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I play a girl.

I have ulterior motives, but I also like role-playing. These are role-playing games, I tell myself, and why not play the furthest role from what I am. What I am is a middle-aged man, thick with beard and tattoos, who never lost his love for video games, and I choose a girl. The smallest, most feminine model. Long red hair and eyes like the sky. I know what men want so I shape it in front of me on the screen, fit my design to their desire.

My desire — my ulterior motive, because I have two daughters entering an adult world they know nothing about — is to smash men in the mouth with my shield. I like the idea of this small, frail female avatar slicing them with steel. So I shield her with armor, with bracers and belt, gauntlets and greaves, until she is completely covered. Because I know, from my years walking around in a man’s skin, that the male players are thinking of putting their own swords inside her, at the moment just before she fucks them up. More… “The Princess is in Another Castle”

In his fictional account of Sir John Franklin’s Arctic exploits, the German novelist Sten Nadolny saddles his hero with a condition that explains his successes and subsequent death in the ice. Franklin’s staid, systematic approach, instead of being a handicap, in The Discovery of Slowness, sets him apart from the Industrial Revolution’s hurried masses and perfectly qualifies him for expedition planning. While that twist serves as literary conceit and civilization critique, it points to a vital truth: a deliberate pace can be beneficial where new worlds beckon and adversity rushes in. More… “The Art of Traveling Slowly”

My favorite moment when visiting any art museum is leaving it.

While I’d claim to enjoy viewing art, two to three hours strolling through most collections can give me museum fatigue. Stepping out on the street, however, I gawk astonished on the colors, forms, and composition of everyday objects. Traffic light, mini-skirt, trash can, movie poster, hubcap, a wad of gum: suddenly the world’s transformed, exposed. I feel like the kid with X-ray specs from the ad at the back of comic books. The luster and lineaments of ordinary artifacts take on giddy energy as if the hand of an estranging god were shaping a terrible beauty before my eyes. More… “On the Edge of Art and the Everyday”

When my twin daughters were infants, I would buckle them into their stroller and take long, meandering walks. As summer turned to fall and then winter, we visited bustling coffee shops, leafy avenues, and frozen waterfalls. When you are about to have a child (or children in my case), people who are trying to be helpful will say that it is going to change your life. That statement was always frustrating because of its perfect combination of obviousness and obliqueness. Of course, life was going to change dramatically, but how? I knew there was going to be more love, more fear of the future, and less sleep, but I hadn’t expected how much being a parent would bring up starker realizations and acknowledgment of how I myself was parented. As I walked, I thought about how I didn’t want my girls to feel abandoned or unwanted, how I wanted to actively nourish their humanness. On these walks, I was creating our own local patch, the physical and emotional space of their childhoods, imbued with old memories and newly-created ones. In both parenting and walking, I was practicing not knowing as a way of knowing, as a journey toward knowing.

These walks and many others happened in my often-frigid hometown in upstate New York. I have possibly-skewed ideas about what constitutes “appropriate walking weather” and am not deterred by icy sidewalks that need to be gingerly navigated bitterly cold wind, or the presence of damp rain-snow that seeps deep into your bones. I am like one of those large dogs who need to be heartily exercised or it will start gnawing the walls. Walking is the way I get most of my physical exercise, but perhaps more importantly, it is the way I work through things. While walking, I can access some of my deepest thinking and feeling; somehow the movement of my legs helps open the portal to understanding. As Rebecca Solnit describes in her brilliant history of walking, Wanderlust, “walking itself is the intentional act closest to the willed rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.” More… “Walking Myself Home”

Romantic comedies are not new to us. You know the story: boy meets girl, girl likes boy, romance ensues. Boy or girl leaves before realizing that they’ve made a big mistake and the two of them are destined to be together. Cut to a chase scene: they run towards one another at a wedding or in an airport before jumping into one another’s arms and living happily ever after.

Romantic comedies have been around since the 1930s, over the years, the focus and themes shifting from class differences to compatibility to sex and back again. Screwball comedies became popular during the Great Depression, parodying love and class differences through a battle of the sexes in films like It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story. The 1980s introduced romantic comedies with a focus on teenagers, with coming-of-age films like The Breakfast Club popularized by John Hughes. The 1990s and 2000s saw an abundance of rom-coms like Pretty Woman and Legally Blonde with staple stars such as Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon.

Over the past decade, though, romantic comedies have become less and less popular, with tickets sales dropping from 90 million from 2000 to 2008 to 42.8 million from 2009 to 2016 according to Vanity Fair. That is until 2018 revisited and revived the genre both in theaters and on Netflix with films like Crazy Rich Asians, The Kissing Booth, and Set It Up. More… “Pulling Out the Pedestal”

Salat al-Maghrib has just begun and the courtyard in front of the mosque is full of men performing their ablutions at the communal fountain. Beneath them, a mottled shadow of wetness gathers on the pavement like a cloud. A curbside censer burning oud on the street corner billows smoke into the faces of passersby. The worst of the day’s heat has finally relented and Bahrain’s Manama souq is filling with throngs of slow-moving people, honking cars, and swerving bicycles. Walking by a coffee shop whose crowded benches overflow onto the sidewalk, I hear conversations in Arabic, Malayalam, and Farsi, the languages blending into an aural fog of lilting consonants and cascading vowels. Advertisements on nearby shop windows join the multilingual chorus, listing wares in Arabic, Urdu, English, and Tagalog. To paraphrase writer Inez Baranay, in a transcultural space like the souq, no one — not even the shop windows — is monolingual.

Bahrain, a tiny archipelago scattered off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, has been an influential entrepôt for millennia. From dhows anchored off shore in the Arabian Gulf, peoples and cultures and languages met and mingled, creating a legacy of diversity still exemplified in the modern souq. This dense urban landscape is a vivid tapestry of transcultural existence, with Iraqi ice cream parlors, Indian restaurants, Bangladeshi spice dealers, Syrian oud sellers, Bahraini antiques merchants, and Pakistani tailors. As a person who has spent my life navigating the nebulous borderlands between cultures, I find myself experiencing a profound sense of respite here and so I’ve been coming to the souq, one of my favorite places since childhood, almost every day, to meet friends, to shop, and to tentatively, falteringly, practice my Arabic. More… “Living on the Margins”

“The medium is the message.”
—Marshall McLuhan

1. Nimoy (5:50 a.m.)

It’s a cloudy August morning just after sunrise, and my family and I are speeding about a hundred miles west of London in our rental car, bisecting the Salisbury Plain on the A303. Giant figures the color and heft of elephants appear on a treeless green hill, and an instant snaps before I recognize what they are. “Stonehenge! Hey, is that Stonehenge?” my son asks, my partner swerves as he takes a look, and I answer with a choked up, “Yes!” Latent emotions flood my system with embarrassing force, like I’ve run into a love-defining first crush.

The big stones are gathered in a circle as if around a watering hole, a campfire, some leaning into each other, others toppled over like they’ve had a few too many. I’m seeing them for the first time in person, and their jagged outline seems both familiar as my own hands and mildly hallucinated, as if the site had appeared from a distant universe made suddenly material — a fragment of a 5,000-year-old world.

Who built Stonehenge, how did they do it, and why? As a kid, I’d adored Stonehenge for these unsolved mysteries that had cleverly perplexed adults for so long, as if it were a benevolent entity visiting us continuously from the deep human past, wishing we could understand its heavyweight, three-dimensional language. I’d absorbed as revolutionary fact the beloved shlock 1970s TV documentary show, In Search of . . . the Mystery of Stonehenge, in which host Leonard Nimoy reported that the site was built as a mystical astronomical clock, whose time we could now tell using the most cutting-edge, van-sized computers (the results, I’m sorry to note, were a little off — but more on that later). More… “Setting Stonehenge”

As every cinephile knows, we go to the movies for all kinds of reasons, but escapism is probably the most common. We gather in darkened rooms to see an enhanced version of life where the people onscreen are better-looking, wittier, braver, more dynamic, and generally livelier than we are in real life. Movies give us a sense of what our lives might be like if only we were different people. Love stories epitomize this idealization as no other genre does because while some people might fantasize about being a soldier, a detective, or an uncatchable criminal mastermind, I think the Blues Brothers had it right: at one time or another, everybody needs somebody to love.

This is where the typical love story tropes tend to build up our expectations only to end up letting us down. No matter how much we might wish otherwise, let’s be real — not everybody finds somebody in the end. Maybe this is why stories about love lost are a lot more relatable than those about love found. However many times you’ve seen Casablanca, you still hope against hope that this time Rick won’t let Ilsa get on that plane and fly off into the rain with her husband, Nazi resistance be damned. It might not have worked out for those two in the end, but at least they were together for a little while and besides, they’ll always have Paris. More… “A Brief Escape”

Oron Catts’s most recent exhibition, Biomess, features a unique work of art. It’s a deconstructed incubator, inside of which live hybridoma cells — cells from distinct organisms that have been fused together by Catts and his longtime collaborator Ionat Zurr. The cells come from two different mice and, once fused, can only exist within the confines of the incubator. Outside, they will die. If Catts’s exhibit is reminiscent of Frankenstein, it’s no accident: Biomess was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel. It is also only the latest instance in which Catts, an artist and researcher who works predominantly with tissue engineering as his medium, has forced uncomfortable questions about biology, technology, and the intersection of the two. I spoke with Catts about the challenges of tissue engineering, the false promises of ventures looking to commercialize lab-grown meat and leather, and how so much of this has to do with Silicon Valley’s unwillingness to come to terms with mortality. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

More… “In Vitro Impossible”

Paris was once all it was to be modern, urbane, sophisticated: a gilded temple at once to Enlightenment rationalism and ancien régime splendor. The American in Paris, now a cliché so well-worn that it may actually be coming back around to being counter-hegemonic, became so because it was where the leaders and intellects of that ideal-based nation came to imbibe the ideas that made it possible. Whole generations of American leaders, political, academic and otherwise, regarded the stay in Paris as an essential stepping stone to a well-rounded, mature outlook on the world. This being a time when the other great imperial capital, London, was still stuffy, choked with coal exhaust and deeply provincial despite its centrality to contemporary global order. Perhaps it is that same search for cosmopolitan virtue that still drives the droves of us, the Erasmus kids hastily spending bureaucrat stipends on wine and metro tickets, the Iranian post-docs gazing at stars in newly-built astronomy labs, to here, year after year. In spite of the ever-greater ticking of rent prices and the fact that the Champs-Élysées is now roughly 75% luxury chain stores and two-story McDonald’s franchises, Paris retains a mystique that resists disillusion down to its very essence.

If, indeed, all of Western modernity can be traced to the French Revolution, perhaps it is no coincidence that we who live in its shadow seek to draw something from the paving stones that flew through windows to make it so. Perhaps simply to make sense from gazing at the Nokia-signage-abutted Bastille monument how it could have come to pass, or perhaps more grandly to take on some of that brilliant foresight for ourselves. Those Americans may have felt that their nation was, at the end of the day, the superior one, but they felt a certain tutelage in liberté (if not égalité, nor fraternité) could only be undertaken in the space where it had, in their mind, bloomed the brightest. More… “The Paris Myth”