Hazlitt Magazine

Miss Cat-geniality

Cats, like reality show stars, aren’t here to make friends. A pageant cannot undo their primal tendencies.

Lady Dynamite Owns Its Afflictions

Going a step further than the recent wave of TV featuring nuanced portrayals of mental illness, Maria Bamford’s new Netflix show takes control of the story rather than settli…

It's Okay To Suck

The case for doing things you’re terrible at. 

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‘I Don’t Know Why This City Sees Fit to Kill Its Women’: An Interview with Sam Wiebe

The author of Invisible Dead on why writing about Vancouver is liberating and the psychic cost of the truth. 

Sam Wiebe’s Invisible Dead is tagged with many of the adjectives you’d associate with a new urban private-detective story: noir, gritty, hard-boiled—and the book deserves them all. But it also accomplishes what Richard Price’s novels and David Simon’s television shows do: it presents a city as it is, with the kind of detail and depth that become possible when you follow a crime through many urban layers of class, race, and society.Price’s Lush Life built a precise portrait of Bloomberg’s gentrifying New York out of a mugging–gone-wrong that leaves a cocky bartender dead outside the upscale and projects-adjacent restaurant where he works. Wiebe’s city portrait touches on gentrification, but the crime at the center of Invisible Dead is grimmer, less accidental, and speaks of a social toxicity that goes deeper than economics.In this case, the city is Vancouver, and the crime is the unexplained disappearance of Chelsea Loam, a First Nations woman who works in the sex trade. Dave Wakeland, 29-year-old ex-cop and current partner in a detective agency that allows him to spend time on his own cases in exchange for his assistance in corporate bodyguard and security commissions, pursues the vanished woman through his own past and into Vancouver’s worst places and moments.Sam Wiebe has deep Vancouver roots, and has been writing and teaching college in and around the city for years. He took the Kobo Emerging Writers prize for his first, standalone mystery, Last of the Independents, generating interest in this, his first series character, before he’d completed his final draft. Wiebe starts his new book with a phrase that combines despair and a disclaimer: “I don’t know why this city sees fit to kill its women. Answers won’t be forthcoming.”Naben Ruthnum: You're writing about a vanished First Nations sex worker in a Vancouver setting, which sets off a lot of associations all at once: you’re in the territory of real, distressing, recent and ongoing crimes. Did you consider shifting locations? Or having your disappeared victim character have a less charged identity?Sam Wiebe: I never considered moving the story from Vancouver—I think it had to be set here. Likewise, it had to deal with First Nations and our colonial legacy.I started writing the book during the Oppal Commission hearings [The 2010–2012 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, led by former BC Supreme Court Judge Wally Oppal, called the police investigations into the disappearances of Downtown Eastside women during serial killer Robert Pickton’s years of murder “blatant failures” with “recurring patterns of error”] and everyone I interviewed, from sex trade workers to prison guards, said the real story wasn't coming out—that there was a narrative being formed of, "Well, it took us a while, and the system sure isn't perfect, but in the end we caught our man."So it was important to me to start with the assertion that we don't know. That not only do we not know the answers, we haven't even started asking the right questions.You're writing about different kinds of poor people and people who got wealthy in different ways. We meet both biker-gang and real estate millionaires in these pages. I guess this type of class and wealth mix just happens when you're writing about modern adults, but did you have a particularly Vancouver-specific lens on class that you were working with here? Vancouver is in upheaval right now due to the real estate crisis—though really there are real estate crises. The housing shortage for young educated professionals in their 20s and 30s isn't the same as what affects homeless or low income people.So that shapes my depiction of the city. The neighborhood where I grew up, where my grandparents bought their home, now every house has been subdivided into suites, and there're a lot fewer families. Parts of the city, like False Creek, are unrecognizable.It's no surprise to me to learn that you have generational roots in Vancouver, because there’s a depth to your depiction that is pretty rare in books about the city. I lived there for years and end up explaining to people out east that the West Coast student life or tech-guy angle that represents Vancouver on the internet isn't nearly the whole story, nor is what they read about real estate or crime out there. One thing that I think Vancouver has, in a big way, is an expertise in looking-away, particularly in the Downtown Eastside. "An expertise in looking away" is an excellent way of putting it. Vancouver has some of the most diligent social workers and volunteers in the world, but there's a precariousness to their work because of that looking away—the Insite facility [a safe-injection site in the Downtown Eastside] always seems one political shift away from being shut down.There are very complicated ways that business, addiction, the sex trade and colonialism [in Vancouver] intersect, and I'm not the best person to speak to that. But I think it starts with education. As a product of the BC school system, I didn't learn anything about indigenous cultures until third year of college. So if that ignorance holds true for others, what else are we ignorant of?This book is so crammed with real Vancouver locations that I had to wonder why you changed names of venues when you did. Why, for example, is the Cambie the Cambridge in here, when bars and restaurants such as Malone's and Peckinpah's go by their real names?I changed venue names when the venue was used in the story for criminal or disreputable activity, or insinuated to be owned by a criminal organization. Basically I didn't want to get sued.The point in the novel when your detective, Dave Wakeland, buys a gun gave me pause. Is it really this easy to buy a handgun in BC? Buying a gun is pretty straightforward once you have your PAL [firearms license]. For a pistol you need to wait for an ATT [authorization to transport], which can be approved in twenty minutes or a couple weeks depending on how busy the office is. Getting a license in Canada is difficult, but buying a gun is easy.You have Dave Wakeland observe that William Gibson gave us a more realistic depiction of Vancouver with the "Japanese sprawls" in his early novels than any other author did. I couldn't help seeing this observation as a challenge to yourself: what kind of justice did you want to do to the city?What makes Vancouver so fascinating is that its future is so uncertain. We're a colonial outpost on unceded First Nations territory with one of the largest Asian populations in North America. It can be hard to wrap your head around it, but it's also very liberating for a writer.My favorite Gibson story, by the way, is "Winter Market," one of the few things he wrote set in Vancouver. He really captures the feeling of being overloaded by culture and technology.I caught some of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep in Wakeland's initial meeting with the vanished Chelsea Loam's mother, his client. Wakeland's knight-errant ethos is reminiscent of John D. MacDonald’s series character Travis McGee. And your prose here and there, as well as some of Wakeland’s morning routines, reminded me of the books featuring Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke's detective. Of course, it's no coincidence that those are the detectives I've been reading the most of in the past little while. Who are the series characters that you took a cue from?I haven't read as much of Burke's work as I should. Peggy Blair recently told me I have to read him, so he's on my TBR pile. Right now I'm a big fan of Peter Temple's Jack Irish series, the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French, and Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen series—my students loved his novels set in Shanghai.What do you want to resist in your writing, as you continue the Wakeland series? Are there pitfalls, traps, that series detective writers face?So many series characters are author wish fulfillment. I think that's something I wanted to avoid. Dave isn't invincible and he's not always right. He definitely doesn't have a big tough crazy best friend to bail him out of situations.I've been rereading Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels, and what I like about them is that they're less about resolution than revelation. Archer loses more fistfights and gun battles than he wins, and if he's heroic it's because he's willing to pay the psychic cost to get to the truth. I think that's a better definition of heroism than just making someone the toughest and strongest and the best at violence.
Lady Dynamite Owns Its Afflictions

Going a step further than the recent wave of TV featuring nuanced portrayals of mental illness, Maria Bamford’s new Netflix show takes control of the story rather than settling for mere visibility.

Sometimes, I fall into a hole. Not a literal hole, in the soil, but in my head; not only in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, though it does happen then, too. I will think about one negative thing—it might have to do with something going on in my life, or it might have nothing to do with me at all. Then I’ll think about another negative thing, usually somehow related to the first one, but maybe not. The pattern continues, piling up on top of me, higher and higher. I can usually identify the pattern once it begins, but am powerless to stop it. I have no choice but to sit back and let my mind do its thing until it exhausts itself—until I’m crushed under its weight inside this hole of my own making, buried beneath steadily accumulating and overwhelming dread. And then I think about all of it at once—the things that have an impact on me, the things I can change and the things I can’t, the things completely outside of me—and I want nothing more than for it to stop, for good. This hole can open up at any point in the day, regardless of what I’m doing. I am always at its edge, I have been for as long as I can remember, and it’s my responsibility to keep filling it back up. So far, that is what I’ve done.I’m not saying this is the same experience Maria Bamford has with her mental illness, which is different from my own. What I’m saying is that Maria Bamford helps me find the soil I need to fill in the hole when everything around me has given way. Or, to dispense with the metaphor, she helps me find reasons to do so, to talk about it, to understand it and find ways of living with and enduring it—my illness, I mean. She has always, with frankness and honesty, done this in her comedy. But with her new Netflix series, Lady Dynamite (co-created by Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz), she gives us a clearer and more powerful claim over her own story, and her illness. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.[[{"fid":"6696101","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Lady Dynamite – Pugs Not Drugs – Netflix","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Bamford plays a fictionalized version of herself, a comedian trying to figure out her career and dealing with her bipolar disorder. We routinely check in on her in the present, trying to rebuild her career; on her recent past when she was institutionalized and in recovery for her mental illness; and to the further past when she was barreling toward a breakdown. Each episode ends with a choir singing, “I don’t know what I’m doing more than half of the time.” But Bamford is in complete control. You know the old adage about using laughter to cure disease and misfortune? Bamford knows it isn’t that easy. Disease is ugly. And you can find humour within that ugliness. At one point, her character, also named Maria Bamford (the series is extremely meta and often breaks the fourth wall), steals jokes from another comic for a comedy show for kids because she’s told her own comedy is not funny or appropriate. The stolen jokes kill, but she stops. It’s not right. She needs to be true to herself, risk failure, and do her own material, no matter what the kids think.“Is anyone thinking of suicide?” she asks. “Don’t do it, it’s not the season for it.“Late fall,” she instructs, knowingly.No one laughs. Well, I did.Lady Dynamite chooses to avoid drowning in darkness, creating a uniquely uncomfortable space for both its characters and its audience—one that is more familiar for those of us with mental illnesses, where ugliness and absurdity have no choice but to coexist.Lady Dynamite is the latest in a recent run of TV comedies that confront mental illness with rare nuance and gravity. Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, especially in its second season, has dealt with Kimmy’s (Ellie Kemper) post-traumatic stress disorder after fifteen years as the hostage of a doomsday cult. In the second season of FXX’s You’re the Worst, Gretchen (Aya Cash) was revealed to be suffering from clinical depression, and the entire season examined the effect such conditions can have on modern relationships. One of the most honest and brutal portrayals of depression of late arrived with Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, a raunchy animated series about a sad-sack former star trying to figure out how to be happy, and realizing that maybe he can’t be. The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, from its pilot onward, has engaged with Rebecca’s (Rachel Bloom) depression and anxiety, often through song. Even Ilana on Comedy Central’s Broad City has mentioned offhand her medication for depression and anxiety, refusing to let it define her character (like most of these characters do, or at least try to).There are also the dramas: Mr. Robot’s Elliot (Rami Malek) deals with several mental health issues; Rachel (Shiri Appleby) on UnREAL receives mental health treatment, whether she wants it or not, from her therapist mother, and seems to delve deeper into her cruelties and denial; and HBO’s adaptation of The Leftovers is commonly understood as a grand metaphor for depression and loss. If often seems, though, as if the comedies are able to be somehow more honest about the realities of their illnesses, following or subverting moments of pain and trauma with jokes—not that the jokes need be free of pain or trauma themselves. When Maria on Lady Dynamite mentions to Karen, her life coach (played by Jenny Slate, god bless), that she only has two friends, Karen is not surprised: “Yeah, because you’re bipolar! You’re incredibly hard to stay friends with—I mean, people are really just gonna fall by the wayside.” On The Leftovers, such a moment might have led to a severe music cue and a burst of violence; on Mr. Robot, Elliot’s precarious state might have prevented him from even picking up the meaning behind the message. But Lady Dynamite chooses to avoid drowning in darkness, creating a uniquely uncomfortable space for both its characters and its audience—one that is more familiar for those of us with mental illnesses, where ugliness and absurdity have no choice but to coexist.It’s been greatly encouraging to see so many examples of showrunners and writers trying earnestly to portray mental illness seriously and thoughtfully. I regularly think of the image of Gretchen in You’re the Worst, lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket, in tears, thanking Jimmy (Chris Geere) for staying with her despite her downward spiral. There is nothing glamorous about mental illness, but increasingly diverse TV writers’ rooms seem to be finding ways to reveal and portray the many ways in which it can manifest and be managed—or not.*Much of this is an extension of a wider cultural shift toward acceptance and the lifting of stigmas concerning those of us with mental illnesses. Still, I remain wary that, amidst the burgeoning mainstream attention paid to mental illness, the logical result is mere visibility or representation. Mental health advocates have tangible desires: If the point is to challenge systemic and hegemonic understandings of these issues, then what is simply being visible, absent any sort of control, really worth?My desire to understand my illness as part of my identity does not just mean wanting more TV shows to watch and things to buy; often enough, these forces proceed so that they can celebrate their own enlightenment and generosity, allowing the whims of the majority to dictate the terms of mental health advocacy. My desires have nothing to do with the granting of favours—or even concessions—by a “healthy” majority. Several times in Lady Dynamite, in such a way that Bamford again reveals her acute self-awareness, the script makes fun of how she has come to be known as “the comic who works to destigmatize mental illness.” Various characters call Bamford “brave” for doing so, using soundbite-friendly language to turn the act of talking about mental illness into a sellable product, expertly parodying this sloganized method of remaining at a distance from making true, measurable differences. Lady Dynamite’s strength has been in having Bamford build on her existing comedic persona and comment on something that has been historically difficult to articulate: that mental illness is not something that must be confessed, and how disarmingly easy it can be to fall into a loop of meaning well while simultaneously taking a step backward, patronizing and further stigmatizing people, even inadvertently, along the way.She talks about her illness because she wants to, not because she’s beholden to the capitalistic whims of others.Consider the ongoing, aggressive commodification and institutionalizing of feminism and LGBT issues—Pride parades being proudly sponsored by private companies with anti-LGBT practices, oblivious brands trying to cash in on the “trendiness” of feminist ideals. It doesn’t mean these movements have been defeated, just that they have been somewhat corrupted—increasingly defined by easy-to-digest but meaningless consumption. A visible movement is one susceptible to the forces of opportunistic capitalism finding a particular aesthetic attractive; suddenly, the normalization of mental health is an issue that can be advertised and appropriated. Even well-meaning folks are morphing our intentions in a destructive manner, or at least in ways that maintain the status quo, uphold existing structures, breed complacency. Tweet a hashtag and wash your hands of the issue; watch as gatekeepers take up familiar coded language as if it is a radical and righteous act, slowly but surely wresting mental health advocacy away from those of us who should be in control.*When I am deep within my hole, buried under depression and anxiety, what I feel is a powerful lack of control. Over myself, over my mind, my body, my position. I am not thinking about good-intentioned engagement with supposed allies. I am thinking about my own desire to write the story of mental illness; I am thinking about how important control becomes when you are so accustomed to being out of it. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about having a mental illness is how often you don’t feel like the captain of your own body and mind. You are beholden to the whims of your disease, and people’s purported good intentions don’t really matter. They cannot help put you back in control. To have the option of finding some kind of authority over one’s self and one’s narrative is an indispensable opportunity.Fundamentally, we control our own narrative up to a point, so it’s our responsibility to offer alternatives. Maria Bamford, and the creators and writers of Lady Dynamite, are embodying that fight. For all its silliness, the series is acutely aware of how its representation of mental illness differs even from those on other TV comedies. It is selling itself—by design, it’s bingeable and consumable—but it points significantly to different paths for us to take with our illnesses, purposefully disrupting the forces attempting to take away the narrative and make it universal. Bamford’s character is always coming up against the notion of selling out, or taking on commercial work because she needs the money, and her illness stops her more than once, but she also learns to stop herself. She talks about her illness because she wants to, not because she’s beholden to the capitalistic whims of others. She avoids the predetermined narrative of mental illness and shows us a way through. They’re not the ones who are going to help us climb out of the holes we dig for ourselves.In a flashback in the season finale, Maria battles Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath in a Power Rangers-style fight. McGrath represents Checklist, the company for which she is the mascot, and capitalism in general. “You want me. You can’t live without me. I’m everything you fear and desire,” McGrath growls.“I can live without you,” Maria responds. “You’re a false god!”It turns out she was heavily delusional and was subsequently institutionalized. But in the present, she uses this as a lesson to “not let mental illness stop her now.” In a suitably tragicomic way, she takes control of herself and her narrative. She owns it.[[{"fid":"6696106","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Maria Bamford - The Stigma Around Mental Illness","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]
Little Teeth Returns Part 4 Banner for Hazlitt
Little Teeth Returns Pt. 4

But wait! We’re not over yet, folks!

Featuring Eternity Martis
Living off of peanut butter and stale crackers (8:14), preserving Black history in Canada (13:47), and how we save our abolitionist museums (30:55)
It’s Okay To Suck

The case for doing things you’re terrible at. 

For fidelity to mediocrity, no one beats Florence Foster Jenkins. The subject of a Stephen Frears-directed biopic starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant coming out in North America in August, Jenkins was a truly bad singer.11So much so that I also wrote about her in my book Bad Singer.  But every year she held a recital at New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel and then, at age 76, she made it big: she played Carnegie Hall. “She was exceedingly happy in her work,” wrote Robert Bager in a New York World-Telegram review of the sold-out show in 1944. “It is a pity so few artists are. And her happiness was communicated as if by magic to her listeners . . . who were stimulated to the point of audible cheering, even joyous laughter and ecstasy by the inimitable singing.”What Jenkins lacked in pitch, rhythm and vocal range, she made up for in attitude: “People may say I can’t sing,” she said, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”Nadine Cooper can now say the same thing. And most bad singers can probably relate to her story more than to Jenkins’s triumphant career. When Cooper was 11 or 12, a teacher told her to stop singing because she was spoiling it for everyone else. So she stopped. As an adult, she tried to avoid worrying about her inability to sing, but sometimes she’d think, “I wish I could do that.” Occasionally, she’d go as far as “I should be able to do that,” which eventually evolved into “There should be somewhere for me to do that.”But there wasn’t. No-audition choirs abound these days, and they are ideal for many singers, even the untrained and the unconfident. But for truly bad singers, they are too intimidating. Cooper didn’t want to be in a situation where she’d have to apologize every second note: “I’m pretty sure I’d still spoil if for everyone else.”Her lack of confidence is understandable. What remains unfathomable is that people actually tell children not to sing. And I’ve heard countless tales of people told to just “mouth the words.” Many teachers and musical directors have no idea how to help bad singers, but need bodies to make their choirs seem successful so they make young people go through the humiliating charade of faking it. Maybe the deception is easier for parents to accept than not having their kids be part of the recital at all, but it is the most effective way to give someone a life-long fear of singing in public.For most middle-class people, growing up is just another term for a narrowing of interests. As a kid, I was fortunate to try soccer, skiing, sailing, skeet shooting, football, baseball, basketball, cricket, canoeing, cycling, golf, tennis, horseback riding, hockey and many other activities. Some (basketball) I gave a hard pass to right away because I was short and slow; some (skiing) I loved but stopped doing for financial reasons; some (golf) just became too frustrating. Today, I play hockey, cycle and go on an annual canoe trip. (Much to my surprise, though, I’ve also taken up yoga, something I long said I would never do.)Cutbacks at schools mean reductions in sports and arts programs while high costs—even sports such as hockey are now so expensive that many families can’t afford them—and limited parental time can mean the end to some pursuits. We also launch our own self-selection process. Most kids don’t need to be the best player on the team to enjoy soccer and parents encourage their offspring to keep playing because the benefits, including exercise and working with teammates, are considerable. But we soon drop the activities we don’t enjoy and go harder on the ones we do—and the correlation between what we enjoy and what we’re good at is strong.Adults routinely ask kids who’ve just played a game, “Did you score?” So both adults and other kids send us the message that anything we’re good at is more fun and more worthwhile than anything we’re bad at. Being the last one picked for a team can sour us on a sport, but the streamlining of interests can also be brutal in non-athletic pursuits. Eventually our parents stop putting our masterpieces on the fridge.One way or another, we learn early on that it’s not okay to be bad. And we often carry this “knowledge” into old age. So we’re always impressed when adults take up activities they’d never tried before or wished they’d never given up. If the theories are right about the benefits of aging brains learning new stuff, then we may be staving off dementia later in life (and if the theories are wrong, at least we learned some cool new stuff). Sometimes we turn out to have a talent for it; sometimes we don’t and that’s okay because it’s actually good for us to do things we’re bad at.*Wanting to sing, Cooper asked Bernie Bracha, a choir director in Nottingham, England, about starting a Tone Deaf Choir. Although Cooper considered herself tone deaf, Bracha, an educational consultant and former music teacher, said that was unlikely and balked at the idea of such a choir. While bad singing is common, congenital amusia, the scientific term for tone deafness, is not—perhaps as rare as 1.5 percent of the population. Cooper, who has a chemical engineering degree from Cambridge and worked as a management consultant and planning manager before becoming an entrepreneur, did an online test: she wasn’t tone deaf. So she went back to Bracha and suggested a Tuneless Choir instead. This time, the choir leader agreed to hold one workshop to see if there was enough interest.Sixty people showed up. The media, including the BBC, soon followed. And now at least 120 people—they range in age (early twenties to late seventies) as well as socio-economic background; about one fifth are men—show up at each session, held every second Thursday. The singers arrive early to socialize and then at 8, Bracha leads them through some warm-up exercises followed by about five songs, a break for tea and nibbles and then another half hour of singing. They clap after every song—and laugh when one falls apart.When you do what you're good at exclusively, avoiding what you are bad at, you live in an evaluative world, one that’s full of judgement. Cooper sees a huge difference between joining a regular no-audition choir, in which the majority can sing, and being part of the Tuneless Choir. “There’s no pressure,” she insists, “just pleasure.” And before long, she was receiving franchising enquiries from other English communities. In May, a choir in Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham launched with 86 participants. Cooper now has three franchisees and expects to have ten by the end of the year, making the Tuneless Choir a full-time job.While she can list the benefits of singing in a choir—including the release of endorphins, the social activity, the easing of anxiety and depression and the strengthening of the immune system—Cooper’s motivation is simpler. “I just enjoy it. It's fun because we have a laugh and don't take things seriously. It's fun because it's mischievous,” she told me during a Skype conversation. She sees it as a form of rebellion and a chance to stick it to everyone who told her not to sing. “I'm not going to let people stop me from doing this.”*The story of the Tuneless Choir set me to thinking about why we do only those things we’re good at and, more important, if that’s a good thing. I naively thought the answer would be straight-forward and emailed my friend Alex Russell this two-part question: “Why is it good for us to do things we suck at? And why is it bad for us to only do things we are good at?”Russell is a clinical psychologist (and, full disclosure, I helped him write a book on parenting a few years ago). To my surprise, he replied that we’d need to discuss it over a beer. When we sat down in a pub around the corner from his office in Toronto, he told me he’d been thinking about my question all day and had even discussed it with colleagues in his practice because it is so central to their work. “It taps into everything we're doing,” he said. “It is The Question, maybe.”One reason the answer isn’t so easy is that before the last century, no one would have thought to ask it. Just making it through the day was enough of a challenge. People didn’t have much, if any, leisure time. So my question becomes relevant only in a culture where so many of us have the privilege of leisure time, the freedom to choose what we do with our lives and the ensuing burden to create an identity that's unique to ourselves. (We see the extreme of this in the culture of social media and selfies, or what Russell calls the “curated self.”)In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford’s Carol Dweck argues that people either have a fixed mindset or a growth one. With the former, mistakes are bad news. They feel bad. When you're young, you want to get away from them.Even when you're older, you increasingly focus on the things you’re good at and avoid things you’re bad at. With a growth mindset, you see mistakes as opportunities for learning. If the tech industry’s spin about the extraordinary value of failure has any basis in fact, a growth mindset will become increasingly crucial for success. But Russell sees more and more young people with fixed mindsets (and he puts a lot of the blame on over-praising parents). “We are fighting it all the time in mental health centres and clinics.”When you do what you're good at exclusively, avoiding what you are bad at, you live in an evaluative world, one that’s full of judgement. You’re always concerned about the quality of your performance so you’re always self-conscious. The danger is this becomes an inauthentic world, one that you don't engage in for its own sake and one that's not a lot of fun.But there is another way to live. You can love what you’re good at, but also be willing to do things you’re not good at. You can say, “I suck, but let's do it.” Then you're freed up from comparing and can engage in activities for their own sake—something that’s essential for flow. A fundamental concept in psychology, flow is the state of concentrated motivation essential for productivity and happiness. You’re in flow when you’re fully immersed, emotionally focused and creatively involved, in an activity that is intrinsically rewarding rather than being motivated by money or praise. You may be getting paid or stand to gain some other reward, but that’s less important than the intrinsic qualities—including mastery, satisfaction and interest—that keep you engaged. Flow is not dependent on an evaluative sense of good and bad. So if you are enjoying singing in a choir without worrying about spoiling it for anyone else, you’re likely in flow. “You can have a sense of mastery even when you suck,” said Russell. “Everything's relative.”Over the course of the first pint, Russell had mostly talked about why it's bad not to do stuff you're no good at. But by the second, we were getting to the first half of my question: why it’s good to do what we’re not good at. For one thing, it’s humbling—and who among us wouldn’t benefit from a bit more humility? While many people see humility as a weakness, even equating it with humiliation—hi, Donald Trump—Russell believes it’s a virtue and worries that we are losing touch with the capacity to be humble.Enjoying what we aren’t good at is also an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, which is healthy. The ability to laugh at yourself, something else that’s become rarer and rarer, means you're conquering your early megalomania and seeing yourself in a more balanced and realistic way: that you may not always be right, that you have your own failings, that you are human. Other people respond well to that. “As a public speaker,” Russell told me, “I've learned that the number one way to win over your audience right away is to tell a story that makes you look bad.”Finally, he added the obvious, because sometimes it’s a good thing to state the obvious: laughing at yourself makes life more fun.*Many years ago, I took up photography and my favourite instructor liked to say, “Do what you like, then find people who like what you do.” At the time, I thought that was the flakiest, hippie-dippiest thing I’d ever heard. I wondered if he was just trying to encourage his more hopeless students or if he really believed it. But I’ve since realized how wrong I was to giggle at him. In fact, I’ve come to see his words as uncommonly perspicacious.And wittingly or not, the truly bad singers of the Tuneless Choir have found the people who like what they do. A funny thing happens when they sing together: they fall in with other singers and tend to mimic the best ones. So when Bracha sets them on the right note within their range, they can collectively get somewhere near it. The combined sound is like the crowd singing at a rugby or football match, explains Cooper. “It’s powerful because we are filling the airwaves with different notes, as well as showing little restraint.”Some choir members are better than others—and a few could now cope with a community choir—but they joined for the fun of it. Still, she knows some will, with a little practice and stealth training from Bracha, turn out to be decent singers and may become more ambitious, wanting to sing in parts and tackle more difficult pieces. But those people are welcome to move on to “proper choirs,” as Cooper calls them. She is determined to maintain the Tuneless Choir’s purity.Such commitment to mediocrity—and the flow available in it—is impressive. And much to Cooper’s surprise, the choir is becoming a popular novelty act. A rendition of “Delilah” at a choir festival in May received a standing ovation. The choir also shared the bill with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Seal and Lucinda Williams at the Cornbury Music Festival in July. Beforehand, Cooper told me her approach would be participation rather than performance: “Sing great songs, enjoy ourselves, and hope that those listening will want to join in, if only to improve the overall sound.”
Miss Cat-geniality

Cats, like reality show stars, aren’t here to make friends. A pageant cannot undo their primal tendencies.

I unclipped the kennel latches and patiently waited for my cat to willingly exit.Earlier that morning my wife and I feared accidentally dislocating his limbs while vertically cramming him through the opening and slamming the cage door shut like a lid over boiling lobster. But after nine hours of pageantry—being molested by cat fancy judges and baby-talked nearly to death by spectators—this box was the only thing worth trusting in his scary world. Eventually my wife Janae enticed him with a trail of Temptations treats and he sauntered out into our apartment, weary and woozy after his cat show debut.You are wondering what kind of people put their house pet in a cat show, I know, but it is the wrong question. The right question is, why him and not our other cat?The boy is a Siamese-cross, and cross-eyed. His coat is like cashmere and he is perilously cuddly. As for his companion, the girl, she’s a plump blue tortoiseshell—Plain Jane, except for these big green eyes that she prefers squinting, giving her uncanny resting bitch face. What she lacks in looks, she makes up for in smarts, proven by her punishment of fresh turds on the door-mat every time we return from vacation.Her healthy distrust isn’t a trait admired by the cat fancy world, but it’s to be respected and, occasionally, feared. When she hunches down and her ears fold back, when her tail lashes and the claws of evolution eject from her paws, you can see in her dilated pupils 40 million years of natural selection. In those rare terrifying moments, you cannot, however, see 160 million years further, to a time when homo sapien and felis silvestris shared a common ancestor and cause.We couldn’t have known this when we adopted her as a kitten, but maybe we sensed it, or manifested it into reality, when we christened her “Darwin.” We named the boy “Orwell” because we liked the theme of strong, brave historical figures, but he never lived up to his title. It is clear which of the two would survive in the wild and which would thrive in a beauty pageant.After Orwell swallowed the last Temptations, he looked up to see the end of the treats and the beginning of Darwin’s whiskers. She sniffed and recoiled at the funk of hundreds of foreign cats. Her fur and back shot up, she growled and spit like never before. In retrospect, I think this was the moment she broke.*I got over the stench of piss at the Edmonton Cat Show pretty quickly. It’s not so much my nostrils that adjusted but my eyes, to rows and rows of beautiful creatures. Plump British shorthairs smiled in their sleep and Regal sphinxes owned their ugly. Janae and I carried Orwell in a kennel, treats and a litter pan, plus a big blue ribbon on which to adhere the gold stickers he was sure to win (a literal participation prize for this coddled generation of cats). We ventured past the two dozen fancy pedigrees to the ghettoes of the show hall, where calicos, tabbies, torties and other non-purebreds were stationed.The vast majority of the Household Pet category contenders are rescues, entered without charge by local charities in hopes that someone will adopt “Norman” or “Hamish” after seeing what these scruffy orphans are really made of. Knowing my semi-exotic cat would be up against the most unfancy specimens gave me confidence, but only me. Orwell cowered in the corner of his kennel, scrunching into a ball, unwilling to eat or drink.Janae was hesitant about my brilliant idea of putting him in the show from the start and thought I’d traumatized him enough the night before when I surprised him with the a bath and mango-scented shampooing. Darwin observed, somewhat proudly, as her companion fought for his life in the bathtub. It wasn’t enjoyable for me either, but The International Cat Association (TICA) guidelines suggest bathing show cats, trimming their claws and cleaning their ears, eyes and asses.Grooming and hygiene is especially vital in the Household Pet category. Pedigreed cats have standardized physical criteria. For instance, the head of a Devon Rex (worth up to 40 points) should be “delineated by a narrowing series of three distinct convex curves.” Household pets, on the other hand, are primarily scored on grooming, condition, health and personality—a criterion subjected to judges’ personal tastes, and worth 30 points. It’s the only category requiring a winning personality, meaning a properly pedigreed Oriental could give no fucks and still take gold, but a half-breed like Orwell would have to put on a smile of sorts.Our decision to enter him over Darwin was validated after learning about TICA’s rules on aggression. There is no place for it. Hissing, spitting and growling can have any cat regardless of pedigree disqualified, and swatting at the judge almost certainly will. When the occasional cat breaks free and makes a run for it, the protocol is to close all open doors and yell “cat out!” But you are not to touch that cat. That responsibility, and shame, belongs to the owner.The semiconductor is no doubt the most important invention of 1947, but considering that there are nearly 100 million house cats living in 37 per cent of American homes, Michigander Ed Lowe’s highly absorbent granulated clay is a close second. Orwell’s coping mechanism, luckily, was petrification. “We have a Siamese meatloaf,” the first judge, Melissa Parsley, who had a soft spot for shyness, told the crowd as she carried him from the holding kennel. The seven spectators in the ring aw’d as Orwell shivered on the show bench. Parsley lifted his tail, inspected the insides of his ears and rubbed under his chin. “A true apple-cheeked Siamese,” she exclaimed. “You don’t see it anymore!” For decades Oriental cats have been bred for pointed faces, but Parsley was smitten by his nostalgic facial traits.As she returned him to his kennel, her child assistant rushed in from one side of the ring with a spray bottle, sanitized the bench with a swift wipe, then hustled to the other side like a tennis ball-boy. After Parsley showed all 14 competing household pets, she began pinning ribbons to each kennel from 10th place to 1st, with a brief declaration of worth for each one.“For the kitty who lost her ear to frostbite … 10th place!”“Lily is very elegant, the sweetest looking cat … sixth place!”As we neared the top three, Janae looked at me with wide eyes and for a brief moment her regrets had been washed over with pride. “This little guy,” said Parsley, turning to Orwell. “Old-style traditional Siamese. Nice dark features. And he’s not one of those skinny mini cats. Full-body seal point … third place!”He had seven more rounds to go, then another eight the next day, but surely if he could snatch bronze in his first attempt he would be going home with a few gold finishes.*TICA has been showing and awarding titles to non-purebred domestic cats—even the maligned black ones—since its 1973 beginnings. It’s a stark contrast to the practises of the 110-year-old Cat Fanciers Association, which for decades didn’t even bother hosting the category. The association now emphasizes it like TICA, and in the last three years finally started giving non-purebred cats Grand Championship titles equal to pedigrees. The hope is that it will curb the cat fancy world’s declining entries and revenues.Spectator attendance is strong—thanks very much to the Internet’s infinite and thrilling supply of cats—but exhibitor numbers are historically low. It’s an aging and expensive hobby, and showing is surprisingly physical for elderly exhibitors, requiring almost nonstop schlepping of pet from one side of the show hall to another for two long days. But at $60–$100 per cat to exhibit, compared to just $10 for spectator admission, the Household Pet category is a decent revenue driver, something TICA has always recognized, but which is especially apparent now that North American cat ownership has reached an all-time high.So far this season, a bright-eyed torbie named Penny with 11,230 standing points looks like she could repeat her 2014–15 championship. I reached out to Penny’s owner to find out what it takes to be the world’s best housecat, but she didn’t reply. So I talked to Patricia Clary, owner of the world’s second best cat, Mr. Starbucks of Carolinameows, who trails Penny’s by only 136 points.Mr. Starbucks, or “Bucky” as Clary calls him, may not have a posh pedigree but he’s undeniably majestic: there’s his cream and white long coat that’s gorgeously groomed, and then there’s his green and blue heterochromia eyes. But it’s his personality that puts him over the top. “He stands there like he’s royalty,” says Clary. “The judges kiss on him and he just eats it up.” You would never guess that his mother was a stray.All along she was saying “I own you, fucker” to me, as she lapped up my facial hair, and to him, as he napped like a toy in her grip.Clary has shown Maine Coons in the pedigreed categories to some success, but Bucky is her first international star. On the eve of a show, Clary might spend an hour washing and drying a single cat (a regimen requiring four different shampoos and oils for their coats), and that’s in addition to the hours she spends on an average day preparing their diet of ground deer meat, chicken and scrambled eggs. “Is it time consuming?” she asks herself. “Yes. But that’s what it takes to win.”A hobby so draining, personally and financially, cannot just be about winning. It must also be fun, otherwise Clary would still be showing at the rival cat fanciers competitions organized by the CFA, which started welcoming household pet cats in the ’30s, but as more of a sideshow and never very seriously. “I didn’t like the people,” she recalls. “They were all about the sale.”To appreciate the two associations' historically different perspectives on house cats, understand that the CFA is pre-Kitty Litter and TICA is post-Kitty Litter. In 1906, when the CFA was founded, a domestic cat, no matter how loving and social, primarily functioned as a mouser unless, of course, it were pedigreed, which the upper classes treated as haute props. “The New York cat show,” observed one 19th century newspaper, “appears to be a sort of asylum for purse-proud aristocratic cats, or those which exhibit some exceptional intelligence or tail or something.”Four decades later, their public perception would dramatically change.The semiconductor is no doubt the most important invention of 1947, but considering that there are nearly 100 million house cats living in 37 per cent of American homes, Michigander Ed Lowe’s highly absorbent granulated clay is a close second. Since cats evolved in the desert, their urine is highly concentrated and extremely noxious. “Boxes filled with sand, sawdust or wood shavings provided a measure of relief from the resulting stench, but not enough to make cats particularly welcome in discriminating homes,” wrote The New York Times in Lowe’s obituary. “Until a fateful January day in 1947, those who kept them indoors full time paid a heavy price.”Kitty Litter meant a cat could live exclusively indoors, thereby completing 10,000 years of domestication. This didn’t just inform TICA’s inclusive philosophy but it solidified the common house cat’s place in the general psyche as more pet than utility. Today there are far more cats than dogs living in Canadian and American homes and many of them, like Orwell and Darwin, are strictly indoor. This has greatly extended their lifespans, but it’s also introduced some emotional issues.*Our home in Edmonton can also be split in two eras: Pre-Orwell and Post-Orwell.Darwin moved in before the boxes in our new apartment were even unpacked. From the moment we found her at the Humane Society, Darwin wanted to be held like a baby and that is how we have always treated her. Yes, we are those people, but Darwin really earned it. At night, she’d crawl into bed and rigorously lick my beard stubble. Some nights we kept her out, until her crying became so relentless that it was more tolerable to lose sleep while her sandpaper-like tongue scraped layers of face.Orwell moved in a year later and Darwin immediately began showing slight predatory behaviour, stalking him and swatting him when he got too close. But he was a lovebug, dumbly following his frenemy, no matter how loudly she hissed.By the time she was in her terrible twos, which is to say her teens, Darwin became more withdrawn and spent all her time on the balcony, gazing into the urban desert, pondering her life as an outdoor cat in another world.Middle age mellowed her out and in recent years we’ve caught the two of them regularly snuggling. Always, Darwin was the one grooming him. It appears affectionate, but according to Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, this is a sign of dominance. All along she was saying “I own you, fucker” to me, as she lapped up my facial hair, and to him, as he napped like a toy in her grip.*Like Orson Welles and Haley Joel Osment, Orwell had peaked early and garnered a 4th, 7th and 10th in subsequent rounds. The last judge, Ellen Crockett, was explicit about her preferences. “In my ring,” she said, twirling a teaser feather around his noncompliant head, “I want cats that are having a good time.” His place standings kept declining, even after the emcee announced that Hamish, a rescue who was gobbling up golds, had been adopted—to rapturous applause.Orwell did fine for a rookie, but he lacked something possessed by the Hamishes and Mr. Starbucks of the cat world, what Pamela Barrett calls “star quality.”Barrett, an older woman with a smart blond bob, who courageously wore a black turtleneck to the cat ring in Edmonton, was recently awarded TICA’s Judge of the Year prize. It’s essentially the Best in Show of judges; anyone who’s sat in her ring knows why. A former fraud investigator, Barrett is exceptional at pattern recognition and spotting deviations. But the fancier is also a stellar performer. Some judges silently assess the feline specimen; others coo with babytalk. Barrett speaks right to the audience, explaining every physical facet of the cat, with hands so calming that the animal will let her lift its forelegs to force it into doing a literal catwalk.She told me that it’s normal for owners of the Household Pet contenders to take losses very personally. Professional breeders look at their specimen and see quality ears, eyes, coats, paws, but what about people like me? “All they see is love. It hurts them—it hurts me, even as a jaded professional. But it is a competition. You have to rise up, figure out what’s wrong and do it better next time.”Orwell’s coat and icy blue eyes impressed judges, but his personality was lacking, and there would be no chance at improvement. Halfway through the first day, Janae, cradling his quivering body, declared a fatwa on putting any of our future pets in a pageant.*I can’t tell you which of my cats is the best, but I will categorically say that my wife is the world’s best cat mom, a statement best summed by the fact that every morning she feeds them before herself. A mental health nurse, Janae's cat intuition or empathy or witchcraft is uncanny, though I didn’t recognize it for a long time. About a year after the cat show, Janae sat me down and very seriously asked, “Do you think Darwin is depressed?”I laughed at the absurdity of projecting human conditions onto our animals, before rubbing Darwin’s belly and talking baby to her. “Who’s a belly girl? Yes—you are…”Then, one day, Janae called me in hysterics. “Something is wrong with Darwin,” she cried. “She’s gone ballistic! She’s trying to kill Orwell!”A stray had entered the parking lot below while the three of them were on the balcony. This had become more common lately, and Darwin always watched with interest, never aggression. For some reason this one stray set her off.She growled and yowled, then turned to Orwell and saw not her companion of six years, but the devil incarnate. Janae tried to protect him and Darwin lunged at her, leaving her with deep cuts to her arms and legs.Janae was visibly traumatized, yet until I saw it with my own eyes I didn't believe Darwin could be so vicious. We cut her off from the balcony, but after two months without outbursts, and the cats snuggling again, I thought she re-earned her privileges. Within minutes of sliding open the door, Darwin had Orwell cornered. When I picked him up, she attacked us both. In that moment I realized that I hadn’t brought a fur-baby into my home, but a wild animal.*The veterinary world calls it “redirected aggression,” a sort of kitty mental illness that triggers sudden spurts of violence in territorial cats. Drunk guys punch holes in walls; cats tear at the luxurious fur of their once-friends. Studies show that it’s almost entirely unique to indoor cats in small households inhabited by two or fewer humans. The vet explained that aggression hormones were pent up from the sight of all those strays, plus several new neighbours’ cats on the balconies surrounding her, and possibly the stench of show cats on Orwell. It was inevitable that she would snap.Terrified as she was, Janae was vindicated after Darwin attacked Orwell and me. But there was no laughter from either of us after subsequent episodes, only tears, as we realized one of them had to be re-homed for the emotional and physical safety of both. I am tempted to make a Sophie’s Choice comparison, but it was more like We Need to Talk About Kevin. There was no mistaking who would have to go.There’s almost an insistence amongst cat owners that one is not enough. They must have companions to keep them company while you’re away. But cats, like reality show stars, aren’t here to make friends. A cat pageant cannot undo their primal tendencies, and certainly not enough time has passed since Kitty Litter’s invention for them to have evolved to fully cope with the indoors. “Cats today have essentially the same senses, the same brains, and the same emotional repertoire as their wildcat forebears,” reads Cat Sense. “As far as we know, all that has changed in their brains is a new ability to form social attachments to people.”This is nature, but we are not yet ready to accept it. Even after a pair of friends said they’d consider adopting our wild girl, we couldn’t give up on her yet. We’ve started medicating her with anti-anxieties and invest in expensive cans of Feliway, a synthetic pheromone that mimics a calming hormone that mother cats excretes through her milk to keep their kittens at peace (or “mommy boob juice,” as we’ve come to call it). A second visit to the vet also revealed that she had several gum lesions and cavities, so we had five teeth removed hoping that her outbursts were caused by physical, not emotional, pain. She came home with a swollen face and saintliness like never seen before, until the morphine faded.Despite medicating Darwin, her redirected aggression still flares up, but never so extremely and never for long. Something has changed, and I’m not entirely sure it’s her. Orwell has finally started defending himself. When she growls, he growls. When she swats, he punches back. He stands his ground and she backs off. Orwell is finally living up to his name.
Confessions of a Sexual Skeptic

Has sex positivity become alienating?

Maryam*, a 24-year-old Somali woman, sports a long skirt covering her ankles and a hijab, and is a whirlwind of energy. A devout Muslim, she is a virgin by choice, waiting for a real connection that will lead to marriage before she has sex. Often, she encounters unconscious stigma about her sexual status, citing the choice language commonly used to refer to Internet trolls: “a virgin in their mom’s basement.” “I feel like it’s very en vogue right now to be like ‘LOL EATING ASS!!!!’” she says. Despite her discomfort about being on the receiving end of TMI, she never voices her apprehension, for fear her distaste for the subject matter will be seen as unsupportive, or worse, shaming. “It’s not that my religion doesn’t teach people to enjoy sex, just that it’s a private thing, outside of educational purposes,” she says. “I think you’re only included in the sex positive movement if you are someone who, one, has a bumpin’ sex life or, two, loves to talk about sex.”Sex positivity, as a movement, is “simply the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual, is a positive thing,” according to the Colorado State University Women and Gender Advocacy Center. In sex positivity, it’s okay to have lots of sex or none at all, kinky or vanilla, with whomever you goddamn please. But sex educator Kate McCombs admits that there’s often a big difference between the sex positivity that gets translated in the media and true sex positivity. “Some people are talking about it in a way that I think is really holistic and balanced, but other people are doing it in a way that feels like they’re just validating their own sexual journey.”As a result, there’s a growing backlash among women who want to be more open about being closed. While the sex positivity movement strives to make people more comfortable with their own preferences, it also creates a false binary—are you positive or negative? Are you chill or are you a prude? By purporting to be inclusive of everything, sex positivity has become an orthodoxy.And not all of the criticisms of the movement are coming from a cabal of pitchfork-wielding reactionaries or the hopelessly repressed: they’re also coming from snappy and smart young women who look at sex positivity as the philosophical equivalent of a one-size-fits-all sweater—draping effortlessly on some but tragically lumpy on others. As the performative enjoyment of sex has essentially become a mandatory part of being alive, the act has been commodified so much that for many, it’s become an imposition.*The concept of sex positivity was popularized by Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1920s and ’30s. Reich believed that sexual repression was the cause of society’s ills, and was dubbed a “sexual evangelist” by the Guardian for spreading his belief that more orgasms could improve mental health. He is also credited with inventing the orgone box, essentially a closet filled with “energy” designed to improve overall health by increasing “orgastic potency” that supposedly induced spontaneous, hands-free orgasms, enjoyed by luminaries such as J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow and William S. Burroughs. While many of Reich’s theories have been debunked as pseudoscience, they directly contributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s; during the 1968 European student uprisings, protestors scrawled his name on walls and threw copies of his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism at police. No longer would they believe that masturbating makes you go blind or, as the saying goes, “lie back and think of England!” Post-birth control pill, the Helen Gurley Brown-edited Cosmopolitan became the bible for women learning how to navigate sex outside of marriage, while Playboy magazine encouraged women to liberate themselves via lush sexual availability. “Taking off our clothes was an important part of the project of undoing the constraints we perceived our elders to have been immobilized by,” writes Jenny Diski in The Sixties. Since that decade, the sex positivity movement has contributed to significant social change: major strides have been made in the fight for equal rights across spectrums of sexual and gender identity and for those who identify outside of gender binary, and monogamy is now one of many relationship options rather than sacrosanct. These days, sex positivity manifests a number of different ways, from the empowering “war cry” of Missy Elliott to the self-commodification of Kim Kardashian. Even Beyoncé, arguably the most important entertainer of the 21st century, held up the banner for sex positivity when she sampled the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Flawless: “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”"It always struck me as dumb that all women could end up at the same ‘liberated’ place through fucking.”August McLaughlin, a health and sexuality writer based in Los Angeles, says that sex positivity is helpful for those who feel a deep-seated sense of shame surrounding their sexuality. McLaughlin grew up in a religious family in which sex was taboo and certainly not a source of pleasure. “I used to have a lot of shame for having a relatively high sex drive,” she says. “You’re not supposed to want sex and be a good girl.” In her late teens and early 20s, she suffered from a severe eating disorder, and credits learning about sex positivity as one element that assisted her road to recovery. In university, she was introduced to the concept by a “wonderfully feminist” professor, and realized that so far she had failed to embrace her sexuality as an integral part of who she was. Doing just that became a great source of empowerment and strength.Most people have experienced one form or another of sexual shame, and it seems that the more shame you’ve endured, the more you stand to benefit from sex positivity. McCombs says, “The idea that sex could be for pleasure and not an exclusively matrimonial reproductive thing is really revolutionary for them.” But the shame goes both ways. “In order to fight against the arbitrary moral codes the bourgeois world imposed on the young,” Diski writes, “the young imposed on themselves arbitrary physical requirements that took very little account of the complexity of human emotional connections. We cut a swathe through the conventions, but invented new conventions that gave us just as much heartache. Liberation, at least in its new sexual form, was a new form of imposed morality, quite as restricting and causing at least as much repression as we accused our parent’s generation of creating.”*While enjoying sex is still a source of shame for many, for some, it’s a lack of ability to enjoy sex that holds them back. “A lot of my friends brag about how much sex they have and tell me ad nauseam about the experimenting they do, so I always feel left out,” says Hayley, a 24-year-old writer from New York who suffers from vaginismus, a condition involving involuntary tightening of the pelvic floor that makes sex feel like torture. She labels herself as a “woman with a sex drive” yet bemoans that she’s never orgasmed with a partner, and describes the best level of sex she’s ever experienced as neutral. “This is terrible, but I’ve gotten really good at masking my discomfort,” she says. The excruciating pain Hayley feels during sex is a constant source of shame and anxiety. “It sucks as a liberal sex-positive woman to dread sex. It makes you feel really weird and really conservative, like there is something wrong with you.”Vaginismus is a medical condition, but Hayley’s wary of seeking treatment. “It’s not like I can say, ‘Doc, my knee hurts and I can’t jog,’ it’s very different.” She’s waiting until she is more financially independent and no longer on her parents’ medical insurance, and will likely spend another few years missing out on the titillating kind of sex presented in the New York magazine sex diaries—The College Student Choosing Between Three Men, The 18-Year-Old Extensively Cheating on Her Boyfriend, the Young Dominatrix in an Open Relationship. These accounts, polished and processed for mass consumption like a Pop Tart, favour the undeniably salacious. McCombs explains that what is reflected in mainstream media tends to affect our perception of the kind of sex we should be having.“It’s a bit like roller derby, maybe it’s just not for us,” says Liz,* a 33-year-old queer woman from Toronto who works in tech. She takes issue with sex positivity because of its “aggressively heterosexual” nature, noting that nobody in the media associated with sex positivity looks like her, which is to say, butch. There’s a major gap in who is presented in the public eye as a sex positive icon; perhaps Lena Dunham can have sex with a hot older man on TV and Amy Schumer can “catch a dick” whenever she wants, but they’re both white, able-bodied, femme-presenting women. “I’m not super sure I like being excluded from being positive about my own body. And I also just don’t like this portrayal that it’s always ultra-feminine women,” she says.“What makes me uncomfortable about sex positivity is the same thing that has always discomfited me about white, westernized notions of self-actualizing as a woman,” says Muna Mire, a 26-year-old journalist in New York and Hazlitt contributor. White feminism “assumes that the way white women experience misogyny is the way all women experience misogyny,” says Zeba Blay on the Huffington Post, and seems largely focused on promoting armpit hair, bralessness and #freethenipple as pathways to empowerment. But while such notions might be liberating for a few, they tend to forget that women of colour, women with disabilities, trans women, and basically any kind of person who might experience the world in a different way than a white woman, exist. (For an example of systemic racism at work in a sexual context: a 2013 study on dating app Are You Interested showed black women were considered the least desirable category by users of the service.) “Sex doesn’t treat people equally or impartially. There is a clear, defined hierarchy of desire,” says Mire. “I guess it always struck me as dumb that all women could end up at the same ‘liberated’ place through fucking.”*The problem with sexual liberation is that it can feel compulsory. “Historically, sex positivity came as a response to the idea that sex is dirty and wrong and morally corrupt,” says Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth. “But when you’re fighting for people to be able to have sex outside of a committed relationship or with people of the same gender, you’re not necessarily also thinking of the fact that some people are stigmatized for not being sexually active,” she says.There’s a certain squeamishness that comes with admitting sex positivity isn’t your thing, because we haven’t yet figured out what the alternative looks like. For me, sex is not merely a recreational activity to pass the time but a psychic surrendering of near gargantuan proportions. I’ve had enough casual sex to know that I have difficulty expressing my deepest desires to people I barely know, and as a result, casual sex for me is basically an oxymoron; any sexual experience lacking intimacy and vulnerability just isn’t that hot to me—if the stakes are low, my pussy says “no.”If you’re being measured on a scale of positive to negative, then you’re either an Annie Sprinkle, the peppy porn star/performance artist whose piece “100 Blow Jobs” involves her giving head to several dildos, or an Andrea Dworkin, the ’90s-era anti-porn activist. In 2013, xoJane published a personal essay titled “UNPOPULAR OPINION: I’m a Sex-Negative Feminist.” The article was met with a firestorm of critical response from women in the BDSM community who didn’t take kindly to the notion that their desire to act submissive in the bedroom reinforced the patriarchy. But in the wake of compulsory sexuality, sex negativity is enjoying a new renaissance. “I am so glad we’re on the cusp of the sex negativity moment,” writer Jamie Lauren Keiles tweeted. “[I] feel overburdened by all the imperatives to love myself, would rather just cut my losses and think about other things.” Such proclamations are laced with an almost Daria-level of irony, yet they still ring true, because sometimes mocking something is the only way to undermine the power it holds over you. Referring to yourself as “sex negative” is simply one way to eschew the constant pressure to enjoy and experiment with your sexuality.In The Sex Myth, Hills spent the better part of a decade travelling around the world to interview hundreds of young people about their experiences of their own sexuality. What she found was a remarkably uniform sense of anxiety. Almost everyone expressed the belief that their sexual experiences were lacking or abnormal while everyone around them was busy whooping it up on the Sex Train. Clara from Seattle, interviewed by Hills, said, “I always have this paranoia suspicion that everyone else is in consensus about appropriate sexual practices, and I am an awkward, immature, insecure anomaly.”Ultimately the book revealed that so much of what it is to be a fun, sexually liberated person is just going through the motions. It’s possible to have a lot of sex and not enjoy any of it, and it’s equally as possible to have a totally fulfilling sex life and still feel like you’re not measuring up. The result of the sex myth is that we feel anxious and inadequate no matter the frequency and quality of sex we are having.So far, there’s still no terminology that adequately describes my complicated relationship with sex; sex critical makes me feel like I’m marking up an essay in red pen, while sex skeptical makes it sound like I’m anxious about having sex for the first time. There needs to be a better way to express that sex can be great, but it needn’t be the entire focus or the be-all-end-all of our lives. Last month, the digital artist Molly Soda tweeted, “I low-key love that I don’t have sex with anyone ever. I’m either extremely sexually repressed or extremely sexually liberated.”Research Editor: Daniel Viola
In Defense of Our Decision to Become a Republican Party House Band

Let’s face facts: singing songs about really liking the Replacements isn’t paying our rent with the commies anymore.

I feel confident that, looking back, our only regret will be not having become a Republican Party house band sooner. When the furor has died down and Trump is on his second term and the streets are paved with guns and butter and free of all graffiti besides the occasional “All Lives Matter” scrawl (and perhaps one or two circled V’s for verisimilitude), we’ll look back and know we did the right thing. America will be great (again), we’ll have a steady gig (for the first time), finally my Michael Ian Black Tutto nello Stato tattoo will make a kind of sense, and if we adopt the face-tightened Lestat-esque rictus grin of G.E. Smith in the process, then that’s fine. Maybe, like Mr. Smith, we too will live forever, at least until someone finds our portrait, hidden in plain sight in the Trump Museum of Huge and Very Very Not Degenerate Art, and slashes it.Right now, this is a purely economic decision. We’ve spent enough years trying to crack into the liberal rock scene only to be rebuffed—not because of any lack of talent, I’m sure, but rather because the market is saturated. It used to be that a serviceably handsome bunch of white boys could get by with little more than a Nirvana riff and a dream and some tortured permutation of “girl” in their band name. If you kept your head down, behaved grotesquely only to females in secondary markets, and occasionally said, “Guns? I think they’re bad,” you could not only survive but thrive. Now you’re expected to know more than one black person and not call people bitches on Twitter. It’s a hassle. And let’s face facts: singing songs about really liking the Replacements isn’t paying our rent with the commies anymore, and the subject matter—being wicked free and disaffected and, at one point, young—works just as well for the opposition. Looking at the options the Republican Party has had to settle for, we’re seeing an opportunity, and, like every Rollins Band song ever told us, we’re putting that opportunity in a headlock and flexing till our Einstürzende Neubauten ink shimmies like a tiki girl tattoo.With almost every recording artist trying to kowtow to the left, from Queen and the Turtles officially distancing themselves from the RNC to David Bowie’s ghost presumably haunting Reince Priebus until the two of them part ways at the gates of Hell (I’m assuming the chairman just heard the words “white” and “Duke” in “Station To Station” and figured it was chill to play), I see a niche that needs filling. Plus, we’re already on a label where ninety-nine percent of the artists are Aryan, half the bands wear Death In June shirts, and, outside of the occasional solidarity-with-Eagles-of-Death-Metal cover song, scan as apolitical anyway, so the time feels right to cross over and make bank. What’s Martina McBride but alt-country with a li’l “right” thrown in after the “alt”? What’s Kid Rock but post-grunge with a little chicken-fried God/America/pussy chitchat thrown on top? What’s Ted Nugent but neo-folk with actual choruses and bigger amps, right? The deer is going to get fucked up regardless. And we already have the loincloths.If the planet is going to be consumed by impotent John Oliver memes, Murdoch-sponsored internment camps, and Red Pill masturbatory flames, I’d like to die in an apartment without roommates.First order of business: add the word “love” to more of our songs. Republicans love “love.” From Barry White to the O’Jays to The Beatles, the concept of love, accompanied by a jaunty tune performed by people they’d cross the street to avoid, makes them think of Martin Luther King and Jesus, in a really abstract sense. Reading through our liner notes, we can easily just trade out some superfluous lyrics and replace them with decidedly nonspecific goodwill. “Scene Kids (From The Scene),” with its chorus of “I’m a fucked up kid fucking fucked up kids/Dark moon, rooftop, you’re one of us, a fucked up kid/Yeah Yeah No But Yeah” can pretty easily be changed to, “I’m a Trumped up kid loving perfect tens,” etc., etc. And all of our other songs are already about small-town living, so we can just pretend said small town isn’t Northampton, throw some loves on that shit and wamm-o blamm-o, we’re playing Smear The Queer with the Trump boys.Sound far-fetched? The press release for the Kid Rock RNC show contains the sentence “Beer during the week will be provided by the Ohio Craft Brewers Assn, and Premium Cigar Ass'n Cigar Tent in partnership with Makers Mark.” Nobody at a DIY show has ever offered us “Ass’n” anything. And hey, if our consciences get too heavy, we can just peel off some of the less blood-stained bills from the wad of cash we’ll get for playing the Trump inauguration and buy up all of Don Giovanni’s unsold Jamie Kilstein vinyl.Now, maybe we’re too late to take advantage of the current convention, but I still think this is an untapped money keg. We may lose some friends, sure, but think of all the new ones we’ll make: KK Warslut, Ben Weasel, Aaron Carter, Gene Simmons, a million anonymous Twitter accounts with anime avatars—it’ll be great! Ann Coulter is the closest thing we have to a modern-day GG Allin. And we need to be realistic—the wind is changing direction. The world is bad and getting badder. In 2016, you’re either the boar coming out of the ocean or the libtard at the end of its tusks. If the planet is going to be consumed by impotent John Oliver memes, Murdoch-sponsored internment camps, and Red Pill masturbatory flames, I’d like to die in an apartment without roommates.The thing to remember is that, even if our new team loses, we will eventually be forgiven. The only law of man that the music media obey is that all that is bad eventually becomes good. Ten years, twenty years tops, some youngster will write an expansive defense of us and the olds, fearing the daggers that make up the souls of all under twenty-eight, will agree. We’ll be welcomed back into the pantheon of “dudes with, sure, a few problematic songs, maybe a little derivative of every band of the last thirty years, but, hey, you liked us when you were fifteen so we must be good,” and we can tailor our reunion interviews to whatever Pokegarchy is currently in power.But even if Hillary is president this time next year, Trump’s side of the culture war is probably going to come out on top, and I want to be on the winning team—or at least get paid for seeing an underutilized market and, like the founders of the Warped Tour, tearing monetized flesh from the bones of principle. And don’t give me any of that shit that under Trump, “at least punk will be good again.” We’re Republicans now, not sociopaths.
The Age of Anxiety: On The Catcher in the Rye

Sixty-five years after it was published, J.D. Salinger’s novel remains a definitive expression of adolescent trauma. 

About a year ago, while roaming through a bookstore in Toronto, I saw a new edition of The Catcher in the Rye. I’d devoured it as a teen, when it had served as my personal portal to New York City, romantically derelict hotels and rejecting conformity. I decided to re-read J.D. Salinger’s novel, which turns 65 this week (and, as of 2016, still sells 685 copies per day).Fifteen years ago, I’d seen Holden Caulfield as an enfant terrible, a prep-school Peter Pan who divides the world into childlike and pure, adult and phony,11Number of phonies mentioned: 48 the patron saint of ducks in Central Park—whose safety he’s always worrying over—and the protector of vanquished children. I now read something less quirky, more serious, in the novel: it no longer seemed as much of an adventure story, but more of an exposition on what happens when a traumatized teenager takes the anonymizing big city as his Ativan.22Number of times Holden says he’s depressed: 31I’m not the only one who overlooked the depth of Holden’s anxiety. When the novel was published in 1951, reviewers who weren’t scandalized by three uses of “fuck” tended to highlight lighter fare—Holden’s picaresque antics and boppy teenage voice. Some journalists focused on what a badass Holden was, stoking controversy among family-values types about the novel’s potential to corrupt young minds. As a result, a few schools banned the book, mostly because Holden hires a sex worker and—by their count—uses the word “goddamn” 285 times.33Number of times Holden uses profanity: 785 Verdict: he was having way too much fun for grade ten English. And while it’s true that Holden does have an insouciant swagger that’s a little bit Richard Hell, a touch Mickey Mouse Club-era Ryan Gosling, when you read deeper, you see that Salinger was showing us what lay beneath Holden’s bravado.44Number of times Holden says he’s nervous: 16 More than a story of rebellion, The Catcher in the Rye is about how repression metabolizes trauma into anxiety.*Looking at how the novel came to be, it’s easy to see how that trauma got on the page. Salinger wrote large chunks of it while he was a soldier in World War II, on the typewriter he carried in his knapsack. While European cities fell to ash, Salinger built New York City on the page. As teenage soldiers died around him, Salinger brought Holden to life. On D-Day, as part of the 4th Infantry Division, Salinger stormed onto Utah Beach with six chapters in his bag. Two months later, Salinger was part of the team of Americans who liberated Dachau Concentration Camp. He saw grown men and women who weighed 65 pounds and twisted piles of corpses, a devastation that he never got over. After spending Armistice Day alone in a room in Paris wondering what it would feel like to shoot himself in the hand, he became worried enough about his cracking mental state to check himself into hospital in Nuremberg. When he went back to New York City to continue writing, the trauma of war followed him. “You could live a lifetime and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose,” he later told his daughter.Salinger shows us the model of anxiety writ large. By then, America had begun to understand the psychological damage war inflicts on soldiers. While World War I physicians had already identified “shell shock,” it was only after World War II that military psychiatrists, who had worked with men like Salinger, contributed their observations to a new book that offered a more rigorous, scientific taxonomy of mental complaints, The Diagnostic Statistics Manual (DSM). It would become the most major work about psychiatric illnesses, ever, the desk reference for psychiatrists around the world. Anxiety—then called “psychoneurotic illness”—took up a big share of its page count. “Gross stress reaction” is what they called the specific anxiety reaction to traumatic experience, the precursor to today’s PTSD. Crucially, the DSM noted, not everyone who experienced a trauma would go on to develop anxiety. Some people were more biologically inclined to it. Yet, what made it much more likely for someone to develop anxiety was the degree to which the trauma was unresolved or the emotions around it repressed. Following a trauma, two courses of action were possible: a) expression = recovery. b) Repression = getting more nervous, more sick.*The structure of The Catcher in the Rye is built around trauma and repression. When the novel opens, Salinger’s protagonist, Holden, is reeling from two traumas: his little brother Allie has died of leukemia and his parents, in a misguided attempt to protect him, bar him from attending the funeral before shipping him off to prep school. He’s expelled from that school, and three others. He witnesses a classmate committing suicide by jumping from a window. Holden reports hearing the thud when the boy hits the ground. As with the death of his brother, Holden doesn’t talk to anyone about how he’s feeling. He pushes his trauma inside. Quickly, almost to the letter of the DSM, Holden’s life explodes with anxiety.As I re-read the novel as an adult, I was struck by how pervasive anxiety is in Holden’s life, right from the start. The novel’s inciting incident is itself an anxious flub: Holden takes his fencing team to a competition by subway (he’s their manager) and is so nervous about missing their stop that he keeps getting up to check the map—up, down, up, down—to the point where he causes them to miss their stop and forgets their gear on the subway. His team ostracizes him. Soon after, an increasingly isolated and rattled Holden decides to run away from school. “I needed a vacation,” he says. “My nerves were pretty shot.” Throughout the novel, he tells us he’s nervous more than 16 times. He reports his hair has turned mostly grey, presumably from stress. He becomes obsessed with death. He imagines committing suicide, by my count, seven times. “I felt so lonesome, I almost wished I was dead.” “What I really felt like doing was jumping out that window.” In a diatribe in which he rails against the entire military complex, he offers to end the next world war by personally volunteering to sit on the A-bomb. To a mother of a schoolmate, he claims to have a brain tumor. Not even his room is free from death: Holden lives in a dormitory bearing the namesake Ossenberger, a man “who made a pot of dough in the undertaking business.” When he’s drunk, he pretends he’s been shot and staggers around clutching his stomach. Of physical symptoms, he gets the classic anxiety triumvirate: stomachache, nausea, and gastrointestinal problems. “When I worry,” Holden tells us, “I really worry. Sometimes I worry so much I have to go to the bathroom. But then I worry so much that I don’t have to go.” Later in the novel, Holden has a panic attack. By writing Holden’s feelings of disassociation, nerves, constipation, diarrhea, panic attacks, repetitive thoughts, rooted in traumatic events and repression, Salinger shows us the model of anxiety writ large. (He offers a much more distilled version, too, of the mental anguish suffered by World War II veterans in his story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”).Yet one of the most interesting qualities about The Catcher in Rye is its ambivalence about whether or not Holden even has a mental illness. We do learn at the beginning of the novel that Holden is in a mental institution and are reminded again at the end, but Salinger never actually shows Holden in a hospital. No gowns, no chaises, no pills. The neon smudges, nighttime blues, and cheap hotels of New York City, these become Holden’s hospital. Of actual psychiatry, Holden expresses caustic skepticism. On the first page of the novel, he derides psychoanalysis and its bent on retrieving childhood memories, saying he isn’t into “that David Copperfield crap.” When a former classmate tells Holden to get therapy so he can “recognize the patterns of his own mind,” Holden balks. A former teacher mentions Wilhelm Stekel, a noted early 20th century psychologist, but Holden seems bored. Consistently, Holden refuses to see himself as a subject of mental health discourse, engage in discussions about his own mental health or even regard psychology as a topic worthy of his time. Holden is a sexy guy, he’s a nervous guy, he’s not a phony guy, he’s a New York City guy, but he never defines himself as a sick guy. This reluctance is part of Holden’s teenage anti-institutional-swagger, but it is also the narrative mechanism that allows us to appreciate Holden as a rounded person, not a pathology, a statistic, a walking hospital gown.*As a teenager, I had understood a particular scene in the novel—that huge field of rye Holden imagines standing in, where he saves children from falling off a cliff—to be a simple and pleasant image that gives Holden peace of mind, akin to a really gorgeous mental screensaver. Now I see that it’s a bit more complicated. In the field of rye lies the possibility of changing history: Holden can save his brother from death, and he can save that classmate who committed suicide, and prevent himself from becoming anxious and surrounded by phonies who don’t ask, understand or care about the trauma he’s been through.As for practical advice on how to cope with anxiety, The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t offer much or give us any aphorisms about how it’s better to have suffered and learned. Holden, knowing Holden, would have chalked such talk up to a bunch of phoniness. Holden’s coping strategies—making up fields of rye in his head, mythologizing children, erasing “fucks” off walls, and walking around New York City in a weird red hunting cap, alone—were ultimately poor substitutes for meaningful interaction with empathetic people.At fifteen, I was unraveling from anxiety, but I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I had a problem with my shoes. When I’d walk down the hall at school, I’d sometimes stop feeling connected to the ground—my feet would literally feel like they were three inches off the ground, like I was floating—which would make me feel like I was going to fall down on my face. The more I worried about what was wrong with me, the worse it got. I worried that if I didn’t really focus on staying connected to the ground I would disappear. I ended up buying a pair of thin-soled canvas slippers in Chinatown, which helped: anytime I felt like I was floating away, all I needed to do was press my toes down to feel the floor. You’re here, my toes said, even though my body was a million miles away. It was uncomfortable and it made no sense.Fifteen years later, I re-read this passage in The Catcher in the Rye. It is one of the most vivid yet simple descriptions of panic I have ever read. In three sentences, Salinger captures how panic detaches Holden from his body and disassociates him from his environment to the point where he fears he will disappear:Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddamn curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again. Boy, did it scare me. 
Banner for Test of Loyalty by Sam Alden for Hazlitt
Test of Loyalty

Please. Don’t call immigration.

‘Worshipping This Crazy Female Energy Eruption’: An Interview with Sarah Barmak

The author of Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality on scientific ignorance, the sexualized Other, and Victorian hang ups. 

Get a couple of drinks into her and my best friend from high school will likely share the story of how, on a music department field trip our junior year, a big group of us locked ourselves into my friend Angie’s hotel room and totally undressed. No, this wasn’t some Girls Gone Wild exercise, and though I think we did practice kissing each other on that trip—or tried to, in between giggles—the episode was more about feeling ourselves than anything scandalous. I say “scandalous” because in so many societies and most certainly the Midwestern Catholic one in which I was raised, any curiosity in or expression of budding female sexuality is an implicit scandal: an act of impropriety, a small-to-medium-sized outrage at minimum. And so, when our lot of unclothed 16- and 17-year-old choir geeks horsed around around in that Minneapolis hotel room with our reasonably new breasts bared for probably the first time ever, we felt as though we were doing something a little bit forbidden. That is to say, we felt as though we were owning our own bodies and all their associated parts and just putting them out there, because they were ours and we could. This, we all had learned, is wrong.There was another thing going on, too. We were, I’m pretty sure, scoping each other out. There’s a great fear among the recently pubescent that their bodies are somehow deviant from an optimal norm. We are our bodies’ interrogators, probing the acceptability of our breasts’ diameters or labias’ lengths. In an effort to better understand and interpret our own bodies, we compare them to those of others. We internalize the belief that we are messy, or unknowably complex.“Early on, when I was first doing my research, I was doing it with the idea that women were mysterious and that female sexuality was difficult to understand,” journalist Sarah Barmak (and, disclosure, a good friend) tells me one early summer day over Skype. Her new book, Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, traces the ways in which women’s sexuality encompasses a multitude of attributes and events that—to paraphrase from Sarah’s book—straddle nature and culture at once. “By the end of it I’ve come to realize that this itself is another myth, that it’s something we tell ourselves and are told by the culture at large,” Barmak told me. “We’re taught that male sexuality is the gold standard and that female sexuality is somehow broken or too complicated in comparison. And that is really insidious, and it’s really difficult to notice unless someone points it out.”It’s no wonder that so much of the literature intended to inform our sexuality reads like either transcendental mysticism or motorcycle repair. Kelli Korducki: Tell me how you got started on this subject, Sarah. Sarah Barmak: I guess I had a sense that there were a lot of subcultural rumblings around women exploring themselves and their sexuality on their own terms and in these weird ways, like orgasmic meditation.When I went to Burning Man in 2013 I’d already had the idea to research this book, and so I was just going to everything that had anything to do with sexuality or womanhood or the divine feminine, which you to tend to find there. So I went to this orgasmic meditation demonstration, and it was like a church. It was a church atmosphere where people were worshipping this, like, crazy female energy eruption that was producing this sense of euphoria in like 200 people. And I was like, what the fuck? The other thing that happened early on was almost the opposite of that in terms of mood, when I went to a couple of workshops at Good for Her [a women-focused sex shop in Toronto]. They were both about orgasms, which I was interested in at that time as this mysterious thing that can be difficult for women to achieve and that also doesn’t have a distinct biological function the way male ejaculation does. So anyway, one of these was for [cis] women who had never had an orgasm and it was sort of the diametric opposite of that Burning Man experience. It was women suffering. And I was amazed—it seemed as though they were suffering on two levels. On one level they felt that they were not whole, and on the other that there was a sense of shame in talking about it. They felt as though it was frivolous.In your book you describe talking about your research with an ultra-progressive middle-aged woman whose reaction was more or less the same, that writing a book on women’s sexuality was paying lip service to a first-world problem. When she said that, she totally echoed something that I had sensed from women who had dealt with this problem [of never having experienced orgasm], like “This isn’t a real problem.” It’s this insane double-standard. We invest so much in Viagra, and advertise it, and we would never even question that if a man can’t get an erection that’s a really big problem. Whereas, if women have this issue, they feel ashamed to even raise it because we have this Victorian hang up that women are not as naturally sexual as men are. But things are starting to change, and it’s just a question of how we are conceptualizing female sexuality now that we’re starting to think of it as more important.Another thing that kind of relatedly struck me is how we, as a culture, have done such a good job of complying in our own ignorance. Until reading your book, I had no idea that there was a clitoral apparatus beyond the clitoral head itself—and that many doctors seem not to, as well. It’s remarkable how little we know about anatomy. That shocked me too! Like, it’s not a theory. Scientists have been writing about it in journals for awhile. The clitoris is ignored so much in medical literature that there’s the potential that surgeons could mistakenly do damage to it during surgery, because they know so little about where this tissue is and what it does.It’s difficult to imagine any sort of anatomical equivalent being so profoundly ignored. It seems to come down to the fact that it’s a part of [cis] female sexual anatomy that doesn’t have anything directly to do with reproduction or urination, and because of that it doesn’t fit with our historical idea of what womanhood is. There’s no greater example of how a certain world view can even affect science and the way scientists study the body, and whether they even see this anatomy at all.I wonder how a more complete view of anatomy would affect our worldview of what womanhood is. I would be speculating, but there are specialists who have started studying this area and they talk about the CUV–the whole complex of clitoral tissue—as being active, in playing a very active role in arousal and intercourse. We have this historical view of the female body being passive during sex, as being like a passive recipient of the penis basically. But it’s possible as we study this more and more that it might change our idea of womanhood. I can’t even really imagine which direction that would go.Do you have a hunch?The only thing I would mention is that I think a lot of the most interesting interventions, in terms of challenging what female sexuality looks like or what our picture of what female sexuality looks like, will come from the women with the least power. Trans women, women of colour. We haven’t really given women who have less power a voice in expressing their sexuality, and there’s some white cis privilege at play when it comes to expressing our sexuality. So there’s more to come from those directions, from marginalized groups, and there’s a lot to learn.That’s an interesting thought, that marginalized women are going to be the driving force of the next "frontier" of women's sexuality. The more I think about it, the more I realize just how deeply embedded the sexualized Other is in our conception of even the sexualized woman's body as Object. I guess I'm wondering what you think that disentanglement would look like?The way that some WOC approach sexual liberation is a complex question because of the dynamic you describe. Because of the way white culture has historically sexualized and exoticized non-white women (often in order to paint an idealized picture of white femininity in contrast to it), WOC have not always embraced white feminism's sex-positivity as a tool of liberation. Sexuality for many marginalized women is not an arena of freedom but of oppression.Yet despite that, some black women and WOC are embracing it, but in specific ways that address the exoticization of their bodies. Like the South American dancer / video artist Fannie Sosa, who I mention in the book—for her, twerking is a way of getting in touch with precolonial roots.And I think we're seeing a really interesting tension now with black artists like Beyoncé using the body as a tool of liberation and ironically making a lot of white people uncomfortable!When I see older white women worrying about the effect of Beyoncé on their daughters... I think there's a subtle layer of racism there they're completely unaware of, something that white culture has done by exoticizing black bodies for centuries.This is something I really still have a lot to learn about. I'm by no means an expert, and I'd actually really like to read more black writers about their takes on this. There are so many incredible black women out there on Twitter right now, writing for so many media, I just wanna sit down and shut up and read them really.Your book mostly concerns itself with cis female sexual anatomy/function, and I'm wondering how the frontier of trans female sexuality fits into all of this, or if it's more like the next thing we need to start to explore as a culture/medical industry (but haven't yet)? So, I'm glad you asked about this. The issue of how to include trans female sexuality was one of the most complicated issues in the book. I gave it a lot of thought, and I'm still not satisfied in some ways with how I resolved it.  So much of what I wanted to discuss was our culture's denigration and utter hatred of female genitalia—the vulva, clitoris, etc. Chapter 2 is pretty much all about anatomy—and in fact, I argue that part of why the clitoris was excluded from our culture's understanding of female genitalia was because it protruded and could sometimes be deemed "too large" to be properly female. So in a very real way, our fear of female anatomy is precisely the fear of women who are "too male" or transgress the gender barrier! But this didn't make an explicit enough space for trans women. In many ways transmisogyny is a concept that's much bigger than this book could do justice to. About halfway through I realized I wasn't at all engaging with trans women, and I needed to do a better job. What I found was that many trans female activists who are visible are actually quite reluctant to express and talk about their sexuality openly. Not their trans identity, but specifically how they have sex. This is because transphobic cis people are so quick to use details about the intimate lives of trans people as a way to paint them as "perverts" or discredit them, that many trans activists understandably want to keep that part of their lives private. This is when I began to understand that proudly and shamelessly expressing your sexuality is easier for women who are white, cis, straight and middle-class. But there are a few trans activists, like Tobi Hill-Meyer, who I interviewed in the book, who respect that view but feel the opposite—that it's important to argue that the kind of sex people have shouldn't affect their fight for human rights. The short answer is yes—trans women exploring their sexuality is 100% a part of the frontier where women of all kinds are exploring their sexuality. But the proliferation of trans female voices is not a part of women exploring, to be clear—the difficult process of transitioning is not a fun playtime thing like tantra, and to put it in the same category would be offensive and wrong. But a trans woman exploring her sexuality with porn or mindfulness—that is part of this movement.
Fear and Trembling in Las Vegas

A week with the street preachers of Sin City.

It is sunset on the Vegas Strip. The angels are standing in their corsets, their feathered heels. There are so many Zach Galifianakises, with varying degrees of girth, varyingly realistic monkeys on their shoulders. A muscular blond man wears black tie without a shirt. There are two Minions from Despicable Me, waving tiny costume arms at passersby; next to them, the snowman from Frozen bows his head towards his tip jar. There are women in dominatrix leather—you can get your “naughty mugshot” taken, in handcuffs, for a tip—and infinite Elvises: thin Elvis, fat Elvis, Elvis in a wheelchair, Mickey Mouse Elvis, strumming his guitar. A clean-cut twenty-something with a board offers “medical marijuana” tours to people who don’t need medicine. A Hispanic man in his late forties, wearing an orange T-shirt that says GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS, passes out flyers for a strip club. People ask him questions. He says he speaks no English.On the billboards, under the lights, across from the Paris-that-is-not-Paris (the Eiffel Tower, the Opera House, a quarter-size Arc de Triomphe advertising Monumental Sweets), a scrolling banner throws up seemingly unrelated snippets of text:I USED TO BE A MODEL.WE ARE ALL TIME TRAVELLERS.HUSTLE OR BE BROKEARE YOU HAVING FUN YET?At the fountains in front of the Bellagio Hotel, intermittently neon, the waters oscillate like women’s can-can-ing legs, rising above the few, parched trees dotting the hotel’s grounds. Everybody gathers here to watch the show—every fifteen minutes on Friday and Saturday nights—slurping through the 32-ounce daiquiris it is legal to carry openly. Tonight, the fountain is playing “Hey, Big Spender,” and at least a hundred people are craning their necks to see. They’re taking photographs. They’re tipping the Minions. The waters reach higher and higher, until the crash of them drowns out Shirley Bassey: “We could have a few laughs, laughs I could show you... good time! Would you like to have a... good time?” Everybody applauds.Then Gary gets on the megaphone.“Did you enjoy the show?” he asks, in a chewy Long Island accent. “The Bellagio—they gave you a free show. You didn’t earn it.”Nobody stops. Nobody looks up.“That’s salvation,” he says. “That’s God’s grace.”“What the hell?” someone shouts. “Come on.”The megaphone crackles. Gary gets louder—in his seventies, now, he admits he’s a little deaf—and keeps on going: “You’re proud of Sin City, as though sin had no penalty! Sin separates us from a Holy God."He talks about the good news of Christ’s gospel. Then he talks about the bad news: “Unless you come to a relationship in Jesus Christ, you will spend eternity separated from God.” No response. “What if you don’t believe the Bible? Well, that’s the great thing about this country. You can believe the Bible’s not true.”But that won’t change anything, when the hour comes. It’s like his sign says: REPENT OR PERISH.“This is it,” Gary says. “We’re in the final stretch of the World Series—this world will pass away, Jesus Christ will come again."Then, an afterthought. He nods at the Minions, who are still waving. “Tip the characters.”He hands over the microphone. A German woman takes it: “Too many of us hear that God is love. But God is an angry God. God is angry with us every day.”On the corner, a tall, broad man with a white goatee—his height only emphasized by his enormous cowboy hat—looks on in silence. TRUST JESUS, his sign says.The music at the fountains starts up again, silencing them. Then they do the whole thing over again.***Gary Stanfield has been street preaching for six years. He moved to Vegas from Huntington, Long Island, after his wife died and he subsequently remarried. It’s been six years for Wivke Rockne, the German woman; sometimes her husband Roger, a blackjack dealer whose work has taught him the “sinful nature of greed,” joins her to hold the banner before his shifts at the Monte Carlo, where he tries to convert colleagues and gamblers alike as an undercover agent.Dan Pflumme, who quietly hands out fake hundred-dollar bills with Christian messages printed on one side, has only been doing it for five months, just to get out of the house after his wife’s death, accompanied by his emotional service animal, a seven-year-old Bichon Frise called BJ who yelps at inopportune moments and jumps up and down his leg. They all have their own methods, their own techniques, their own Scriptural reference points, their own tracts, though they share a focus on generalities—God’s wrath, the coming Christ—over dogmatic specifics. They also share the microphone, switching off every ten or fifteen minutes.[[{"fid":"6695966","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]All except Jim Webber.Jim stares out over the crowd, under the brim of his cowboy hat, under his TRUST JESUS sign, saying nothing, passing out no tracts, approaching nobody.Instead, people approach him.“Hey, are you with the Phelps church?” It’s a blonde man in his twenties, already drunk, his girlfriend sloping over his arm.“No.”“Because if you were, I was gonna have to kick your ass.”Jim raises his head. He is so calm, so methodical in his speech.“Why, that’d be nearly as bad as cussing in front of a lady!”The man staggers back. “I … uh … I wasn’t cussing!”Jim doesn’t say anything.“I mean…”It sinks in. He slinks away. Jim keeps on holding his sign. The Minions keep on waving.***Vegas wants us to call it Sin City. Everyone I talk to during my stay—blackjack dealers, preachers, showgirls—makes reference to the phrase, coined in the nineteenth century when Block 16 reinvented itself as a place for gambling and womanizing for local miners. Not one person rolls their eyes or calls it a cliché. Sin is the girls whose photographed breasts festoon the sidewalk, the paper melting into the pavement. Sin is the Eiffel Tower-shaped cocktail you can carry out in the open. Sin is the Heart Attack Grill on Fremont Street, where people over 350 pounds can commit “caloric suicide” for free, and, as a sign outside reminds us: "the founding fathers fought and sacrificed for my right to be just as stupid as I want to be.”Sin is the seven million dollars a Bellagio blackjack dealer named Al tells me he saw a man lose in a single night, before coming back the next week to do it all over again.“Sin,” a witch tells a young boy in Terry Pratchett’s novel Carpe Jugulum, “is when you treat people as things.”In Vegas, there is nothing that is not a thing. Every body is a commodity: the women selling themselves—the cards they hand out make clear that they take MasterCard and Visa, rarely American Express—or using themselves to sell other things, the naked women on the sides of trucks who cover their breasts with machine guns inviting you to SHOOT LIVE ROUNDS. Everything is taken half-seriously, and only half. By one of the escort catalogues, a man turns to his wife with a fraction of a grin.“Can we get a hooker tonight, please?”“It’s your money, honey,” she says.She is smiling. He is smiling.***On my way to the Strip one morning, my driver is a man named Ricky who spent thirty years in door-to-door sales until the Internet “changed everything.” He gives me lessons in salesmanship. “You only have thirty seconds to make a pitch,” he says. “Whatever the product, you have to make them think they need it. Each person, you have to learn to mimic them. If they’re abrupt, you have to be abrupt. If they’re open, you have to be open.”For the preachers, Sin City’s greatest sin can be used for the saving of souls.According to Ricky, you have to make it clear they need the product—weed-killer, say—without insulting them: “You have to say, you’re doing such a great job with those cypresses, but I couldn’t help noticing a couple leaves are wilting.” Being vulnerable, he says, is often a great sales tactic. Personal stories create the illusion of connection.“Opening their wallets,” says Ricky. “That’s what I call it.”But these techniques aren’t limited to the commercial. For Gary, and the rest of the preachers, Sin City’s greatest sin can be used for the saving of souls.Gary, with Jim’s help, has tricked out his truck so that it reads, in enormous black letters, Jesus’s words: “WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?” Smaller decals add: “God Sees…what happens in Vegas,” “I Don’t Trust the Liberal Media,” and, “Lord, let me be the person my dog thinks I am.”Sure, it’s advertising: more the provenance, in Vegas, of casinos than churches. But it’s for a good cause. “When you see golden arches, nobody has to say anything—we all know that means McDonald’s,” says Gary. “If the corporate world uses this method, why shouldn't Christians?”But nobody can close a sale like Jim Webber.Jim Webber has been doing street ministry for almost fifty years. Sometimes, usually on college campuses, he preaches, or starts debates with passersby about the nature of God’s love. On the strip, where he has less time to make an impression, he prefers to let his sign do the talking. TRUST JESUS is pithy, he says. It’s also multi-purpose—important when dealing with a diverse audience. It exhorts the ungodly to accept Jesus Christ while making sure the Christians remember him. It’s like a Coca-Cola advertisement, he says: you can never know exactly what will go through a person’s mind when he sees it, but you know it’ll evoke some sort of emotion. Maybe someone will think of their grandmother saying, “I’ll pray for you,” or of a Christian colleague at work. It’s just one spoke on the wheel, he says—he pronounces it hwheel—who knows where the next spoke might come from?Jim, who owns and manages property across the country, has spent his savings, and most of his free time, on advertising for Jesus. He makes T-shirts, buttons, and banners for all the street preachers, free of charge, from his Vegas home, drawing on his experience as a young man in a commercial print shop. (Dan’s banner and Gary’s T-shirt both bear Jim’s slick hand-arranged lettering.) He serves as the nexus of what he calls the Vegas street preacher “subculture” (“there’s a fifty-cent word you might use”): patriarch, supporter, and enforcer—he often has to lecture the younger, more overzealous preachers, who turn up to the Strip late, on the Christian importance of keeping one’s word.[[{"fid":"6695971","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]On the Strip, Jim is implacable. He keeps a bag full of the theological books he’s written and printed through the self-publishing platform CreateSpace, which he gives for free to interested passersby. He has better luck getting people’s attention, he says, when Gary and the others aren’t out preaching—he admits “it puts people on edge.” But even tonight, people stop to talk to Jim: a Cajun man named EJ Domingue Jr., in town for a business convention, who fist-bumps Jim and proffers a self-authored religious pamphlet of his own (he’s an architectural photographer, not a street preacher, but Domingue just keeps them on hand to pass out when the Holy Spirit moves him); a Southern couple from Georgia who want to know if he can direct them to a ministry for unsaved sex workers; a man with a thick West African accent who wants Jim to know “I belong to Jesus.”Then there are the Pharisees, the ones of little faith.A drunk Australian, his 32-ounce glass already empty, stops Gary to ask if he can use the microphone for a while.“Free speech, man!” he insists, when Gary refuses. “Come on, free speech!”“Let me ask you a question,” Gary says. “Who is Jesus Christ?”“The man!” the Australian shouts. “Just telling the truth,” he adds lamely, when Gary pulls the microphone away. “I just wanna tell the truth.”“Everybody’s a theologian out here,” Gary grumbles, as the Australian shuffles away.Free speech, after all, is what allows Jim and Gary to carry out their work. Until 2005, casino hotels such as the Bellagio treated the Strip outside their doorstep as their de facto property and street preaching was banned, the prohibition enforced by byzantine Clark County—Vegas’s home county—restrictions on the size of a banner a person could carry. Jim was arrested under such restrictions in 2005.It was then that Jim found an unlikely ally: the American Civil Liberties Union, not historically a friend to the religious right. In the 2006 Webber vs. Clark County Case, the ACLU supported Jim’s cause as a First Amendment issue; the case was settled two years later in Jim’s favor. Street preachers have been allowed to remain on the strip, unmolested, ever since.After all, Jim says, what could be more fundamentally American than free speech?“I don’t mean to speak pridefully,” he disclaims (and will continue to disclaim over the five days I spend with him), but it was his own rhetorical prowess that convinced Clark County to ease up the restrictions on street preaching.Over lunch at the fluorescent-lit Red Rock casino—he always used to come here with his late co-preacher Pastor Kim, who loved the ten-station buffet—Jim regales me with tales of his success. Clark County wanted to settle with him, he says, and spent the deposition asking if he’d take money in lieu of policy change.“I kind of go into this dumb routine—Gee man, I'd really have to think about that…”Jim is partial, I come to learn, to the dumb routine, as a means of disarming those he sees as his intellectual enemies, accustomed to expecting someone who’s not “academically playing with all the cards.” Such a perception, he says, can work in his favor.“I went through this about three times with them and then I said: Well, let me put it to you this way. My grandfather fought World War I. My father fought in World War II. The essence of these wars had to do with protecting our nation as a nation, which centers around the constitution of the United States. We had tens of thousands of people, young men, that died, shed their blood, to preserve the rights we have in the United States of America.” He speaks smoothly, clearly, his precise cadence punctuated only by the occasional malapropism or aberration of syntax: preserverence for preservation, paramont for paramount, asphyxiated for fixated.“And so now you ask me, ‘what kind of a financial settlement…?’ ‘What value?’ I guess I'd have to ask, what value are those lives that were shed to preserve the right of freedom of speech and freedom of religion and the constitution of the United States of America? What value should we place upon those rights and in the enforcement of those rights against the people who want to undermine those rights and throw me in the back of a squad car for exercising those rights?”He finishes with a bellow. His cowboy hat trembles on his head.“That pretty much ended it,” he says. Then: “I did a much better job then than what you saw just now.”Not bad, he says, for a self-educated man, who by his own account had serious learning difficulties, and couldn’t read until he started practicing with a Bible on tape after his conversion in his early twenties."It's called slow motion,” Jim says, when I ask him about the process of teaching himself theology, “with the desire within you to represent God in the correct manner.” The key is persistence. “For instance, if I met a doctor, I'd say, how many years did you go to college to become a doctor? They may say seven years. So you studied your field for seven years? I studied one subject for fifty years.”Jim doesn’t claim to know everything, of course, calling himself a “utilitarian” in his approach. His only interest is in learning just enough theology to respond to the questions and concerns of would-be converts: “I have no desire to learn things that I'm not able to pass on in a practical way to other human beings. Learning for the sake of learning—I have no desire to do that. So when it comes to the things that real people out there in the world need, those are the things that I specialize in and those are the things I’ve taken the time to understand.”He tells the story of a learned acquaintance of his who was preparing to do additional graduate study. “And I said, ‘Lemme ask you a question: once you've gone through that whole course and you graduate and you've got that diploma, how many people are you going to be able to talk to about this subject matter?’” The answer? Not many. “And I said, ‘Why take the time, then? Why don't you spend your time down handing down tracts on the street trying to reach people for Christ, rather than getting another degree under your belt, so that you can feel like you're kind of a mucky muck within Christianity?’ People—they're living, they're dying, and they're either going to heaven or hell! Those are the issues!”Besides, Jim thinks bigger than being just another “mucky muck.” He’s developed his own theology—which he accepts some churches might see as “heretical”—based on his independent reading of the Bible, which he expands on in each of his books, with sections on his thoughts ranging from the end times to the depravity of man.“The reference I have is to the theology books that you've read, the other higher learning books that you've read within Christianity,” he says, referring to early Church fathers and major theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas, “and these guys, those are what I’m comparing myself to. Not a pastor at a local church. Not even necessarily a professor at the local bible school. That's not the benchmark. The benchmark is these scholars. I know how smart these guys are. And I don't ascertain to that. I don't ascertain to learning all the things that they've learned.”Still, Jim says, he keeps trying. His mission is too important not to.“I believe in the extreme emergency, so to speak—the importance of a person either spending eternity in heaven or hell. If there's a heaven and if there's a hell, if it be true,” he says, then there is no excuse for not sharing the good news of the gospel as widely as possible; those who fail to save their brethren from the fires of hell deserve to be there too.And if Jim fails, it will not be for lack of trying. “We’re not shoving it down everybody's throat … but everybody knows who we are and what we're doing. It's a warning. If in fact there's a judgment, if in fact they end up in hell, God will say to them: there was my man, he was available for you, you had questions, he spent his life studying these things to be able to give you the answer and he was prepared—but you thought he was a kook! You thought he was a nut! You kind of treated him intellectually in the same way as people treated Jesus!” He stops himself and turns to me. “You see kinda the thinking?”One day, Jim says, everybody will understand the good news of Jesus Christ. “They’re going to see all as they should see.”[[{"fid":"6695976","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]It is difficult, walking down the Strip on a Saturday afternoon, to imagine the coming of such a day. The streets are littered with the detritus of the night before, cards advertising the services of Ashley, Dana, Layla: sensual rubdowns, no hidden fees, discreet billing, forty-seven-dollar specials. Darth Vader counts singles in front of the Bally Hotel. Fat Elvis takes off his shoes in the street, scratching his feet through a filthy sock. On the walkway in front of Caesar’s Palace, stinking of urine, a man with dyed and faded orange hair sleeps in a corner. The homeless sit with their donation buckets alongside the Minions, the snowmen, Jack Sparrow himself.At the shrine of the four-faced Brahma, near Caesar’s Palace, someone stops long enough to kneel.“Dude, this is a good picture.”He clasps his hands. His friend takes a photo. They get up and walk on by.***Over coffee at a diner, Jim gets up from his table to compliment a decorated veteran—his medals from Vietnam and Korea pinned to his baseball cap—and to tell his wife how proud she must be to be married to such a brave man. She titters with delight; the old man beams.“See what I did there?” Jim says afterwards. “I manipulated the conversation. That guy is gonna feel so good all day long.” If he’d started by talking about Jesus, he says, they wouldn’t give him the time of day. But now “they’d sit down and listen to me for thirty, forty-five minutes. It all has to do with technique.”Jim has plenty of such techniques. He has a $12,000 high-end printing device in his Vegas home to make sure his merchandise is made with the best quality materials—“better tools, better product.” He makes T-shirts and caps with TRUST JESUS on them, and buttons for the kids. (“Kids like buttons,” he explains, because it means they can witness in a more non-threatening way.) He uses tent-poles to hold up the banners because they’re more efficient to take up and down than wooden poles.While some other preachers have less “professional” gear—signs made with black marker, screen-printed T-shirts with religious messages on them—it’s important, he says, to make the “best possible representation of the gospel to the world."Equally important is the choice of venue.Jim’s fond of what he calls “hot tub ministry”: going to a local spa or health club, where he has a “captivated audience” in a pool, and using the intimate setting to engage strangers in a conversation about Christ.“If you get into a hot tub, they’re there for a reason—they don’t want to leave. And so by attempting to get a conversation going and then being able to ask the right questions, you will be able to witness to them.”It’s all about getting inside people’s heads, he says. He always starts his witness with one simple question: “Tell me about your personal philosophy of life.”“You know the one subject most people in the world like to talk about more than anything?” he asks. “Themselves. And you know the one thing in this world that we live in that most people have little or no time for? Listening to other people. So people have a desire to talk about themselves, but they don't have an outlet in which to do that. We're into our computers, television, ball game, our family responsibilities. We're not into listening to a person's opinion.”That’s where Jim comes in. His listens to the people he witnesses to. He picks up on their cues. He gets them talking about themselves. And then he starts to challenge their beliefs.Often he’ll go into his dumb routine. He puts on a drawl thicker than usual: “I don't want to pressure you or anything, but … you said you try to be a good person. And that has always kind of struck me, because I've heard people say it, and oftentimes they're so different. How do you define a good person? Because let's face it, between me and you, some people think it's good to open a door for a little old lady, and another person thinks it's good to invite you for dinner when they've got a person they're boiling in oil for dinner that night!” All the while, “there's not one word that comes out of their mouth that I'm not paying attention to.”Inevitably, he says, people try to defend moral relativism. That’s when he tricks them—do they defend child molesters, too? At that point, they insist on moral absolutes, but are unable to defend why. That’s when God comes in.“It’s honest and simple,” Jim says. “I don't trick them. No trickery going on, no manipulation going on.”[[{"fid":"6695996","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]But he’s not above a little reverse psychology. Pointing out a car with a small, almost imperceptible cross on the bumper, Jim explains how he’d exhort the owner to be more zealous in his evangelism. “If I pulled up and that guy was getting out of a truck, I would get up without letting him know I’m a Christian at all, and I would just make the biggest thing out of the cross that you could imagine. Man, this is a testimony. Man, you gotta—in Sin City—to put that on your vehicle? I bet when God looks down on this city and he sees you and that truck…” He gets lost in his reverie. “Here you’ve got this big old guy picking up his six-pack of beer, and he’s got his wife there, and he’s got this 12-year-old kid that’s got this little Christian T-shirt on or something, and I just stop them! And this guy’s gotta listen to my whole praise over his son or his daughter or his wife because of this Christian Mickey Mouse—nothing bold like mine, something you’ve got to squint to even see it’s a Christian message. But I make it as beacons in the sky! And I say, ‘you gotta be proud to be married to a guy as gutsy as this guy.’ Nobody’s ever made such a big deal out of it before.”They’ll feel heard, he says. They’ll feel valued. They’ll feel that their contribution means something. “And this is called exhorting our brothers in the Lord.”One night, Jim tells me a story about the time he visited the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois, while on a mission trip: distributing his self-published autobiography for free from the back of his van to impoverished trailer-park churches, sleeping in Walmart parking lots. A friend pulled some strings, told Graham’s staff about his mission, got him a private invitation."They take me from the bottom all the way to the top, and they say, ‘Very few people have seen what you're about to see,’ and they take me into Billy Graham’s office, and they take me in and show me Billy Graham’s boardroom! And here I am, I am dressed in jeans, just like I am, and I got these security people around me and a public relations person around me, and all these people see me go right on by ’round them with an escort. And these people have to wonder,who in the heck is that guy? They're waiting in line and they have to buy tickets! And I'm escorted in there!”I start to ask if he felt uncomfortable at the wealth on display, at the slickness of the operation, after so many nights sleeping penniless on the road. Jim cuts me off.“And as I meditated on that experience, I thought to myself: that's probably how it's going to be in heaven. You're going to have all these saints there. And then you're going to have this guy honored with the crown and whatever, and they're going to say, who in the heck is that?”***Sunday morning, Gary Stanfield takes me to church.Shadow Hill Baptist Church, for all its posters that urge the congregation to PRAY FOR DOWNTOWN VEGAS, is as slick as the casinos I have left behind. HeBrews coffee shop (the website boasts “20 specialty flavors!”) serves parishioners; an electronic board counts down the seconds to each service. Behind the Christian rock band, a wall of neon boxes glimmers; the colors change during the singing, darkening every time we enter a minor key. Lyrics are provided on two enormous video screens, like celestial karaoke; when the pastor, Michael Rochelle, begins to preach, he is reflected, redoubled, enormous, on two video screens, which intermittently serve to illustrate what he’s talking about. When he warns of the dangers of Tarot cards, a deck appears onscreen; when he cautions against crystal-gazing, we see a menacing-looking woman in folkloric Roma garb. Rochelle’s sermon helps us fill in the blanks in our paper program: we learn that those isolated words—WASTE, SPEND, INVEST—that cryptically follow the lesson in our handout refer not to money, but time: Invest in your relationship with God, Rochelle says, and you’ll store up your spiritual treasures for heaven. It’s financial wisdom, applied to the everlasting.“It’s funny,” whispers Dolores, Gary’s wife, who grew up Catholic in Puerto Rico. “The one thing I found really hard about converting from Catholicism was about the New Jerusalem”—a prosperity gospel-associated notion of God’s reign-to-come manifested literally, here on Earth. She had been accustomed to thinking of it as a spiritual place, not a literal, geographic fulfillment of Christ’s coming reign, as Shadow Hill sees it. “I don’t want streets of gold,” she murmurs. “I don’t want a crown on my head.”Gary and Dolores take me to Sunday school with them. Miss Joy Wallace, a fifty-something woman with crisply feathered red hair, preaches the lesson, drawn from the book of Acts, about membership requirements in the church.“Have you ever joined an organization?” asks Miss Joy. “Why?”“Because they were like me!” a woman calls from the audience.Membership requirements, Miss Joy says, are a positive thing. Everyone is welcome, of course, “nobody is interviewed. But we talk to you about your beliefs.” Otherwise, she says, you could believe in the Church of Bacon—the Vegas-based atheistic, satirical “church” founded by comedian-magicians Penn and Teller—and still be welcome in the congregation.“In an era where the church is going the other way to appeal to the people,” Miss Joy says, to nods from the crowd, “it’s important to remember the church is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Sure, things have changed—with a trill she imagines how her grandmother would have reacted to the sight of her wearing pants in God’s house—but “some recipes you’ve got to hand down.”She begins to talk about upcoming Shadow Hill events: Lord’s Suppers, potluck dinners, outreach program for all the “unchurched children” they’ve taken under their wing in the neighborhood (“there’s a little boy whose name I can never remember,” she chatters, although someone in the audience reminds her it’s Javier).Gary raises his hand with a question. Miss Joy flinches.“But,” his nasal Long Island accent is so much more noticeable here, where the voices are so careful and so light. “There are so many non-essentials … I mean, the essentials are few: salvation by grace alone, Scripture being inspired, Jesus …”Miss Joy cuts him off so quickly I realize she’s done it before.“We agree,” she says. Her smile is tight. “Let’s pray.”[[{"fid":"6695981","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]I meet Gary outside HeBrews, over coffee.“Miss Joy,” he sighs. “She tolerates me—and that’s it. I mean, I’m sure she loves me, but she tolerates me. The thing about Joy is, she focuses on the non-essentials.” She shut him down when he floated the possibility of understanding Genesis 1—the first Biblical creation narrative, where God makes the world in seven days—as anything but literal. And while he is extremely against what he calls “homosexual marriage,” he knows of a transgender student in his daughter’s church group that he feels ought to be made welcome. Salvation, Jesus—those, Gary says, are the things that should count, not politics or practice. “We join the one true church,” he says. “Then we join an organization with different labels.”Such a stance, I learn, means that street preachers such as Gary are often at odds with their church communities—their theologies seen as idiosyncratic, even anarchic.Returning to the Strip after my morning at Shadow Hill, the chaos of the street becomes more absolute. In the absence of those four church walls, of the music tinkling in easy harmony over the sound system, to make eye contact, to call out at the mass of bodies passing us feels all the more transgressive.Jim reappears, his sign in tow tonight. He is wearing a different cowboy hat this time, black rather than beige. He is not surprised to hear of my experience at Shadow Hill; he has stopped going to church long since. “When he broke with Catholicism,” Jim tells me, “Martin Luther took a lot of the baggage along with him. Every church has its pope.”No worship community can ever be free of what he despises: rules and hierarchies that interfere with what he believes to be a purer relationship with God, informed by the Scriptures alone. “Look at the New Testament,” Jim says, “We see a pattern of multiple players in the meetings that are participating as the Spirit moves them. Not one kinda dictator and orchestrator of the whole meeting.” His Christianity is freer than that. But so, he argues, is it more intellectually truthful.Jim became disillusioned with the evangelical churches he went to, which he says were far from receptive to the intellectual inquiry he thinks of as necessary to Christian evangelical witness: only by understanding atheists’ most common objections to faith can anyone successfully convert them.On this, Jim and the various churches he’s attended don’t see eye to eye. “The minute you've raised your hand and asked a question about something these people were saying you'd be looked at as a troublemaker. These guys are not prepared!” Though he tells me he tries to conduct himself “as a gentleman,” he admits that back when he went to church, he was more often than not like Gary, staying after the sermon to challenge the pastor’s interpretation of Scripture.Besides, says Jim, the truest form of worship he can imagine is to be outside what he dismissively calls the “four walls” of the church. “This is a form of worship, you see? The proclamation of the gospel in the public forum is a form of worship, and I think it's a more truer worship than what we see exhibited in churches today.”In his more unguarded moments, Jim condemns institutions such as Shadow Hill as hypocritical, their Christianity too safe, too palatable, for the kind of real lifelong risk he sees Christianity as demanding. “If I went into Gary's church this morning, stepped up at the pulpit, and said, ‘May I see the hands of everyone here this morning that wants to be like Jesus?’, what do you think would happen? All the hands would go up. Then I’d say, ‘Well, how many of you would like to go out tonight to the Bellagio with me and reach people for Christ like Jesus did? In the highways and the by-ways and talk about the gospel message…’”He raises his hands.“You see? You might have four people that would show up. That's the bottom line, you know? You probably couldn't fill a car with the people that showed up.”Is it any wonder, Jim asks me, that the homosexuals, the tree-huggers, the “spotted owl people,” are taking over America? They have, at least, the courage of their convictions—the willingness to take real risks and fight for what they believe in. “Let's say this: if the average Christians in any city in America, or all the cities in America, were to become the activists that homosexuals are, our nation would change.”We’re interrupted by a shout from Gary.“That’s pornography!”A gay couple have shoved one of the Strip’s sex worker’s cards into Gary’s face.“Are you proud of yourself? Did your mother raise you that way?” Gary cries lamely.“That’s just the way she raised me,” one of them rolls his eyes. “Hallemalujah.”They leave Gary spluttering.I catch up with the couple farther down the strip. They roll their eyes when I ask them about what happened back there. “I mean, it’s Vegas,” one says. “They’re ridiculous. They’re here for the same reason everybody else is here: they like attention. It’s all just entertainment. It’s all part of the show.”He considers. “If they believe what they’re saying, though, they picked the best place.”A Jewish veteran named Clifton stops to ask a question about the Bible. Someone makes the sign of the devil and hisses. Two Italian-Americans from California, wearing red T-shirts of naked women, cry out: “I am Lucifer! Jesus’s mother was a whore!”On the strip, reactions to the preachers range from the supportive to the bemused. People are less indifferent than I’d expected—once drunk, even the atheists stop to engage with Gary, with Jim. They attempt to debate. They heckle. They cry out “hallelujah.” A long-haired blond man with a mangy dog and unfocused eyes argues that Jesus came to “help us open our chakras, you know?” A Jewish veteran named Clifton stops to ask a question about the Bible. Someone makes the sign of the devil and hisses. Two Italian-Americans from California, wearing red T-shirts of naked women, cry out: “I am Lucifer! Jesus’s mother was a whore!”It’s only when I see them up close that I notice their crosses.“I’m Catholic,” one, named Adrian, slurs in a voice hoarse with cigarette smoke. He has a rum and coke, half-drunk, in his hand. “I wear this shirt so I can get more ladies.” He’s here to spend money—he’s gone through “fifteen grand” this year alone, and as far as he’s concerned, God’s fine with that, too. He hates the preachers. “A lot of tourists come here from other worlds—”“—from other countries,” his companion butts in.“From other countries, and when they come here to spend money in the U.S., and they see these guys lecturing some fucking bullshit—I’m all-in about God, but to speak it out like that? It’s bullshit. If you believe your thing, do it at church! Tourists are gonna feel disrespected!”His companion has started taunting the street preachers again. Adrian decides to stop him this time, then to start hugging the preachers, just because he can.“Goodnight, brothers,” Adrian puts his hand on his heart. He blows them a kiss as they stumble away.***Off the strip, without alcohol to dull the edges of transgression, the act of preaching feels even more volatile. On Monday morning, Jim takes me to the local social security office, where a hundred-strong line of people waits for the doors to open to collect their welfare checks. This is another one of Jim’s “captivated audiences.” Perfect for an extended preaching session.And that’s just what John Terefe is doing.“If you died with your sins that's where you're going to end up, in hellfire, where the fire is not quenched and the worms never die.”He’s been doing it for an hour, through a megaphone, to an audience that is primarily black and Hispanic, with a few women, with their children, in hijabs. Nobody is drinking. Nobody is smiling. Most stand, bleary-eyed, staring straight ahead.Then somebody loses it.“Fucking chump!”He rushes over to John and starts to shout in his face. John ignores him and goes on quoting Scripture:“The righteous requirement of the law… walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, and this eternal life is in Jesus Christ. Whoever has the Son has life. But whoever does not have the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God remains upon him.”Nearby, an elderly woman who refuses to identify herself (“it doesn’t matter what my name is”) is irritable. “If I had a gun,” she tells me, “I’d shoot him.”He’s infringing on her rights, she says. “Everybody should have a choice, and I don't want to hear him! I believe in God too, but I don't want to hear that.” She, like everyone else in this line, is exhausted, here queuing an hour before the office opens to be sure to be seen. “Everybody’s on edge,” she says. “He gabbers your head all up before you go in and you can't think straight … you wanna go in there and think about what you have to do and your head's all gambled up with this mush.” She needs to change an address on her form—she tried to do it online, but it didn’t work, and this is the only time the office is open.“They don’t care,” her companion says. “They don’t care if we live or die.”Jim looks on proudly. “I made that sign for him,” he says of John. “And here he is with this sign, with this shirt! See the tone of his voice? He is not antagonistic. He is giving information.”I point out that a few people in the line disagree. Jim scoffs. "We have to hear stuff we don't wanna hear every day. They don't have any problem imposing on us, music blaring, infringing on my rights.”America’s a free country. Sometimes, the tables have to be turned.We meet John for breakfast at a strip mall diner named Jammy’s, between a Vape City and a payday loan center.Without his megaphone, John, barely twenty-four, is almost cripplingly shy, deferential to Jim and to me alike.John is Ethiopian, born and raised Greek Orthodox. He’s been in America since he was twelve. Two weeks ago, he says, his parents, unwilling to accept that their son had left behind their Orthodox traditions, kicked him out. Now he does odd jobs around his local church for ten hours a week and lives in one of the city’s numerous and notorious “weeklies,” somewhere between a motel and a slum.“It’s amazing,” Jim sighs, “how God consistently uses the imperfect to minister His perfection.”Over the signature Jammy’s cornflake-encrusted steak, John tells me he was saved by YouTube. He was doing his math homework with the help of a video tutorial when he came across the testimony of Mary Kay Baxter, a Pentecostal minister who claims to have spoken to God directly, and to have seen visions of both heaven and hell. John was vaguely aware of a hell in his Orthodox tradition, he says, “but not like this.” Baxter’s words of fire, of brimstone, terrified and overwhelmed him. “I’d never heard anyone talk about seeing Jesus with their own eyes. I felt very convicted, you know? That I was on my way to hell.”He’s no longer in college. Instead, he spends his days at the social security office and his nights on the Strip, preaching God’s word. His parents no longer speak to him.But it’s all worth it, he says. He’s been saved.It is striking, as I listen to John’s story of his conversion, what uncanny similarities his narrative shares with those of the other preachers I talk to.Every Christian who has been born again—from John, converted on YouTube, to John’s street-preaching colleague Claude Simmons, who was born again when he saw John’s signs outside the Bally Hotel six months ago, to Miranda Dowlby, crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” under posters of bare-assed women out on Fremont Street—uses the same language, always eliding the moment of experience. There is the recognition of sin, now told at such a distance, and the grace that follows repentance.But that pivot, the moment in between, is always left unsaid.“I was just overwhelmed,” says Claude.“I just knew,” says Miranda.“I felt very convicted,” says John (the term, which denotes both convincing and conviction, is common in evangelical circles). Nobody has any more detail. You know when you know. You’re just born again. That’s it.Sometimes, they disassociate from the person they were before that salvific grace. “I was sexually abused,” Miranda, a college student at a California Bible school, tells me within minutes of us meeting on the street. She’s come to Sin City for the weekend to save as many souls as she can, and speaks with an intensity so manic and wears a smile so beatific I wonder if she’s even aware of what she’s saying. “I didn’t have a dad. I was so broken.” Her smile gets wider. “But then I—praise the Lord—visited a Bible school,” the church being the only place that could take care of her while her grandmother, who raised her, was at work, “and they told me, Jesus wants to be your dad.”Claude Simmons, too, tells me a story of homelessness, of leaving behind his biological family at sixteen to re-enter the foster care system. “I don’t know why,” he says, with that same smile. Like Miranda, he speaks so quickly, interspersing his own account with passages from the Bible. “It must have been God’s plan.”He has two children: one from a previous relationship, one with his current wife. He was homeless twice, but when he talks about it, he might as well be describing the life of a stranger. “I was a person who smoked a lot of marijuana,” he says, but then he was saved, and that was it. “By God's grace that same day I got convicted of my sins, I had a joint actually on me and half a pack of cigarettes, and the same day, I threw them all out. Right here. I knew that the Holy Spirit would not allow me to. That very day, I didn't think about it any more, like, by God's grace! I didn't ponder and then stop. I just stopped. It was miraculous—I didn't think twice.”For John, for Miranda, for Claude, salvation is a caesura in their lives. Their existence now is too full of joy for them to remember the broken people they were, the family they’ve lost.“It’s having someone love you unconditionally,” Miranda says. She closes her eyes and takes in the moment. “Just … unconditional love.”“Like the Bible says,” Claude tells me, “the heart is most deceitful. I wouldn't be satisfied. I'd want more, more, be looking for more, more, more satisfaction.”Now he’s satisfied at last. He doesn’t care for money, or drugs, or sex. The Lord provides. Just the other day, he tells me, $800 mysteriously appeared in his wife’s bank account. “We have no idea where it came from,” he says, although it’s happened two or three times.“God’s grace. God’s grace.”That moment of redemption, Jim tells me, is so important, it almost doesn’t matter how you get there. As we leave Jammy’s, Jim admits that he doesn’t believe a word of Mary Kay Baxter’s testimony. He thinks she’s a charlatan, a fraud, like so many would-be faith healers using God to make a buck or two, “phony as a seven-dollar bill.”But it doesn’t matter, Jim says. John found God. Everything else is irrelevant.“It’s amazing,” Jim sighs, “how God consistently uses the imperfect to minister His perfection.”I think of that phrase several times over my stay in Vegas. I think of it when I watch John Terefe and Claude Simmons on the Strips, celebrating their salvation even when people spit in their faces. I think of it when Gary gets in a fight with someone who tells him his megaphone is too loud and nobody can hear, and he calls out in response, desperately, “It’s the message you can’t hear,” until Jim discreetly instructs him to turn down the volume.I think of it when I see Wivke Rockne get in an altercation with a pair in their twenties: a blond guy with dreadlocks wearing chains, a girl with a neon raver hat.“Does everybody deserve to go to heaven?” Wivke is asking.The blond with the dreadlocks is in her face. “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. Isaiah 45.”She starts to counter; he cuts her off.“Judge not that ye may not be judged. Matthew 7.”Wivke counters with John 14: Jesus is the way, the truth, the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through him.“Fucking Bible thumpers!” the girl is shouting. Her hands are shaking. Every part of her is shaking.I ask her what she’s doing here.“I was on Dr. Phil,” she says. Her words are scattered. Everything comes out at once. “I’m a domestic violence survivor. I lost my four kids,” she tells me, and her childless aunt seized custody. “My daughter, I felt her kick inside me—is this the Christianly thing to do? But God counts every tear that falls from a mother’s face. God counts every tear.”[[{"fid":"6695986","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]She’s come to Vegas in search of a new start. She met Blake, with the dreadlocks, back in Denver; he’s her “Care Bear” now. He takes care of her.She tells me she wants to tell me her story.I take down her name.“Rachel,” she says. Her hands are still shaking. “Like in the Bible.”I meet Rachel and Blake at a café in the Cancun Resort, on the South Strip, near a strip of “weeklies” so dangerous my driver insists on waiting in the parking lot for two hours, unpaid, to ensure he gets me home safe.By then, I’ve substantiated parts of Rachel’s story. She’s Rachel DeAnn Tessean. In 2004, when she was 16 and pregnant for the first time, she appeared on Dr. Phil, after her mother, citing concerns about the virtue of her younger daughters, placed her in a home for unwed mothers two days after she admitted her pregnancy. She gave that daughter up for adoption at her family’s behest.A decade later, and Rachel’s lost custody of her three younger children—products of an abusive marriage—to her aunt. She’s been in and out of halfway houses and rehab centers; she’s done “modeling, stripping, porn.” She’s been a “moneybag” to drug dealers she’s dated—abused by rival gang members as retaliation when they came up short on money. She has seizures, sometimes—a result of repeated head trauma.Seeing the preachers’ signs on the Strip set her off. “Las Vegas, it’s like the boob of the world—everybody’s like a vampire just sucking on it, you know? All the evil that can go on here. And people go back to their homes in different states—they probably go back to church. It’s called hypocrisy.” Her relatives were religious Christians, after all, and look at how they treated her. “All Bible-thumpers and Baptists and Evangelists, and they got their thing going on and they all got their six figures in their bank account, and their cars and their houses, and they go to church every Sunday.”Through all this, Rachel believes God has brought her here. She prayed for a miracle back in Denver and she met Blake.“I call him Care Bear, no one else calls him Care Bear but me, ’cause he’s the biggest teddy bear. But you know what, my teddy bear isn’t just something I cuddle, he actually cares. Unlike...” Her voice tightens. “And that’s something about Christianity: People have to actually care. You can’t just say you’re a good person. You have to actually feel the emotion. You can’t just do good things and then think that’s going to make you look better. “She grabs Blake’s hand and squeezes it.Blake nods.He’s on a mission, too. Back in North Carolina, Blake was a recreational cannabis user, occasionally experimenting with hallucinogens in search of a higher consciousness—that “unconditional happiness toward where I can love everybody.” What Christians called in Greek agape.Two months ago, he had a diethyltryptamine-induced religious vision, and now believes God wants him to go to California.Blake grew up wealthy, the grandson of a town mayor with millions in the bank; he received a house, bought and paid for, for his eighteenth birthday. He was sexually abused throughout his childhood, bounced around from relative to relative, and claims to have been, at the nadir of his depression, a full 800 pounds.Then a woman at the nursing home at which he was temping spoke in tongues, and everything changed.“I can’t understand anything she’s saying, I just know she’s talking. She goes around to me, and she’s like, Blake. And all of a sudden I hear everything she’s saying. Blake, I was saving the best for you, because God has something special for you.”Then he understood everything.She had three prophecies for him: That he would find somebody that truly loved him; that he would lead thousands of people in the name of God; and that he would die before the fall of Babylon.“By the third prophecy, I could never question God’s existence ever again. The baptism of the Holy Spirit. It’s whenever the idea of God comes upon you and you could never question God’s existence ever again.”He lost weight—he’s stout, now, but nowhere near obese. He began experimenting with hallucinogens. He began experiencing those paroxysms of love that led him to his vision of California.It strikes me that it is the first time, since I have arrived in Vegas, that somebody has given me an account of faith that actually details the moment everything changes. It is the first time somebody has told me what finding God is really like.This God is not the God of Shadow Hill Baptist Church. It is not Jim Webber’s God, either. Together, Rachel and Blake have assumed their own religion—cobbled from passages of Scripture, from their visions, from prophecies and drugs. God has brought them to each other in their brokenness, they say. They have suffered; with each other, they are no longer suffering, at least for a while. Soon, they tell me, they’re heading to Slab City, California, a famous off-grid anarchic desert campsite known as the “last free place” on earth.“Freaks of nature,” Rachel starts to grin. “All people of all walks of life, rich poor, middle class from all over the world—that have dreads, and don’t have dreads, or are Indian or native or not. Black or white, men or women; it doesn’t matter. There’s not going to be one fight. There’s not going to be anybody starving, or anybody saying, where’d you come from, or why are you here? Why don’t you get your kids back, Rachel?”She has her Care Bear now, she says. He’s more of a brother to her than her real family ever was.And she has her faith. Not in her mother’s God, not in any God in any religion she’s familiar with, but in the God she came to know in darkness.“I mean—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been by the railroad tracks, by myself, in army boots, like crying. Not even crying, screaming at the top of my lungs. Like, really God? Like really? And the only thing I could think of was to thank Him, and I thanked Him again: that I did not have my children with me, that my children could not see me screaming for them at a railroad. I’ve prayed, I’ve never lost faith, I’ve been put in bad situations, but I always was like, okay, I’ll figure it out somehow, some way. This is what God had to teach me: how to love when I have nothing to love at all. Or no one to love at all.”Rachel and Blake are both crying.“At least I don’t have to go on the Dr. Phil show again to talk about what I need to talk about,” she says, softly, to Blake. “I found you.”It is sunset on the Vegas strip. A drunk, homeless woman gives the street preachers the finger. An Elvis passes by on a motorized wheelchair. The Minions are putting on their plush, cartoon heads. The snowman from Frozen is putting out his tip jar. The angels wrap coats around their feathers, their lingerie.God consistently uses the imperfect to minister his perfection.I’ve asked Rachel and Blake to write me, to let me know they’ve made it to Slab City safely.Gary is setting up his megaphone.Jim is already standing, so still with his sign. He is still wearing his cowboy hat.Tonight we will be like Christ, again. We will preach in the highways and the byways. We will preach to the unbeliever. We will preach to the sex worker, to the mother who weeps in heaven because her children are no more. We will preach the good news in the city of sin.Jim stands there with his sign, a few hours more.“Couldn’t agree with you more!” Someone grabs Jim’s hand, envelops it in a handshake. “Hey, pray for this guy I met…he’s from Miami. He said he was a Jew—what was his name? Kippin? He’s going to hell.” He gives a little laugh. “If Jesus comes today he’s going to hell.”Once he finds out I’m a journalist, he gives me his full name at once. “Todd Harris.” He tells me he admires what Jim is doing. “He’s not, like, yelling, for one thing. It’s like, chill, chill, man. You don’t have to put it in people’s face. Jesus, he met you right where you were at!” He tells me he’s in town for work: he’s starting a “relational routing center”—a kind of bespoke rehab service—called Total Life Change. “We wanna help people help themselves. Meeting them right where they’re at.” He leans straight into my recorder. “Total Life Change. Todd Harris. Just starting this business—it’s going to go!”Then he vanishes into the night, which is so bright with neon it might as well be dawn.Jim and I stand alone, among the crowds. He is meditative, still.“You know, there is nothing, in my opinion, that is more satisfying than dealing with human beings and what is going on in their lives. And people are very complicated, you know.” Sometimes it’s not even about converting them. Sometimes you just talk to somebody, you learn their story, you gain their respect. You touch them, in some way, and then maybe they remember you, when they least expect it, and maybe then they find something that looks like grace. “And that’s the object of what we’re looking for.”“Hey, Big Spender,” is starting up again. The water show is beginning. The crowds gather. Someone is taking a selfie, making sure to get Jim’s TRUST JESUS sign in the background.“Here, in this city,” says Jim, “this city that personifies itself as Sin City, in the midst of that hub, what greater honor, what greater privilege could I ask for in this life than to be a beacon of light in this darkness?”Down the Strip, Gary is fiddling with his banner.“We could have a few laughs, laughs I could show you a ... good time! Would you like to have a ... good time?”The fountain show crashes to its climax once more. Everybody applauds.Gary gets on his megaphone.“Did you enjoy the show?’”
‘I’m That Friend Who’s Seriously Fucking Heavy in Person’: An Interview with Heather Havrilesky

The author of Ask Polly and How to Be A Person in the World on non-joiner instincts, leading with feelings and crawling towards a new kind of happiness. 

Answering a letter titled “My Mind Likes Imagining Boys,” writer and advice-giver Heather Havrilesky (whose column, Ask Polly, began in 2012 at The Awl, moved to New York magazine and is, as of this week, now a book, How to Be A Person in the World), describes the self we imagine when we’re conjuring a far-fetched seduction scenario. That self is at once better than the real thing (“demure yet straight-talking, slightly more hygienic”) and bound by reality (a “surly, hormonal muse”). This is, I think, exactly what makes a great advice columnist—a surly, hormonal muse whose wisdom is both aspirational and grounded firmly in the reality of our worst selves.Havrilesky has a gift for situating her advice in our selfish impulses and the culture that creates them, perhaps owing to her decades as a culture writer. It’s our fault, Havrilesky isn’t afraid to tell us, but it’s not our fault that it’s our fault, which, to someone who resists authority, is the perfect motivational package. In Havrilesky’s second book, resisting the urge to fall prey to the shittiness we’ve been coded to accept and enact is a revolutionary act. “The world will tell you lies about how small you are,” Havrilesky writes. She gives us answers, but she also gives us questions (“How secretly furious are you?”) and in doing so, she offers us the space to acknowledge our power to change.As I turn 30, I feel grateful for the things I’ve figured out and the happiness I’ve found and the luck I’ve had (I’ve also grown extremely fond of soft things, something Havrilesky writes about in a column on the perils of consumerism). That said, I spend an alarming amount of my day employing the title of Havrilesky’s book as a very real query. I’m so often convinced I’m doing everything wrong. I know I’m not alone in this. When I read Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? years ago, I was grateful that a book made space for that question. Now, I’m equally grateful for Havrilesky’s latest, which makes space for some answers. Here, even more advice from the Internet’s favourite surly, hormonal muse.*Haley Cullingham: You have a line at the end of the intro to the book about the magic that comes from reaching out. You started writing on the Internet in 1995, and you very much use it as a connective tool, but in the book, you have these moments when you’re answering letters and you describe times in your life when you’ve been very isolated, and so I was wondering if you could talk about the Internet and its power as either a connector or an isolator, or both.Heather Havrilesky: At this exact moment, I’m very conflicted about the incendiary power of the internet, because of what’s happening in the U.S. and elsewhere. It’s strange because no matter what your particular profile, demographic, and nature might be, you can find people with like-minded desires and goals online, and so I think at the very beginning of the Internet, when I was writing for Suck.com, and I was twentysomething, and young, in some ways I was concerned most with drawing lines between myself and other people. The focus of Suck was in some ways a little bit harsh, and in some ways kind of honourable for its time, calling out the kind of stupidity that was running rampant in the early days of the Internet. There was a lot of money being thrown at crazy, glorified advertisements, essentially. And so there was kind of this sense that this tool, that had all of this amazing potential, was going to be turned into a giant shopping mall. When you’re young, when you’re in your twenties, a lot of what you’re focused on is forming a clear identity, and finding your courage of conviction, finding what things you feel should define you and figuring out what things are apart from you, and separate from you, and different from you.And then I was a critic for years, a TV critic, and then a book critic, and then a cultural critic, and again, a lot of my energy was focused on separating the really crappy TV and lame cultural artifacts from the good stuff, and defining what makes something good and what makes something worthwhile. I think that my advice column kind of started out along the same lines. And certainly I still write about culture in the advice column. Many times I write about it as this force of evil, toxic information that tells you bad things about yourself, particularly—I don’t even want to say particularly women because I think that our culture reduces us to our lowest common denominator. It’s easy to get the impression and to tell yourself that you’re nothing until you prove to the world that you’re something, especially against a backdrop of social media. It’s really interesting and gratifying for me to do something that is sort of more about describing human potential, and capturing an individual’s potential and expressing it in ways that will actually inspire the person to reach that potential. It’s a little bit unfamiliar to me, and I think that’s why I love it so much. It’s very challenging, but it makes me stretch and grow as a person to try to do it.As you’re answering the questions or thinking about writing the answers to the questions, does that help you work out your own stuff? Or is it more isolated than that?Oh yeah, absolutely. I think it’s hard to have a practice that keeps you in touch with what’s important in your life. I’ve never been good at meditating, I am not dedicated to yoga—I prefer running to yoga. And I’m not religious, I’ve never completely bought into many spiritual ideas—at least, spiritual ideas that came at me from someone else never felt compelling.Was your family religious growing up?My dad was Catholic and his family was Catholic so I was raised Catholic, I went to Catholic elementary school and then I went to public school. My mom was an atheist, or agnostic, basically, and made it very clear that she was agnostic throughout my childhood, so it was sort of like, if I asked about heaven, my mom would say, “Well, some people think that people go to heaven.” She was sort of willing to give me that comforting illusion but it was pretty obvious where she stood. So I always have a little bit of confusion and skepticism around religion, and having been raised Catholic also, it’s very easy to turn against the Catholic faith because there’s a lot of suffering, there’s a lot of kneeling on hard wooden benches, hard wooden little kneeling stools, and there’s a lot of sitting in church and listening to people together confirm their faith as a group, which, as a natural skeptic, forces you to question whether these things are true. I always found the “We believe this, we believe that” … it always struck me as incredibly freaky and scary that everyone was agreeing. I was definitely raised by two people who were in some ways beyond reproach and completely formed their own ideas about what was important and what wasn’t, so that informed a lot of my natural non-joiner instincts. I am the definition of not a team player.What you said earlier, that idea of culture forming us to have sometimes terrible perceptions of ourselves, do you ever find it challenging to balance your own politics and ideals with things that you observe in human behavior to be shitty but true? Do you ever, almost, want to present the world as better than it is? That idea of, “Maybe if I pretend you have a bit more agency in this situation, that will actually come true, because a lot of people read my column, and maybe I can change the way that people think!”Believing you have agency is, I think, the only way. My belief in each individual’s agency is pretty strong. Obviously it’s hard to completely process all these letters from people who feel very strongly that they don’t have any agency in their lives and still come out with this idea that anyone can change their circumstances. Not everyone can change their circumstances, obviously. I don’t answer letters from people who are imprisoned in a foreign country. Once, I got a letter from a guy who had chronic back pain, and I wrote to him, and I asked him all the things he’d done and he’d tried all these things. I mean, talking to someone with chronic pain is really intense. Talking to someone who’s dying is really intense. There’s some acceptance that has to go on there, but it’s, you know. In some ways, people who are in situations that are torturous and never-ending, it’s a really hard thing to even fit that into the shape of the column. I don’t really take that stuff on, for a reason. It doesn’t really fit. So obviously not every problem is 100 percent solvable using only the powers of your imagination and your brain.But, that said, I am definitely a firm believer in individual agency and also in human potential. Even if you can’t actively change your circumstances in the moment, so much of our experience is dictated by how we perceive and how we feel about the world and about ourselves, and that’s something that—you asked if the column helps me, yeah, it is kind of my practice now. There aren’t that many great ways for me to remind myself what’s important, and the column serves that goal very clearly. My experience of myself and the world has shifted dramatically since I started writing the column, actually. If I had to talk about this advice column four years ago, or three years ago, two years ago, I would have struggled to do it with any kind of clarity. My whole experience of my own happiness and the way I move through the world has shifted hugely. My circumstances haven’t changed that much. I had everything I ever wanted, really, when I started writing the column. My work was a little bit sporadic—I was very successful, I had very good gigs, but I wasn’t working enough, and I felt that. I was a little too under-occupied. I could have gone out and gotten a gig; I knew that I didn’t want to write about TV anymore, so I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and I was driven a little crazy by my work patterns. I had a three-year-old and an almost-six-year-old—there’s a certain kind of weird crucible that happens when your kids are around those ages, and I was a freelance writer, and a lot of things felt up in the air. But I had everything I wanted. I had a husband that I loved like crazy, I had kids that I was crazy about, I had a stepson who I was crazy about, everything in my life was right, but I didn’t feel that good. I was finally forced to ask myself, why can’t I enjoy what I have? And I feel like since then, I’ve learned to enjoy what I have. Because I have to write about happiness, I’m not allowed off the hook. I’ve got to live it or it’s all bullshit. So I feel like I’ve been crawling towards a new kind of happiness that I haven’t really experienced before in my life. And I feel like the things that I’ve discovered have been kind of amazing and important and incredible, and now I talk in ways that I wouldn’t have recognized four years ago. As someone who used to be led primarily by my intellect, I’ve become someone who talks about feelings as the most important thing.One of the things I felt, after reading the book, was very grateful for the things I had—it gave me that feeling.That’s so great, because that’s a huge part of what I’ve learned to do, and what I feel it’s important for me to preach in my column. Our culture teaches you that you have to get somewhere, and then once you’re there, you’ll feel it all. But you won’t feel much, you’ll just feel the struggle, until you get there. And what you learn, when you start to get somewhere, is that there is not there. Simply passing one finish line or another doesn’t do much for you, actually. What led to this, one of the pieces of it, was I published my first book and I wanted to feel some satisfaction in having done that, and it was very hard for me to feel the accomplishments around that. I couldn’t let them in. I wasn’t accustomed to standing back and appreciating things. That wasn’t part of my daily habit. And now it’s part of my daily habit to appreciate weird little things. Because if you can’t appreciate the small things, the big things come and you feel terrible, actually, because you feel like a robot that can’t even process this big thing that’s happening to you. A feeling of visceral understanding that this moment is all you have, and you have to recognize the beauty in the imperfection of this moment—that’s really at the centre of what I feel every day and believe in and what I’ve learned to savour, and it’s what I’m trying to communicate in almost every column.The book has 24 original columns that weren’t online before. Was there a difference in choosing those letters, and answering them, when you knew they were for the book, versus strictly for your column?I actually just wrote a lot. I would sometimes be writing a column for the website and I would say, "You know what? I really love this one. This one should be in the book." When I was writing for the book, I would just answer a lot of letters. I probably answered three or four a week around that time, and then one of them would go to the column. And the column actually got short-changed a little bit, for a few months there, honestly. It was still pretty good, it’s just, the very best stuff, I was selecting out, and saying, “This deserves to be in print FOREVER.” I set out with this vision of very deliberately writing this so one column would build on the next column and it was all kind like a crescendo at the end of the book. But instead, it was very hard to do that, and when I found myself saying, “This one’s going to build on the last one,” I couldn’t quite pull it off—it was like, “I don’t even know how to make this chapter on sexual harassment build on the one about the girl who doesn’t want her sexy sister and boyfriend to come to the wedding.” So really it was much more haphazard than that. And so in the organization, we tried to do the same thing, the organization of the book works really well, I think. It does kind of feel like this descent into serious heaviness, but also the epiphany kind of builds as the book goes on.It sneaks up on you, and when it starts getting heavy you’re almost ready for it, you’re primed.Yeah, you’re prepared, right? Because you've kind of been through the whole therapy already. It’s weird.Is there a form of writing that’s most comfortable for you?There are different comfort zones that I get into. I know how to write a critical piece—I’ve been doing that for years, so I can sit down and write a catchy lede and jump right into an analysis of a book pretty quickly, and I enjoy it a lot. Easy is a weird word, but nothing flows more for me than writing the Ask Polly column. I just think it pulls together a lot of my strengths as a writer, and as a thinker. As a feeler. That sounds fucking terrible. I think that I’ve always wanted to write about the human condition and big themes, and I’ve always sort of forced that onto my analysis of The Real Housewives of New York, for example. So if you look back at my TV column for Salon, I was always trying to push it towards things I was more interested in. Most of my approach for writing criticism is in fact, like, start with an idea big enough that it captures my interest, and then I could write the rest of the piece. If I started too micro, if I started in the little details of the artifact itself, I would feel like an academic, almost. I just get bored quickly. So I’d start with a grandiose lede so that I felt like I was taking on something big. I think I always wanted to write directly about love, and trying to find meaning in your life, and trying to understand yourself, and trying to be understood by other people, and the frustrations of being alive. But as a writer, I’m sure you know, it’s hard to get to the things that you really want to write about sometimes, because you can’t just send your 5,000-word essay on love to an editor and get it published. Unless it’s love as reflected in Beyoncé’s Lemonade. So I feel very lucky to have a platform to write the things I’ve always wanted to write.I’ve always been, at heart, a non-fiction writer. I wrote essays when I was really young, when I was in college. The form of the essay has always come naturally for me, against my struggling with fiction and my struggling with poetry and my struggling with other forms. So, this feels like a natural extension of that affinity, and also a natural extension of my focus in life. I’m that friend who’s seriously fucking heavy in person, and just wants to hear about the heavy shit that’s going on in your life. I’m also the one who, if you call me and say, “I feel like everything is falling apart,” I’m like, “Oh! Tell me more! Fascinating! Wonderful!” I’m the opposite of the friend who hears that and says, “Jesus Christ, I’ve gotta go.” This feels like a natural extension of what I’ve been doing forever, in my free time, unpaid.Is being an advice columnist like being a doctor, in that once you start doing it, everyone calls you and asks you for advice? Or are people now less likely to ask? People ask me for advice. It’s really great, actually, because no one took my advice before. No one wanted to know my opinion of anything, honestly. Except TV. And I never wanted to talk about TV, so it was hard. People would stop me at parties and say, “What are the good TV shows?” and I’d be like, “Ugh, go read my column, I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about that.” But now, it’s hard to have a conversation with someone who’s read the column who doesn’t tell me everything about themselves at some point, which is my version of heaven. I love that. If you’re someone who is always craving that kind of interaction but you don’t get enough of it, it’s always glorious to stumble into a world where people tell you things. AND take your advice seriously! That, in and of itself, is like, what? Why do you want to know what I think about this? This is amazing!It does feel like there’s a natural relationship—maybe this is my twisted brain—between reviewing reality TV, and giving advice. And even reviewing narrative TV. Here’s how we think humans behave, here’s how they actually behave, and you’ve been in both those spaces and written about it. Is there a connection between those things for you? Definitely! When I watched a ton of reality TV it was always just to psychoanalyze everyone on the screen and parse their motivations, and also see how they took these raw emotional states and translated them into blame and incendiary rhetoric and insanity. My husband and I used to love that stuff. We would watch a lot of it. I mean, I did have the excuse of being paid to comment on things like that, but in earnest, I loved it like crazy. Loved that stuff. And also, since The Sopranos and Six Feet Under were starting to delve into the psychological, and in Mad Men, they were explicitly about the psychology of these characters. I had been shoving my dime-store psychoanalysis into almost everything I’d written for at least a decade, so it didn’t feel that unfamiliar to branch into this.I think that any good writer brings everything, the full force of their personality, to the page. The memorable writers you read are writers who really show themselves. They find ways to show themselves. They don’t need to talk about themselves in order to bring something new to the picture. Thanks to some really interesting, great, brave Internet publications, people like me have been able to find a voice online that we probably wouldn’t find in print that quickly. There’s less freedom in print, I think. So I feel grateful that I was allowed to be a freak online at a very young age. After my experiences at Suck.com where I was allowed to just be completely mad, crazy, and funny and strange and smart and harsh, I really had a certain confidence that I could bring a lot of different things to anything I was writing. That I could infuse anything I was writing with a lot of fun and madness to keep me interested. I think that the best writers are people who are bored by a lot of stuff. I wouldn’t be a writer if I just had to write really rote—I’d rather write press releases than write just a rote reaction to something that is just the expected take. And I think TV criticism for me started to feel that way. The field was so flooded that I didn’t really see what kind of value add I was bringing to the table at some point. There are a lot of brilliant people writing about TV now and I don’t think I’m adding much to this picture.I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way about advice. I do think that probably there’ll be ten times as many advice columns in a few years as there are now—people are really interested in this kind of subject matter and I think part of it is just that vulnerability is becoming more mainstream, and things that were once seen as soft or feminine are becoming more socially acceptable for everyone, thank god. Emotions are acceptable to express in some strange corridors of our culture finally. But Ask Polly feels special to me: it doesn’t feel like something that will ever feel like an average or rote writing experience. I believe very fervently in the notion that I have something to offer in this realm.Something that you spoke about on the Longform podcast is the idea of negotiating. I wanted to ask you about it because it’s one of the things that writers ask me about most often. I’m wondering if you have any advice on how to talk about money professionally? In the Longform podcast did I talk about how bad I was at negotiating? Oh, I talk about how I was good at it when I was younger and then I got really bad at it.But then you talk about how you did it successfully when the column moved to New York magazine. Yeah, I did, when they approached me. Well, they wanted the column, and I actually didn’t really want to leave The Awl, so that helped. This is a good starting point for my answer because when you’re young, one of the liabilities of not having enough experience is, you want every opportunity you can take and you feel like you don’t have any leverage because you don’t have a lot of options, or you feel like you don’t have enough options. I think the people that I see who are the best at negotiating are the people who understand that they have lots of options. And part of that is just doing work that you’re really proud of. Do work that you know is ten shoulders above a lot of the work in your field, and part of that is informing yourself and having a lot of knowledge of what’s out there, and also taking in and understanding the different kinds of styles and voices that exist, and understanding your market, and understanding, this is the kind of thing that I can write, these are the basic requirements of this form. If you’re writing for a print magazine, if you’re writing for certain places as a young writer or as a less-experienced writer, if you approach and you say, “I just want to write about shame,” or, “I just want to write about something kind generic,” as a young writer you have to say, “I’m going to tie this to this cultural artifact, or I’m going to tie this to this event.” Knowing the basic requirements of any given publication before you approach them is important. That sounds super basic, but if you’ve ever been an editor you know that that’s the first obstacle you have to clear, or the first hurdle. It’s not a given that people know that a piece can’t start out with, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about nuh-nuh-nuh. David Sedaris can write that piece but no one else can. It will get read and published if David Sedaris turns it in, but anyone else, including me, will not get that published.But also, I think, the people I know who make a lot of money from their writing, a lot of what they do is they tirelessly approach every place on earth, and they approach with their best work, that’s been edited a million times, and they get all these people interested, and then they have options. If you’re really a workhorse, and you’re writing for a ton of different places, you know that you have options. And each time you get paid more, it’s easier to lop off the bottom rung of payers. I mean, just two years ago, I was making completely different kinds of money than I am now, and part of it was just, at some point—and I loved writing for certain places that didn’t pay well, I just loved the place—but at some point I just had to say, what am I really doing? Do I want people to read my stuff? Do I want to get paid? Do I want to work my ass off around the clock for half the money? Because there is such a wide range that people pay these days. And then there’s also the competing thing—people sometimes treat the really high-paying gigs, like feature writing, as the ultimate goal, and you have to know yourself and know what you actually want to write. I don’t personally want to fly around the country writing features. I’ve never wanted to be a reporter, that’s not really who I am. But there have been times when I’ve been tempted to walk down that path simply because those pieces pay incredibly well, and anything that’s kind of seen as the elite tier of what you do, it’s easy to get tempted to fall into that stuff. But you need to know what you particularly have to offer, and you need to know what you want to write when you wake up in the morning. Knowing what you really love to write is half the battle, and then when you know that you’re one of the best at writing a certain kind of thing, it’s easy to ask for what you deserve because you know that what you have is worth something to a lot of different places.We’re in a little bit of a bubble right now so it’s not that hard, if you’re writing great stuff, to get what you want. I think that’s going to change, it always does change. It always constricts, there are contractions, and then you don’t make any money again and you’re like, “Oh my god how am I going to pay the bills now?” I’ve been through so many of those ups and downs since 1995, when I started. But when there is a bubble, you’ve gotta take advantage of it. There’s a big content bubble right now and you’ve gotta hop on that, hop on it. And ask for what you know you deserve. And obviously part of it is knowing what other people make, which is really hard to find out. You can just skip all that bullshit, because I just rambled for ten hours, but here’s a really good anecdote: I’m writing for this place, I know they value my work, and a friend of mine sends them a similar piece, and they offer her twice as much money as they offered me. This friend of mine has arguably fewer clips—very talented, arguably less experience—and I had a relationship with this place and she didn’t. What I learned was, walking in the door, this person is being offered twice as much as me, so I’ve done something to signal that I will take whatever they give me, which as a woman I think it’s just so easy to let your guard down and do that. And I didn’t change my relationship with the place, I went to them and it was just a transparency situation where I said—luckily my friend wasn’t against me doing this—but I said, look, I just found out that you offered my friend double what you offered me for the same exact piece, we were writing similar things for some issue or something, and I was like, I just need you to know that I have this information, and I need it to be understood that I don’t want to be taken for granted. And you know, if you just make it really clear, you can’t get angry, you just have to be very clear: this is the information at my disposal, I present this without commentary, I just want you to understand that I need to feel taken care of in this situation, and the response was extremely understanding and I got paid a little more, and a little more care was taken in how I was treated from that point forward. Being honest without being incendiary is pretty important.Now, when it comes to negotiating, when I was younger I would just say, “I want twice as much as I’ve ever heard of anyone making,” and then I’d get half as much. People would laugh in my face, and then they’d still give me a lot of money, because I’d asked for an obscene amount of money. I think that’s pretty risky—I don’t think that always works. It depends on who you’re dealing with. But certainly, when someone offers you a laughable amount—unless you absolutely need the experience, unless you really don’t have any experience at all, in which case there are times when it pays to get experience, having published clips is important, if you don’t have any published clips at all, you take whatever a few times, and you keep writing great things, and you keep working really hard, and you understand that you’ll get paid more—but when people offer you a laughable amount and you’re an established writer, you can’t even go to the table. When people offer you a stupid amount, you don’t show up at the table and say, “Okay I’ll take a hundred dollars more than that,” or whatever, you just say, “I’m not really working for that.” I’m not picking up the pencil, so to speak, for that kind of money. One thing I do do is, when people approach me, I say, “How many words and how much are you paying?” immediately. I’m not going to get into a protracted negotiation about what I’m writing until I know exactly what’s on the table. If people come back to me and say, “We’re paying $150,” it’s like, you should know that I don’t really make $150 for a piece. I can’t really do that. And it feels good. It feels good to flat-out know. And it’s not very good for small publications that want good writers, but you know what? There are a lot of good writers out there. They can find them. It doesn’t help anyone when people take less than they’re worth. It’s good for people to take what they’re worth, especially really good writers. When a publication won’t pay you what you’re worth, when you read things on the site that aren’t good, that are shittily written, that tells you something. There was a point where I was writing for a place, and I looked at everything on the site and it was all shit, and I said, these people don’t value quality, so why the fuck am I writing for them?Conversely, there are elite publications that don’t pay well, but you love everything on the site, and you think, I want my work to be in there, so I’m going to take a little less, because I want to be in this crowd of good people.The value of being a part of that ends up making up for the money you’re not making. It is worth something. It’s good to be associated with great places, with people who have a lot of ideas. I’m not saying take shit for money over and over again, but where you’re published does matter, especially when you’re starting out, and making a name for yourself in the right places does matter a lot. The other thing is, being in places that aren’t afraid of strong voices is really helpful because it helps you to form your voice. You can take risks without feeling like you’re just conforming to some kind of overarching we that’s not quite appropriate. When I wrote for Salon, there were a lot of good writers there, but my voice was not completely in line with the voice of Salon, it was a little different, and in some ways I think that served me well, but starting the advice column, starting Ask Polly at The Awl, really formed what Ask Polly is. If I hadn’t written Ask Polly for The Awl straight out of the gate, if Ask Polly started on a woman’s magazine, for example, a monthly print magazine—Elle has a great advice columnist, E. Jean Carroll—if Ask Polly were written for a woman’s magazine, it would not have become what it is. It would not have had the strong, strange, weird voice that it has. The early Ask Polly columns were just madness—jokes and anger and rambling insanity. So that’s part of its DNA, and it evolved into something great from a half-mermaid, half-wooly mammoth, to whatever it is today. Something that’s a bit evolved from that I guess.The last thing I want to ask you about is kind of general. I wondered if you could talk a bit about empathy. Do you think most people are empathetic and capable of empathy? Yes, they have the capacity for empathy. But I think empathy is an underdeveloped muscle for most people. Empathy for others begins with empathy for the self, and one of the biggest afflictions that I see that’s common to most of the people who write to me is they don’t have compassion for themselves and they don’t give themselves credit, and they don’t let themselves off the hook, and they don’t rest. They’re caught in a loop of intellectualizing everything that happens to them, and trying to solve their emotional problems through more mind puzzles, and through more intellectual punishment. It’s a trap of being an intelligent person, that you think that you can control reality by thinking your way to some intellectual solution. And that DNA is also built into my column. There’s some intellectualizing, obviously, it’s on the page. I am quite clearly someone who has overthought every single thing that happened to me for decades. But when you beat yourself up with your own thoughts instead of giving yourself some space to feel the things you feel and to be where you are, it’s really hard not to beat other people up for the choices they make. When you give yourself space, to be who you are and to have flaws and to make mistakes and to crawl slowly to some kind of understanding and solution, and when you recognize yourself as someone who is blind to many things, when you realize that you’re just this humble soul that’s struggling to understand the world, and you allow yourself to be that without judgement, without paying a price for it over and over again, then you naturally look at other people and you can accept them for who they are. Until you fully accept your own flaws, though, you won’t accept flaws in other people, you won’t empathize with where they’re coming from. Instead of seeing how they’re feeling and the struggles they’re going through, you’ll only see how they’re getting it wrong. And we’re sitting in this moment in history where there’s a lot of finger pointing, and a lot of people calling out other people for the ways they’re doing it wrong, and it all looks like a war of a lot of self-hating parties to me, from a distance.It’s not a groundbreaking idea, having compassion for yourself. It’s actually the basis for a lot of religions. It’s an ordinary thing, it’s a mundane art. But once you start practicing the art of compassion for yourself, it really transforms the way that you encounter other people and the way that you proceed forward. It’s a way of feeling your feelings. It’s a way of savouring what you have from minute to minute and from day to day. It makes space for that experience. So instead of being locked in this neurotic cycle of, “Oh my god, the world’s gone mad, what do I do, what do I do, what do I do, I’m fucking up again, I woke up late, I didn’t do enough, I just handled that the wrong way”—instead of being trapped in that self-conscious, self-hating prison, you sort of open up to yourself as you are. And I don’t want to say give yourself love, because that sounds like a little bit much. “Love? I don’t know that I deserve to give myself love.” You don’t need to celebrate, necessarily—it’s just space. I’m worthy, I deserve space. These are humble aims. But they change everything, I think. So it’s not a muscle that most people exercise very often, but if they did, it would really change the world, I think.This is a drum I’m beating right now—compassion for the self. I used to be much more about, in the column even, find your people, fuck the people that don’t back you up and have your back. Having compassion for yourself includes, don’t torture yourself with the wrong kinds of people, especially in your twenties, when you’re just so prone to, “Oh my god, why do I feel so terrible all the time? Maybe it’s because everyone around me doesn’t make sense to me.” But so much of the start of finding your way in the world begins with resolving to treat yourself with care, and resolving to protect yourself, and just deciding, once and for all, that it’s less like, “I’m a princess and I deserve to be adored,” and it’s more like, “I deserve to respect myself, and consider my own feelings, and care for myself first in order to care for other people second. I don’t have to come last all the time to be a good person. I actually need to consider myself and give myself some space in order to put other people before me.”