emerald state of mind

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: My right eye is dry and I am going to be thirty. Both of these things are extremely upsetting.

I just got back from Seattle, a city that smells like lavender and seems singularly engineered to lure people like me — people who own entirely too much flannel for their demographic — into early retirement.

Picture it: The year is 1994. I am a four-year-old obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. I want to be Dorothy so bad, I can’t walk past a fireplace without curtsying. This explains my love of gingham. But whenever people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I say, “a teenager.”

Teenagers in 1994 wear flannel.

I guess I’ve achieved that dream. Twice over, in fact (blech!). But here’s the kicker: I had heard about this place on the west coast called The Emerald City that was, like, a living museum of 90s nostalgia, and I knew I had to go. Weeks shy of my 30th birthday, I did, and I am gratified to now report that it was exactly that. But it was a lot of other things, too. I mean, sure, it wasn’t long before I’d found a carnie-themed bar that only played Hole, but I also found a coffee shop that only played Patti Smith B-sides, a technical bookshop with a regular karaoke crowd, a mall that only sold vintage items, a really chill version of Punderdome that didn’t go on for three hours, a smoked fish pastry shaped like a fish, nature, and the single biggest unisex bathroom I have ever seen.

Capitol Hill, the most 90s neighborhood in the most 90s city, where I found zines and live music.

Capitol Hill, the most 90s neighborhood in the most 90s city, where I found zines and live music.

Nothing says “grunge” like picnicking on the site of a decommissioned gasification plant.

Nothing says “grunge” like picnicking on the site of a decommissioned gasification plant.

This fish from Piroshky Piroshky was full of fish.

This fish from Piroshky Piroshky was full of fish.

I bought two zines at the Elliott Bay Book Company: Louise Leong’s Hardened by Retail and Kelly Froh’s Senior Time. Both are very good.

I bought a crop top. But it’s a long crop top. I can wear it with high-waisted jeans without anyone ever knowing that it’s a crop top. I win.

I did not buy this at Fremont Vintage Mall. Instead, a bought a laminated pin commemorating a Jerry Lewis telethon.

I did not buy this at Fremont Vintage Mall. Instead, a bought a laminated pin commemorating a Jerry Lewis telethon.

There’s so much to love about Seattle. At the same time, I also encountered the sort of weirdness that happens when a critical mass of white people don’t hear the words “you’re wrong” often enough. I’m talking about flyers advertising clubs against “PC culture,” xenophobic resentment toward tech workers, sexism masked as edgy iconoclasm (just give The Stranger to Lindy West already), etc etc. I guess I shouldn’t generalize after having only been there six days, but it did make me wonder if I wasn’t maybe fetishizing the city so much that I began to lose sight of its flaws. Then again, you have these kinds of dipshits in NYC too. For that matter, you have every kind of dipshit in NYC. They’re just easier to ignore. It seems unfair to judge a city by a few unsavory encounters, just as it’s unfair to judge NYC by a few dead rats and a presidential candidate.

The tables at Ada’s Technical Books are full of retro tech and the Sunday night customers have the voices of angels.

The tables at Ada’s Technical Books are full of retro tech and the Sunday night customers have the voices of angels.

Did I mention I watched “About a Son”? I think he had ulcerative colitis. I will take this to reddit if I have to. The thing is, romanticizing a famous person’s pain serves no one; it’s so much better to demystify the pain. Because pain is bad and nobody needs it.

I’m not sure “would Seattle make me happy” is even the correct question. The question I am really asking is, would being part of Gen X have made me happy?

Probably not.

Millennials are the ones who brought Winona back after men in every other generation treated her shittily. Millennials! Why us? Why are we the only nice people? It’s the mystery that will baffle historians in 30 years, if we still have historians by then.

Remember that scene in “San Junipero” where Kelly goes back to 2002, her favorite place to spend time alone? And how Yorkie’s reaction to her soulmate’s unspeakably awful taste is shock and disbelief?

Yorkie was right.

I don’t know why we grew up in a vast cultural wasteland. Maybe 9/11 had something to do with it. Maybe we were all experiencing a collective depression. I don’t know. For sure, though, I think it’s why we’re all so hopelessly nostalgic for eras we weren’t alive to experience. We spent our formative years yearning for substance and meaning, and all we got was the CW. There were no endearing coming-of-age stories, ever, anywhere, so people just wrote Harry Potter fanfic until YouTube came around and they got to finally watch movies and shows meant for other generations. It was a very strange, very uncomfortable way to grow up, where everything good seemed to have just missed us.

So yeah, for the most part, I loved Seattle. It felt a bit like walking through somebody else’s memories.


Public pressure counts.

It’s what got rid of Bannon; it’s what got my friend’s ex’s dad out of airport limbo during the Muslim ban. Visibly supporting AOC helps. Calling and donating helps. READING HELPS! Reading helps so much. It prepares you to engage with people who might genuinely not know that children are being kept in dog cages at the border, sexually abused by guards, and starved/subjected to freezing cold temperatures on purpose, among other things.

Reading and talking to your own (for me, that means following my awesome Rabbi’s lead and schooling conservative Jewish orgs on Facebook when they try to represent us) helps. NONE OF THIS IS INSURMOUNTABLE! It’s just going to take a lot of people working together.

We have to stop this disgrace that’s happening in our name. We have to close the detention centers and #AbolishICE. Until then, we watch them. We don’t look away.

So the thing about going to a magnet school is

My sophomore year AP Euro teacher thought she was being helpful when she offered me and Alyssa* to the class as an example of “two good writers.”

“Marianna is a good writer,” she said to our cohort. “Alyssa is a good ORGANIZED writer.”

It fucked me up for more than a decade.

Neither me nor Alyssa wanted that kind of attention. We were both shy girls. We were also pretty good friends, which surprised some people. Here’s the thing: Alyssa was a brain-explodingly beautiful, Ivy League-bound professional ballerina who owned a jewelry business on the side. I was just me, truckin’ along. I’d never claimed to be anything else.

Alyssa wasn’t to blame; she was as embarrassed by the attention as I was. In fact, I think she liked me in part because I was too concerned with my own ongoing saga to pay much attention to her. It was the year I discovered Atwood. I had a lot going on.

One day, I ran into Alyssa in the library. She was working on a science project with her friend, to whom she introduced me as “the quiet underdog.”

It felt like she’d stabbed me all over my body with one of her metallurgy tools. I was a 16-year-old girl, and the only part I heard was “dog.”

What I said back to her was patently nuts.


It was all I could say. But it also, weirdly, betrayed my defended ego. To my teenage mind, me being the underdog was not a foregone conclusion. And I love that. I absolutely love that I had that kind of ego at that age — that in spite of everything, my healthy self-image saved me from other people’s projections. (Thanks, Mom!)

All my life, teachers and editors have kept trying to give me their old copies of “Bird by Bird.” They’re generally pretty nice to me once they find out I’m smart. I can’t blame them for not clocking it sooner: To outsiders, I very visibly struggle with self-esteem and disorganization, especially when I’m writing to be read. I’m way more confident in the advertising world, where I’m writing to answer a specific ask that has nothing to do with me. I’m not bragging when I say that it takes me about three seconds to write branded content. The flipside is that it’s taken me seven years to write the title story of my short fiction collection. I refuse to be hurt by that fact.

I owe it to myself and my ideas to get organized, but I can’t lie: It hurts. It hurts and hurts and hurts.

By the time I entered college, I had already learned the lesson I would keep learning for years, and which I’ll probably keep learning it for the rest of my life: Revision is the only way to end the pain. Finishing a thought makes you well. Beyond that act, the performance you bring to the page may reach others, but only if they want it to, and only if you dare to convey your thoughts clearly. That kind of clarity can be scary for some, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to be seen. It’s worth it to give others that moment of recognition that can only be found in a piece of art.

Fuck discipline for discipline’s sake. That sort of thing only works if you’re an egotist. For the rest of us, contact is enough.

*Name changed because I have no idea who reads this thing.

so random

Art is meaning plus craft. It can’t just be one or the other. Meaning is what you need to say; craft makes meaning legible.

Craft is prosocial. Craft is selfless. Craft isn’t ego; craft is what you do to make contact.

Junior year HS was a weird one. My English teacher threw a book at my head. (He was reciting Lady Macbeth’s monologue at the time, but still. Not okay.) His fear tactics made my writing better by a certain rubric: The Carverian school of minimalism. Don’t get me wrong — I like Carver and love Lydia Davis. They do things I wish I could do. But it never occurred to me, at 16, that I was allowed to aspire to sound like myself. Besides my terror of bad grades, I was also painfully ashamed of my too-muchness (ah, how grand to be a teenage girl in 2006) and thought that “writing well” was supposed to feel like being strangled by a corset made of razorblades.

I didn’t stop to ask if “lean” was all I wanted to be. It wasn’t about finding my voice, but not even realizing my voice mattered enough to find. (Fun fact: My common app essay was about learning to dial back my “windswept prose.” The first drafts were overwritten AF.)

I met Annie* during my sophomore year of college. Annie is, to this day, one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. She did humanitarian work — the real, helpful, respectful kind — and she was a great writer. She was also compulsively verbose. We were assigned to edit each other’s work by a professor who happened to be a retired war correspondent. Even then, I had an inkling as to why. We both knew something about trauma.

I could have been a dick. I could have assumed bad faith, punished her for showing off, poked holes with my sanctimonious red pen. Instead, I just asked her what she was trying to say. I didn’t flatter myself with lies about how I was the savvy, disciplined one, with my hard little sentences and batshit Napoleonic rage. I just figured that since we both wanted to write, we both wanted to communicate something.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between elitism and trauma. When you don’t want people to know what you’re talking about, including yourself, you may start to speak in ciphers. I did, and it pissed people off. They thought I was trying to show off. I was trying to hide.

I think I would have loved words even if I hadn’t used them to push people away, but I won’t pretend my trauma didn’t complicate the act of writing for me. My nickname in elementary school was “Walking Dictionary.” A sort of backhanded compliment: I was good for something, sometimes, as long as I stayed in my lane.

I worked so hard to shear myself of “bad” writing habits in my late teens and 20s. In the process, I may have gone a bit too far. Now, as an adult, my project is managing that fear of showing off. I don’t really plan to become a maximalist, but want to give myself license to look fancy every now and then. My allergy to being seen as an elitist tryhard is more of an internalized misogyny thing than an America Fuck Yeah! thing. I’m American because I resist authority and spit on Confederate statues, not because I stopped using five dollar words.

Anyway… These days, I try not to judge my feelings. I try to journal when I know I won’t have time to craft. Journaling is brave because it’s a declaration of self worth, a way of establishing that your thoughts and feelings have dignity and deserve a fitting place to rest. Even if they’re a little gross and sleepy-looking. Later, you can decide which of those thoughts are worth crafting into something you want to be seen.

*Name changed because I’m considerate like that.

On repairing the world

Gender only exists when we make it exist. But in so many aspects of our lives, it blatantly exists — especially if you grew up in a place where it was unexceptional, where it permeated everything like radon.

Let’s start here: If you do bad things while thinking, “I am an evil supervillain,” chances are, you’re probably just nuts. That’s not to say you didn’t abuse someone. It’s only to say you’re not a cartoon.

The prosaic answer is usually the right answer.

Something that has been weighing on my mind lately is the difference between how male and female anxiety disorders are treated. One of the weird benefits of being tarred as the hysterical gender is that you’re more likely to think, “I need to talk this out. I need to try CBT.” But if you’re raised in a sexist time warp and trained to believe you should be stoic at all times, you’re going to think you’re alone, that you are the problem. When you’re taught that it’s better to be a monster than a “weakling,” you’ll go to any lengths to become the monster.

Having pain doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.

Comprehending your own pain doesn’t make you self-indulgent. It makes you responsible. And when you heal, you’re not just healing for your own sake. You’re healing for everyone you would otherwise hurt. It is far less responsible to throw up your hands and accept that you’re a scourge. No. The only way to learn how to control your patterns is to get a professional to help you identify and control them.

I’m really glad that no one reads this blog. I’m not writing this to help anyone. I’m writing it because it’s the truth.

Tuesday roundup

I’m going to pretend this is a thing. I just made it a thing.

Every other Tuesday When I can, I am going to publish my very own Best of the Internet roundup. Why? Because I can. The internet is a democracy—that’s why there’s so much Russian propaganda on it.

Here are my things.

Vox: Ezra Klein & Anil Dash in conversation
They talk about so many different ethical quandaries facing tech giants today that it feels like an understatement to call out just one or two. Worth a listen just for the discussion of Free Basics and colonialist arrogance.

Kristen Roupenian’s “The Good Guy”
That’s her NAME! Start using it! Anyway, I love Roupenian’s writing. I’m dying to preorder her book in meatspace (pulpspace?). Ted’s combination of narcissism and self-hatred make him dangerous to the women he dates, but Roupenian lets us see how he got that way. His narcissism makes sense. But unlike women in his situation, he refuses to “settle,” or to try to like someone who likes him back. Instead, he gets wrathful. I love this story so much.

Tony Tulathimutte on Kristen Roupenian
If Tulathimutte wrote the first great millennial novel, Roupenian wrote the first great millennial short story. It will be interesting to find out what that means. Anyway, I love how he describes the central conceit of these stories: “Although You Know You Want This may be timely in its occasional adjacency to #MeToo, its real canniness comes from apprehending the psychology not only of power, but of power-hunger as, itself, a form of weakness: how people harbor an impulse toward sadistic narcissism, and how little it takes for them to succumb to it." I also love that he basically identifies a new millennial literary phenomenon of Exploring The Problem of Shitty Men. What a wild age.

rereading janis

On this day in 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead in Room 105 at the Landmark Motor Hotel. The room remains virtually untouched except for the messages patrons leave for her in the closet. They range from the simple and direct (“RIP Janis”) to the somewhat gauche (“Try just a little bit harder”). And then, of course, there are the longer ones — the love letters.

Those are the ones she’d like the best, I think. Janis loved to read. We don’t talk about this. We don’t think of her as a lyricist, even though she wrote many of the songs she sang with Big Brother and the Holding Company and after the band’s breakup. She’s not a literary kind of musical artist.

But maybe she could have been.

Until I read Alice Echols’s “Scars of Sweet Paradise,” I had no idea Janis was someone like me. The book is as much a history of sexual politics in the 60s as it is a biography, and the parts I found most interesting were those that exposed the worst treatment Janis received at the hands of classmates and even — or especially — men in her music scene. One guy kicked her under a table. Shortly after her death, an obscure music writer disparaged her for having acne.

She wasn’t just an icon (although she was very much that). She was shy and sensitive, and had no illusions about her debt to black musical artists like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin.

She was a voracious and sophisticated reader with a soft spot for the Fitzgeralds. Especially Zelda. It’s impossible not to think of Amy Winehouse rhapsodizing about the Ronettes when she talks about how great Zelda is:

I always did have a very heavy attachment for the whole Fitzgerald thing, that all out, Full Tilt, Hell Bent Way of Living (sic), and she and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the epitome of that whole trip, right? When I was young I read all of his books; I’ve reread them all: autobiographies, The Crack-Up, all the little scribblings … and she was always a mythic person in his life, you also have the feeling that he destroyed her. You always get the feeling that she was willing to go with him through anything and that he ruined her. But in the book you find out that she was just as ambitious as he was, and that they sort of destroyed each other. He wrote her a letter one time in which he says, “People say we destroy each other, but I never felt we destroyed each other, I felt we destroyed ourselves.”

Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of things you are into are in that 20’s and 30’s type of thing.

I’m an anachronism, that’s what it is.

5/31/19 HINDSIGHT ADDENDUM: Intimate partner violence is never mutual. I’m leaving this up as a reminder to myself to stop promoting the trope of the self-destructive female genius. It’s horrifying to me that I didn’t frame it in terms of the question I was afraid to ask until very recently: What is responsible for this destruction?

Winehouse prostrated herself to a ghoulish monstrosity. Joplin sought comfort, validation, and friendship from rock & roll, but found herself without the inner resources to tell a Cavett from a cultist.

Feminism understands that individual men are not the problem; our collective hallucinatory worship of men is the problem. It’s a problem because it is the air we breathe; it is everything we know; it imbues our thoughts and desires; and it convinces gifted women like these that they deserve to be destroyed.

The thing about writing about hard things

So we’ve all read Ira Glass on good taste and shitty work. That’s done. We’re all on the same page. We all understand that we have to wince our way through for a while (well, most of us, anyway — the normals).

But when you’re writing about heavy shit, that gets much, much harder.

This is what I’ve learned to tell myself: even if I fail, the hyperlinks will deliver people to the right Eric K. Ward essay. It’s not a wasted effort. I won’t make things worse. Yes, the stakes are high, but that’s why we need everyone — LITERALLY EVERYONE — making a contribution.

This Passover

This Passover, I am choosing my values over my fear.

I just learned about this movement of Jews holding a place for Palestine at the Passover table. It's such a small gesture, but the reminder is needed: As we read the Haggadah, let's not forget that we're not truly free until everybody is.

I also recently read April Rosenblum's pamphlet on discussing/interrogating/expunging anti-semitism on the Left. It's good reading for anyone who wants to be effective in the very fraught work of fighting for themselves and others.

faves of fall

Okay, I want to make a book post. (Blame the Brooklyn Book Festival. Jenny Zhang signed my copy of Sour Heart and I am still high.)

These are my favorite recent reads. They seem to have nothing in common, but really, they're all about abusers. (Maybe I'm subconsciously trying to figure out what to do about our whole political situation? Funny how these things come up.)

Anyway, here are three mini-reviews of three books that I should have read much sooner.

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
When you find a mooring in history, it can save you. It can show you that the things you've felt have been felt throughout history, that your pain is not unique. You belong to a fraternity of misery. (That might make some people feel shitty. I find it bolstering.) Art surfaces those stories so we can find the anchor in them. That's what Edinburgh does, through Korean folklore, medieval Scottish history and Italian opera. And if the incredible span of history and geography it covers isn't enough for you, it also happens to be beautifully written.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
I'm getting to that age where I know why people do some of the unsavory things they do, and I try to have a generous outlook. Here Comes the Sun accomplishes the feat of showing the tragedy beneath the tragedy — the fallout of imperialism, the generational poverty, systemic racism and misogyny that can tear a family apart at the seams, despite their best efforts to stop it. It does it all so well, the reader feels the inevitability of Margot's ruin even as they hope against it.

Personal Days by Ed Park
So fucking delicious. The Jilliad? Grime? Come on. I fell so hard for this ensemble of characters. I saw myself in every one of them. I saw you in them, too. I saw every disgruntled office worker in America. Reading it made me a more empathetic person. I recognized my own fears and doubts and claustrophobic flailing. Anyone who's worked in an office will identify with the uncanny quality of the stories in this book. If you've ever felt like your life was just one big arbitrarily humiliating conspiracy, you'll love the ending. (Maybe "love" is not the word. You'll feel a kinship.)

re: fascist dweebery

"Just after the Civil War, some former Confederate officers, fearing the vote given to African Americans by the Radical Reconstructionists in 1867, set up a militia to restore an overturned social order. The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in its founders' eyes, no longer defended their community's legitimate interests. In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group's destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe. It is arguable, at least, that fascism (understood functionally) was born in the late 1860s in the American South." —Robert O. Paxton, The Five Stages of Fascism

Try this simple trick

Here's a simple trick for banning propagandists from college campuses:

Explain cyberstalking to baby boomers.

University chancellors don’t know what it is. They’re 60-year-old men who think they’re the ACLU. Times have changed. They don’t understand ambient abuse, and they’ve bought into the myth of the millennial snowflake.

Just as millennials need to know their history, Simon & Schuster editors need to know how tweets work.

I’ve fallen into the trap of “I can’t with you!” too quickly, forgetting the most important lesson of the 21st century: adults don’t know what the internet is.

And they're forgetting the other most important lesson of the 21st century: that behind every mob, there’s a yelly guy barfing lies.

A starter packet:
Two cases of Twitter abuse highlight the obscure nature of suspensions
Trans student harassed by Milo Yiannopoulos speaks out
Leslie Jones’ Twitter abuse is a deliberate campaign of hate
Why women aren’t welcome on the internet
Psychology Today: The fastest growing crime