The Latest

Blue donkey in red bubble, blue house in blue bubble

In the wake of the 2016 election, journalists and political commentators have been falling all over themselves to report on the plight of the so-called “white working class.” I hate to use the scare quotes, but the term is much less distinctive than it once was. We are all proletarians now: economic instability is keenly felt all over the country, at all levels of society, and not just among white people, either. Recent bestsellers like Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy prove that there is a considerable market for books addressing the economic, political, and cultural gaps between city and country, between left and right. The latest of these is Ken Stern’s Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.

Stern, the former CEO of NPR and a lifelong Democrat, was inspired to write the book after realizing that while his posh Washington D.C. neighborhood celebrated diversity of all kinds, he didn’t personally know any conservatives or even know anybody who did. He decided to take a year-long trip through red states to better understand the ways of the right. Stern’s approach is well-intentioned but essentially flawed — just because he happens to live in a liberal neighborhood doesn’t mean that he’s the only one living in a bubble. More… “Republican Like Who?”

Kasbeer holding Blackie, and Black holding Kasbeer

I found my soft, shiny stuffed dog on a tree of puppets at a souvenir shop in Big Sur. He was the color of asphalt with glossy plastic eyes that disappeared under his dark fur and floppy ears, making him look more like a bunny than a black Lab. His rear-end was plump and his tail thick. Through an opening in his chest, you could slip your hand inside. The feeling was intimate, like reaching into a shirt when one of the buttons has been undone.

The first time I did this, he came alive, opening his mouth to show off his pink tongue. I asked if he wanted to come home with me, and he nodded, his tail wagging from the flicker of my fingers. When I scratched behind his ears, he lifted his head as if he were relishing in the feeling. More… “Everyone Gets a Dog”

A man sitting inside a woman's ovaries, reading a book.

In the early ’80s, my mother — barely 30, but already divorced — took a children’s lit course at community college. We were living at the time in a rented house next to an old tuberculosis sanatorium that had been turned into a home for the developmentally disabled, and every night, while the old buildings on the hill above us were lit like spaceships, my mother read in a small pool of light, her feet tucked beneath her, occasionally hooking a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. My brother and I read with her: Watership Down and Charlotte’s Web and Where The Wild Things Are. More… “Are You There God? It’s Me, Crenshaw.”

I’m what’s left of when we
swam under the moon
-Mitski, “I Don’t Smoke

In the summer following my completion of grad school, my boyfriend Jonathan and I moved into an apartment in East Vancouver. Our search for a home had been an exhausting dead end until the final days of June. We were driving around the city, windshield wipers on to clear the summer rain, a sense of hopelessness sweeping us forward, when we saw the vacancy sign.

That’s always how it goes — you wait in a constant state of impatience for something to happen, and then suddenly everything turns on its head. A couple had already signed for the apartment and were meant to move in the following day, but they’d had to break the lease — a domestic dispute, the landlord whispers as he hands us the papers to sign.

The apartment is on the top floor of a three-story walk-up. There are ten apartments in the whole building, all of which are empty, because the landlord says that they’ve been renovating the building for the last year. More… “Ghosts Live Forever”

“I suspect that cooking with love is an inversion of a different principle: cooking to be loved,” Bill Buford says in Heat. Perhaps that’s why eating a restricted diet feels so lonely: cooks — whether they are homespun or professional chefs — are deeply annoyed by being confined or regulated. If you are on the receiving end of this annoyance, it feels personal, especially if your finicky-ness is a result of necessity rather than preference. But for the person preparing the food, even a simple request can create a major upheaval, undermining both flavor and technique. Food designed for specialized diets tends to expel puffs of uncertainty and sometimes disdain. (If you don’t believe me, just go to your favorite pizza joint and order a gluten-free crust. If they have one, it will almost certainly be served either nearly raw or burnt, and although it may have the same sauce topping and cheese as your usual order, it will exude none of the decadent coziness of your typical slice.) More… “Comfort”

It’s a bit specialized, admittedly. Nonetheless, Ben Davis’s Repertory Movie Theaters of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960-1994 delivers exactly what the title promises. If you were ever dying to know what sort of programming choices distinguished the Carnegie Hall Cinema from the Bleecker Street Cinema in the 1970s, this is the book for you. But it might also be the book for you if you ever fell in love with movies and had a favorite theater or two, whether in New York or any small city or college town, to nourish that love. When I moved to New York in 1978, I fell so hard for movies that Davis’s book (hereafter RMTNYC) reads more like a lost diary from my youth than the erudite, exhaustively researched study that it is. Accordingly, what follows is less a review of the book than of my life. How can I talk about the Thalia without mentioning the movie-mad debates I had with the girl I loved and my best friend on our way to and from the screenings there? At the time, we were all grad students at Columbia, but the real education we got was in the theaters and the streets. More… Singin’ in the Rain for the 68th Time”

I’m sitting next to a wall covered in photos of Umm Kulthoum. From behind her omnipresent sunglasses, she looks down sternly on the crowded teashop, sharing wall space with dozens of other notable personalities from the Middle East. Along the ceiling hang WWI-era rifles, dusty phonographs, and lank flags discolored by years of cigarette smoke. My new friend Omar orders us another round of Karak Chai and resumes his animated explanation of why the pop star Shakira is such a great dancer — he insists it’s because she was born in Bahrain; I learn later she was born in Colombia. While Omar speaks, all sweeping gestures and croaking voice, I take a sip of scalding tea and compose my face, trying not to betray the fact that my heart is lurching wildly, like a drunk trying to skip rope. I take another sip and tell myself it’s just the highly-caffeinated, sugary tea, and not the heart attack my anxiety disorder insists is imminent.

I’m on the island of Muharraq in the Kingdom of Bahrain to explore Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy, a site known colloquially as the Pearling Trail. Currently in the midst of construction, the serial heritage site will encompass a segment of the seafront, three offshore oyster beds, and 17 buildings connected by a three-and-a-half-kilometer pathway running through a historic neighborhood. The Trail is Bahrain’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site and will offer visitors a vision of the culmination of the 7,000-year Arabian Gulf pearling tradition. This summer, over and over again, I keep returning to walk this path with my notebook and water bottle in tow. “But it isn’t finished yet,” people tell me, worried I’ll be disappointed; but seeing it at this time, in the midst of its birth, when some parts are done and some parts are still old and crumbling, is exactly why I can’t stay away. After a year when my world was swallowed up by cataclysmic anxiety, this is supposed to be the summer that I change, too, and so I keep returning to be near something else that is being transformed. More… “Pearls of Wisdom & Fear”

There’s a scene in Uzumaki, Junji Ito’s much-lauded horror series, that I think best exemplifies his particular style. The overarching story involves a secluded village in Japan whose residents become obsessed with spirals and usually meet grotesque and destructive ends as a result. In the third chapter, a scar on a teen girl’s forehead turns into a spiral black hole of sorts, eventually consuming her entire body. A horrific reveal shows the spiral hole extending back into her head, her right eye sitting gruesomely on the edge of her face. Then, in a series of smaller panels, the eye starts to roll back towards the vanishing point in the back of her skull.

It is, obviously, pretty horrific. It’s also very, very funny: a rimshot as we literally stare into the abyss, acknowledging the absurdity of the image while underscoring the gore. More… “Death by Balloon”

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal, on October 16, 2017, a movement swept across social media: women posting “#metoo” to acknowledge the pervasive nature of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. The movement has maintained momentum, along with the “time’s up” movement, in which women are stepping forward to point the finger at famous men. Allegations of sexual misconduct — everything from unwanted touching to rape — have been bringing down powerful men, although the President of the United States has remained immune thus far. A fraught but necessary public discussion about the injustices suffered by women within the patriarchy appears to have finally reached critical mass.

Talking about this with a female friend, I had to admit that I was embarrassed and ashamed that it took me so long to question the assumptions of my patriarchal upbringing and its treatment of women. I do not write from outside this issue. I grew up in a conservative evangelical home, and I had long since abandoned the theology of my youth before it occurred to me that maybe I should question it — it was just so convenient not to, I suppose. I grew up learning two somewhat paradoxical notions about women. First, women wield an irresistible power over men. Second, women are weak and silly creatures who cannot be trusted to recognize the truth much less speak it and need to remain under the guidance and authority of men. More… “Not a Bad Man at All”

In late January of 2015, a tree stood wavering on the edge of Detroit’s burnt-out Grixdale neighborhood. A loud, old engine revved. A 100-foot rope tightened. A car strained forward. The tree followed, snapping and dropping into the overgrown yard of an abandoned house. A group of bearded men looked on from the front yard of a fire-ravaged structure across the street. Satisfaction and relief filled them as the final rays of sunlight scattered into the gray horizon. They had lost two ropes and a chainsaw in bringing down the tree, but they comforted themselves with the thought that the abandoned house and the surrounding telephone lines stood unharmed.

They were pretty far from Detroit’s refurbished downtown. Years ago, this neighborhood had succumbed to the rot brought on by the crack wars. Inhabitants fled, homes were torched, and the long blocks, once designed for cars, were left sparsely populated. In 2015, it remained largely abandoned. Sometimes, there were residual flare-ups of violence and theft. Some ways down the road, there remained a crack house. In this quiet, largely forgotten place, however, adjacent to the vistas of empty lots, under the canopy of old-growth trees, there was a new community growing. They lived amongst the neglected red brick houses and chose to call themselves Fireweed, after the pioneer plant species that takes over the landscape after a forest fire. More… “Why Does a Tree Fall in Detroit?”