, their friendship is strained by Oakland’s gentrification and the community’s perception of Collin after his conviction for a violent crime. Throughout the film, heightened verse is infused to showcase Oakland, the city’s natural facility for language, and Casal and Digg’s background in poetry and music. I had the opportunity to speak with Casal about comedy as a vehicle to tell stories about trauma, toxic masculinity, unconscious bias, and the stories missing from Hollywood’s mainstream. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “In Plain Sight”

Byshera Williams is a Senior English Major at Drexel University and the current Associate Editor for The Smart Set.

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Shannon Downey is a craftivist, community organizer, and as of June, a commencement speaker. She was recruited by Drexel University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry to deliver the commencement address for their Custom Designed Major. Her speech was firm but funny, honest in the “what is yet to come,” and encouraging in regard to their potential to alter the world one small step at a time. Before she inspired the room, we had an opportunity to sit down with Shannon to talk about Badass Cross Stitch, activism, and going viral.  The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “When Being Bad Does Good”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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God narratives don’t tend to begin in hotel conference halls. Rarer still is it to find one starting with a couple of patched up sound technicians readying a hall for a TEDx talk on business processing. This one does. In March 2012, I was more concerned with how realistic it was to believe I could fund my master’s degree through selling bonsai trees than with existential questions about God and fatherhood. I didn’t expect to leave that job with a collapsing barracks of beliefs about what it means to be a father, son, or devotee. I took for granted that these relationships simply exist, never delving too far into what happens when one of the parties within these relationships doesn’t consider the relationship valid. I suppose such thoughts had been safely shut away in the cave of my personal mental garage, requiring a jolt to help pull the shutters up. That jolt came from a man trying to find the words to obliterate the distance between himself and his God. More… “Talking to Gods and Fathers”

Imran Khan received his degree from SOAS and teaches creative writing around South West England. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in ucity Review, The Lake, Puritan, Across the Margin, and elsewhere. Khan is a previous winner of the Thomas Hardy Award. He can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/ImranBoeKhan/

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