Hazlitt Magazine

Losers' Utopia

Both baseball and politics invite delusions of more perfect ways of living—but some fantasies seem more attainable than others.

The Eternal Becoming of Sofia Coppola

Like so many of her heroines, the director seduces to control.

The Nanny as Audible Ambien

Who could possibly fall asleep to the sound of Fran Drescher’s voice?

Latest

Losers’ Utopia

Both baseball and politics invite delusions of more perfect ways of living—but some fantasies seem more attainable than others.

Paint the Corners is a monthly column about baseball.President Trump could have delivered his denunciation of the Paris Climate Accord a few weeks back in starker White House environs befitting his grim, paranoid tone—the Treaty Room, the Oval Office, the main floor of the residence—but no. It was a beautiful day, so he went with the Rose Garden, 7,500 square feet of geometric horticulture and lovingly tended grass. Standing amid chalk-white columns and a cocktail jazz band, Trump repeated the dreary conservative recitation of who’s exploiting us, who’s profiting unfairly off of us, who’s getting a free ride on our straining backs. “We don't want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore,” he explained. “And they won't be. They won't be. I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Notably, this headline-ready phrase had nothing to do with climate or the economy, Trump’s ostensible justifications for leaving the accord. Instead, this was Trump proudly declaring his tribal close-mindedness. There is no global community. A man cannot care for two cities at once. All interactions are zero-sum. Stop laughing at us.The mayor of Pittsburgh quickly leapt in to defend his city against this cynical exploitation, noting, along with many others, that Steel City hasn’t been a steel town for decades. It employs tens of thousands of people in world-class research universities, art museums, and alternative energy companies. In 2016, Clinton outperformed Obama’s margin of victory in Allegheny County. And since this is baseball season, it’s worth pointing out that the Pirates, who have wallowed near the bottom of the NL Central all summer, are nevertheless modeling the worldly, boundary-less future of the game more than most teams.In one week in late April, the Bucs improbably called up the first Lithuanian player and the first African-born player in Major League Baseball history. Dovydas Neverauskas pitched the final two innings of a blowout loss to the Cubs, giving up one run of the 14 that the Pirates surrendered that evening. As described by Pirates beat writer Stephen J. Nesbitt, this unremarkable performance was the culmination of thirty years of family history. Neverauskas’ father grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Vilnius, playing on the first Soviet baseball teams that were formed in the late ’80s in anticipation of the game’s Olympic debut in 1992. He knew absolutely nothing about the sport prior to reading a translated rule book in his local library. “For balls, they filled (and refilled) tennis balls with water,” writes Nesbitt. “For bats, they grabbed anything made of wood. For mitts, they employed a few hockey goalie gloves.” Neverauskas eventually bought real equipment from Cubans who were playing in St. Petersburg, then played for a few years in Moscow himself before becoming a coach.Dovydas went with his father to America when the older man coached summer teams. He saw his first MLB games in Oakland, then played in the 2008 and 2009 MLB European Academies in Italy, part of professional baseball’s concerted effort to explore the talent bases outside the Americas. Once drafted, he traveled the typical minor leaguer’s tour of tucked-away American outposts, playing for Pirates affiliates in Bradenton, Altoona, and Indianapolis.In the latter, playing for the Triple-A Indians, he was teammates with Gift Ngoepe, a twenty-seven-year-old infielder who grew up next to a baseball field in suburban Johannesburg. Ngoepe’s mother worked for the team, and their home, in Ngoepe’s telling, “was very small—almost like the size of a big closet here in America—but it was home. The kitchen was in that room. As was the living room. It wasn’t big enough to divide up into separate living spaces. It was all just one room, and we had a mattress on the floor.”Ngoepe was in Italy in 2008 as well, where he received transformative fielding instruction from legendary shortstop Barry Larkin. He was signed to the Pirates by Tom Randolph, the same international scout who signed Neverauskas.In Pittsburgh, Ngoepe and Neverauskas joined a team with a higher than average number of Venezuelans, all of whom were anxiously following the deadly famine and unrest in their home country and struggling to formulate a response. In mid-May, catcher Francisco Cervelli took the field with “S.O.S. VENEZUELA” scrawled in white on his eye black, a uniquely forthright gesture in a sport that tries mightily to ignore politics altogether. In collaboration with the Brewers’ Hernan Perez, Cervelli brought most of MLB’s seventy Venezuelan players together in solidarity to plead on social media for the violence to end. His own Spanish-language Instagram video, featuring thirteen players, has been viewed nearly 40,000 times.These aren’t political statements per se, just human displays of empathy and concern. But that’s enough to make headlines in MLB, and enough to sit comfortably in the tradition of socially conscious Pittsburgh baseball players. The largest figure in Pirates lore is Roberto Clemente, a pioneering Latin American ballplayer and the man for whom Major League Baseball’s humanitarian awards are named. This is also the team of Dock Ellis, the renegade black pitcher whose blunt talk about race during the ’60s and ’70s drew comparisons to Muhammad Ali. It is also currently the team of outfielder Andrew McCutchen, previous winner of a Clemente Award and attentive steward of the Make-a-Wish foundation, who has been more willing than most to speak out about the racial and economic disparities at work in baseball’s wider youth and recruiting structures.As a business, Major League Baseball recognizes and supports this kind of global-mindedness. They happily shared the news that Opening Day 2017 featured the largest number of foreign-born active players in the sport’s history, and reporter Jon Heyman has heard rumors of a forthcoming expansion into Mexico. Once Neverauskas made his Pittsburgh debut, commissioner Rob Manfred traveled to the city to take in a game and tell reporters, “When you have one of your athletes playing… that’s the best way to grow the game in that foreign country.” In baseball, too, Pittsburgh deserves more than catch-phrase infamy.*Sadly, few teams are less rewarding to watch than the 2017 Pirates. They arrived in Baltimore in early June, by this point lacking both Ngoepe and Neverauskas, who had been sent back to Indianapolis. On each night of a two-game series against the Orioles, they gave up early leads and lost by extra-inning walk-offs. My Orioles have fallen far from a commanding first month of the season, having drifted in and out of last place in the AL East within the previous two weeks, but they looked like warriors beside the wobbly Bucs: they hit six home runs in two nights and ended each game under a celebratory spray of water around home plate.I was there on the second night, a cool Wednesday following a stretch of warm days. Rain threatened all afternoon, though the sky was bright and gorgeous by first pitch. But certainly those midday clouds, the relatively low temperatures, and the prospect of a weeknight interleague contest against a cellar-dwelling team kept many people away. There were huge swaths of unoccupied seats, especially in the upper deck.Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened twenty-five years ago, when I was younger than my fourth-grader is now. I suspect I’ve seen more than 100 games there over the years, including plenty that were even more sparsely attended than this no-stakes contest. For almost half my life, from 1997 to 2012, the Orioles were hapless and, frankly, depressing to follow. There were whole years when the upper reaches of Camden Yards were a good place to get some undisturbed reading done. The stadium, a palace of ivy, red brick, and forest green accents that buried the ’80s tendency towards multi-sport colosseums and fake-grass domes, felt like a blemish by the highway. Ten years ago, the summer I moved back to the city after college, the Orioles endured a historically lopsided drubbing by the Texas Rangers: 30-3, a damn football score. And if I made a list of the most demoralizing days of that fifteen-year journey in the wilderness, that might not even make the top five.Nevertheless, Camden Yards is the closest thing I have to a favorite place in the world. Nowhere makes me happier to enter. Nowhere makes time stop in quite the same way. For one, not all the memories are bad. Despite the fact that the park has hosted a sub-.500 team for more than half of its existence, it is still a baseball stadium, meaning that glory can spring up at random. A poll of the greatest games in its first two decades included everything from come-from-behind late-season victories to Eddie Murray’s 500th home run and the overwrought, astounding 2,131 game. I was there the night before, when Cal Ripken, Jr. tied Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record, just as I was in 2012, at the first Baltimore playoff game in fifteen years. The communal mania of a historic baseball game is one of the great experiences available to human beings, and Camden Yards is a venue that does justice to it.When the Polo Grounds closed in 1963, Roger Angell likened that creaking, crowded icon to a New York neighborhood of its own, and the same is true of any decent baseball stadium. Certainly Oriole Park is the most diverse of Baltimore’s many neighborhoods; I have shared luxury boxes with tie-wearing lawyers and I have sat in the upper deck next to shirtless dirtbags from distant rural Maryland counties. I have bought beer for white female elementary school teachers from Gettysburg and hugged an older black gentleman whose final construction job involved pouring cement for Oriole Park itself. Baltimore is a direly segregated place, racially and economically, but in Camden Yards you can walk among the full range of humanity and the full range of people who root for this city, even if only under the guise of black and orange.For the game against the Pirates, my two friends and I started in the upper deck behind home plate. The crowd being so sparse, we moved down through the lower concourse to left field, a prime home-run-catching spot. We caught nothing, alas, and as the game dragged on and the Orioles fell farther behind, we moved toward the visiting dugout on the third base line.From this vantage, close enough to the field to hear the slap of fastballs against the catchers’ mitts, we watched the Orioles mount a comeback in two movements, both of which were animated by rookie outfielder Trey Mancini. First, Manicini stepped in as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning and launched a two-run, game-tying homer into right-center. In the eleventh inning, he hit the three-run rocket that sent the few remaining witnesses into a grateful tizzy. No fates were changed that night, but Mancini’s feat was only the eighth time ever that a pinch-hitter has hit two home runs for five RBI—exactly the kind of unforeseen minor statistical miracle that you hope to see anytime you watch this game.A midseason baseball stadium, at least one as beautiful as Oriole Park at Camden Yards, offers a glimpse of earthly utopia: the pristine grass, the dewy night air, the instant, temporary camaraderie of people screaming and eating overpriced food in matching colors. Even the field itself, so doted upon and photogenically lit, is Edenic, a vision of what the world might look like if only we cared for it properly. Watching this year’s Pirates play in Baltimore, I felt I was getting a glimpse of a better, saner civilization: people from all corners of the earth working together, focusing on the task at hand while keeping a concerned eye on the crises brewing at the periphery. In this world, the grass is beautiful and the unlikeliest people are capable of heroism in the unlikeliest moments.That’s a tidy fantasy, but so is a Rose Garden party to celebrate one’s own ignorant rejection of the wider universe. And as far as fantasies go, I choose the utopian one. I choose the delusion that uniformed men can come together and delivery history all summer long. I reject fear. I choose baseball.
The Nanny as Audible Ambien

Who could possibly fall asleep to the sound of Fran Drescher’s voice?

For the past three years, I’ve stuck to a nightly ritual: I get in bed, queue up some episodes of The Nanny on YouTube, dim the lights on my screen, and schedule my computer to shut down within an hour. I’m a man prone to habits born of anxiety, but most of them are tame and ordinary, from nail biting to running my fingers through my hair. This one’s somewhat odd by comparison. Others may gravitate towards Bach or old episodes of Friends to fall asleep to each night, which makes my choice of white noise too bizarre to rationalize. Who, after all, could possibly fall asleep to the sound of Fran Drescher’s voice?A lullaby, by definition, soothes; it is an adjuvant to the day’s stresses and horrors. Drescher’s voice, popular consensus suggests, is both stress inducing and horrifying; it has prompted some to draw the tired “fingernails on a chalkboard” comparison more than once, while Roger Ebert, rarely the kind of critic who relished in taking cheap shots at a performer, surmised that her voice “is like having ear wax removed with a small dental drill.” Drescher’s particular, peculiar way of speaking is a consistent joke throughout The Nanny, the ‘90s sitcom wherein Drescher plays the titular character (also named Fran), a bridal shop employee from Queens who accidentally becomes the caretaker for the three children of a rich Manhattan widower (Charles Shaughnessy). Drescher is divine in the show: a lithe and supple physical comedienne, contorting her face balletically to match any mood, be it dour or delighted, bemused or besotted with grief.Crucially, though, she is endowed with a voice that pitches and yaws like an airplane lifting itself from turbulence. Or, as Andy Meisler of The New York Times described it upon the show’s premiere in 1994, Drescher’s voice is “[t]he sound of a Buick with an empty gas tank cold-cranking on a winter morning.”The subject of Drescher’s pinched, high-larynxed voice is fodder for most of the show’s humor. In one episode, she’s held hostage during a bank robbery, and she shouts from the bank’s interiors that she’s okay. “That’s no megaphone,” her boss explains to a police officer, half-proudly. “That’s my nanny!” When she visits a sushi restaurant and unknowingly downs a gob of wasabi, unaware of its potency, her nasal passages clear. The moment is staged as something of a small miracle—that is, until her voice jolts back up to its braying, whiny default seconds later. Drescher’s voice is too nasal to be remedied by a decongestant, too intense to register on the Richter Scale. This running gag in the show has become a larger cultural aphorism: Even when Sofia Vergara parodied Drescher’s voice in a Saturday Night Live episode in 2012, her interpretation almost seemed too mild.Friends and acquaintances, I’ve found, are sheepish and reluctant to recognize any greatness in Drescher’s work on The Nanny, precisely because they can’t perceive anything past that trademark voice. (But she was nominated for an Emmy—twice! I mutter to myself, quietly aggrieved, in response.) There’s a certain futility in assigning logic to my affinity for the pleasures others might chafe at or actively try to shame me for. This almost increases my desire to hold these thrills closer, to revel in them with joy, to indulge in them when no one else is looking.For Drescher’s voice is her most vital, and intolerable, instrument, and the way she wields it is an act of self-preservation. When she began acting in The Nanny in 1994, the voice wasn’t quite there: Drescher came off as timid and warbly, almost uncertain in the manner she was going about her characterization, as if she wasn’t going all the way with the shtick. Over the course of the second season, she eased herself into her voice rather incrementally; it became more robust and round. By the third season, Drescher embraced the act thoroughly. There was no sense of gurgling tension or unease with the voice. It was fully hers.*I’ve never considered myself the kind of gay man who likes his dames grand. I have little patience for Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958); I find Mommie Dearest (1981) dry, colorless, neither funny nor moving. My track record might suggest that I couldn’t find anything humorous or sympathetic about Drescher, the broadest of broads, but here we are.The Nanny was an uncredited extra in my childhood in the same way Cheers or Full House had also been: I was vaguely aware of its existence, yet I hadn’t watched it concertedly until its syndication afterlife on Nick-at-Nite in the late aughts. I don’t know if it’s quite a coincidence that my mother and I are the ones who began watching The Nanny together, yet we watched it with quasi-religious fervor. My mother found Drescher irresistibly appealing in the show.This was a household in which my mother’s voice constituted its own punchline. My mother’s voice remains unconscionably loud, muting all other elements in the room. It is a statement. My late father and I often made fun of her for how loudly she spoke, and she participated, like Drescher, in this pile-on. She wasn’t simply in on the joke; she encouraged it. My mother knew she was loud and didn’t quite care, for she saw no shame in having that voice.*I started watching The Nanny on YouTube shortly after graduating from college three years ago. The activity began as a way to pass time in the lonely hours before bed. Yet it grew, without my realizing it until much later, into a fierce bid to fight my longing for my mother’s company, a yearning that had somehow grown intense after I’d left school. Call it self-infantilizing, but watching the show was a leisurely pursuit I’d long engaged in with my mother. Besides, my first apartment didn’t have a television.Episodes of The Nanny tend to drift on and off YouTube, subject to copyright law. As a way to circumvent this law, some uploaders have taken to adjusting the pace and pitch of the show, making Drescher sound easier on the eardrums. Her voice slows down to the rhythm of molasses or gets quick, fussy, almost Chipmunk-like. These versions are unwatchable. They forfeit what I consider the integrity of the show’s DNA, contained in Drescher’s incorrigibly loud voice. Her voice overreaches; it is extravagant. But the point of indulgence is to find pleasure, and to give others permission to access it.I’ve long felt wary about grafting some imagined “queer sensibility” onto my reading of the female performers I love, for it seems too dangerous a position to defend. I am a man, after all, and this decisive fact hinders my identification with the experiences of women, and the way certain female performers give themselves to the screen. I’m tempted make an exception with Fran Drescher, for I hold her close to my heart in the way I do my best friend, my mother, the woman whose loud voice I’ll hear in my head long after she dies. What others may find about Drescher’s voice to be deliriously displeasing is my audible Ambien, massaging my worries into the oblivion of the night, as soothing as the sound of a mother singing her son to sleep.
The Eternal Becoming of Sofia Coppola

Like so many of her heroines, the director seduces to control.

Charlotte Rampling, 1973, nude, sits atop a wooden table at the Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles in the room in which matadors once dressed for battle. Legs ajar, wine in hand, body turned away, she squares her unsmiling eyes with the camera (and Helmut Newton behind it), as if to say: “This is not for you.”To Sofia Coppola, this is what it means to be a woman. As a girl raised in Napa on a rambling ranch, her world-famous father travelling the planet, her mother alongside him,11“Why can’t we just be normal?” Sofia asked. this girl, the one who has always been defined by her style before anything else, considered fashion magazines her “link to the rest of the world.”22Vogue, 2003 She covered her walls in their images—mostly thin, mostly beautiful, mostly rich white women. The photo of Rampling came from a 1974 issue of Vogue. Sofia wrote about it for the magazine in 2003 and kept it into her 30s; deep into womanhood, she was still reminding herself who she wanted to be. Even today, more than a decade later—with six films behind her and two children in front—we still sense that photo watching over her, still sense her incipience. “Is she an eternal adolescent because she’s always primarily read as her father’s daughter?” asks Fiona Handyside, author of Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood. If she is, her heroines come by it naturally. The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring and her most recent film, the Cannes-lauded Beguiled, are all coming of age tales featuring young, privileged white women—pre-adolescents, actual adolescents, delayed adolescents—none of whom ever really come of age. To Coppola, the image of Rampling is, after all, just that, an image, the ideal that can never square with reality. “Girls are seen as really special and exciting and full of potential,” Handyside says of Sofia’s cinema, “womanhood is this thing that closes that down. So why would you want to grow up?”*To hear Eleanor Coppola tell it, her daughter was a typical adolescent who denigrated her mother and deified her friends. Sofia has said herself that she was “a little too cool to be a teenager,” that she wanted to grow up, felt more suited to adulthood. When she wasn’t traveling with her family, her youth was occasionally caught on film. In her first pubescent role—Tim Burton’s 1984 monochromatic short Frankenweenie—she is a gangly pseudo-teen credited as “Domino,”33She also used the pseudonym for her father’s film The Cotton Club that same year but has never explained why. who wears a long, blond obvious wig, a bow and a gingham dress—the platonic ideal of the American girl. She is also the only girl, a Dorothy type surrounded by munchkin boys, who exercises side by side with her Barbie doll (Barbie, naturally, being her one female friend). Two years later, 15-year-old Coppola acted through braces in Peggy Sue Got Married as the girl scout sister of Kathleen Turner. “Teenagers are weird and you’re the weirdest,” she says, her lackadaisical delivery already secured in place.Around this time, according to her mother, Sofia became a fixture at her friends’ homes, claiming her own no “fun.” This teenage rebellion culminated in her flying off to Paris at 15 to intern at Chanel over two summers.  “Every inch of her wants to break out of an ordinary routine,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. And she did. That same year, Sofia abruptly stopped being a teenager, though not of her own volition. Twelve days after her birthday, her oldest brother, Gian-Carlo (“Gio”), died unexpectedly at the age of 22 in a boating accident.  “[W]hen my brother died, my teenage years got interrupted,” Sofia told The Hollywood Reporter. Later, when the family was organizing Gio’s things, Sofia slid into his white silk jacket. “It smells like him,” she said.A little while after that a dude named Dave Markey became a sort of surrogate older brother to Sofia. Three years before he became known as the director of The Year Punk Broke, Markey was an underground filmmaker. When they met through mutual friends in the late '80s, Sofia was a fan of his low budget teen-girl-runaway-rock-band extravaganza Lovedolls Superstar, which featured early-days Sonic Youth. “She had already seen some of my work and was really into it so it was very flattering for me at the time,” says Markey, whose band stayed at the Coppola ranch. Sofia looked up to Markey, who was in his mid-20s, and he turned her onto “psychotropic cinema,” escorting her to Laemmle’s Monica Premiere Showcase (as it was then known) in Los Angeles to see Carnival of Souls. Herk Harvey’s only film, a goth-cult horror from 1962, is about a beautiful blond organist who exists in a sort of post-car-accident limbo—“I had no place in the world, no part of the life around me,” she says—and is drawn to an abandoned amusement park. “I remember that left a really big impression on her,” says Markey. “She was really blown away by that film.”But several months later Sofia had no time for rep cinema. At that point, she was handed the biggest responsibility of her life so far: taking Winona Ryder’s place. Her father, Francis Ford Coppola, by then a well established New Hollywood force having helmed the mobstalgic Godfather franchise, had based the role of Mary—mafia alum Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) daughter—on Sofia. So when Ryder, who had already headlined several films, fell ill, Sofia was the obvious understudy, despite having never actually studied acting. In her first scene in The Godfather Part III, sitting in a pew with a scarf on her head, an enigmatic smile on her face, Sofia looks every drop the Virgin Mary. But internally she suffered from a severe case of impostor syndrome and overworked herself to the point of tears. Sofia knew she was not welcome. A Paramount executive disputed her casting, the other actors did too, and people advised Eleanor she was abusing her child. Mary folded under the pressure. In the film, Sofia’s delivery is flat, almost bored, her lines overlapping those of others, her weak presence only underscored by the power of Pacino’s. After Mary is fatally shot, she falls to her knees and says, “Dad?”44This is the second time Francis killed off his daughter on screen—the first was when she was gunned down as a street urchin in The Cotton Club. It ended up being a metaphor—she trusted her father and the critics killed her for it.That same year, 1990, Sofia appeared in Markey’s music video for Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce.” He shot her on Super 8 in front of Hollywood’s Max Factor building one afternoon after she designed her own costume and applied her own makeup—thick brows, black lips, Chanel—her exaggerated wide-eyed sneer reminiscent of Cry Baby’s Hatchet-Face. “I just had the concept to dress up Sofia as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest,” Markey says. “So she’s actually channelling Faye Dunaway.” Around that time Sofia also befriended Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, whose fashion label, X-Girl, she would soon join. “Kim inspired me because she tried all the things that interested her,” she told Elle. “She just did what she was into.” As for herself, Sofia wasn’t sure what she was into. It was an embarrassment of riches. Fashion, maybe? She was in charge of the outfits on a film called The Spirit of ‘7655She had previously designed the Chanel jr. costumes for “Life Without Zoe,” her father’s maligned Eloise-like segment in the 1989 film New York Stories, which Sofia also helped write. and at one point considered studying costume design. “She was really into that,” says Markey. But a year later Sofia was onto a third college and other interests. “I want to take photography and painting and learn more skills,” she told her mother. So she studied art history and co-founded a clothing company, Milk Fed, in Japan. “I became a dilettante,” she told The New York Times. “I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what it would be.”[[{"fid":"6700856","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Sonic Youth - Mildred Pierce","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The one thing Sofia didn’t study was film—she figured she could ask her dad anything—and it wasn’t until her late twenties that she started talking about directing. “I’m gonna make a movie, it’s gonna be fun, I’m so excited,” Markey remembers her saying. The movie was Lick the Star (1998) and it lasted no more than 15 minutes, but it would become the prototype for her entire oeuvre. Co-written by best friend Stephanie Hayman, this black-and-white sliver of Heathers-style precociousness sees a bunch of high schoolers poisoning their male harassers (the title inverts their motto, Kill the Rats). “Everything changes, nothing changes, the tables turn and life goes on,” the queen bee scrawls on a scrap of loose leaf and sticks into An American Biography. Adolescent torpor, slo-mo saturnalia, gendered spaces, in her first film Sofia had already hinted at what would become her signature tropes.66Her two previous music videos—Walt Mink’s “Shine” (1993) and The Flaming Lips’ “This Here Giraffe” (1996)—also touched on these motifs. “Movies incorporated all the things I liked,” she told W. “It was the first time I felt like something clicked professionally for me.”*A redhead lies on her back in the grass, her arms outstretched like an exhausted Christ, orange hair matching the orange in the sun-soaked green, the blossoms on her borrowed dress nestled in the ground. Barely clutching a camera in her left hand, the girl’s right arm reaches out of frame, perhaps searching for something to hold onto. She is in a sort of rapture. She smiles, maybe.William Eggleston’s 1975 image of a young woman on Quaaludes was one of the many works of the time—alongside Bill Owens’ Suburbia and Sam Haskins’ Playboy portraits—that inspired Sofia Coppola’s first feature. From the beginning, she used a mood board to set the stage, which is why her films, if nothing else, are as eternally moody as a prom at midnight. Her 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides languidly embraced a quintet of teen sisters from suburbia whose burgeoning sexuality is stifled by their Catholic parents’ clapboard take on gothic seclusion.[[{"fid":"6700786","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":"288","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Born in 1971, Sofia’s aesthetic is largely nostalgic for the decade of her prepubescence, so it follows that her first film would be set in the same era. She understood the Virgin Suicides’ feeling of alienation and loss—of time, of innocence, of relationships—having felt the same way in her nomadic youth. “I liked that the story seemed to capture what it was like to be that age,” she told Interview, “something that I haven’t seen many people get right.” Coppola captured the impulsive guilelessness of adolescence by hiring non-actors she found on the streets of her Toronto set, directing one of the neighborhood boys in the film to dine with the Lisbons for the first time, for the first scene, script free. Writes producer Julie Costanzo, via email, “she opted for him to experience the bewilderment and discomfort.”For Lux Lisbon, however, the sister who is ardently pursued by the local rake and then just as coolly dropped, Coppola chose a professional. Kirsten Dunst, around 17 at the time, was picked for her liminality—“She’s really a kid,” said Coppola in Combustible Celluloid in 2000, “but she’s also womanly”—thus began the director’s trend of casting white (often blond) former child starlets. Dunst was followed by Scarlett Johansson was followed by Elle Fanning was followed by Emma Watson, all actresses who, despite their advancing ages, eternally invoke youth. Sofia based the look of the girls on her childhood best friend’s sister, Leslie Hayman, the freckled towhead she eventually cast as sibling Therese. “[W]hen I was in high school, the pretty girls were blonde and perfect,” Sofia said. “Those were the girls the guys were after.” She was not one of them. Even Coppola’s own mother wrote of her, “She is beautiful in an imperfect way.” Having broken her nose in junior high during a ball game, Sofia remembers appreciating Anjelica Huston’s promise that she would grow into it. The advice was particularly stark coming from the fellow daughter of a famous director (John Huston) who had an equally miserable first experience working with her father. [[{"fid":"6700791","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":"281","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]While the male gaze defines Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides, in Coppola’s film the girls exist beyond it. As such, she explores the “imprisonment of being a girl” but also its potency. “I really loved how the boys were looking at the girls and the girls had this kind of power and mystique over them,” Coppola told Rookie, “and I was interested in how girls could get stuck in lives that were too small for them.” In the Lisbons’ presence, the boys are virtually emasculated, mere subjects in the girls’ home, under their spell even in their own car. Not even Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the magic man, has command over the younger Lux, who unbeknownst to him has his name branded on her underwear (he is already where he wants to be but only she knows it). “I often thought of Sofia’s style and assuredness as more about identifying the absence of what was transpiring in a scene, rather than the presence,” says producer Julie Costanzo. So Lux owns Trip, until he owns her, disappearing while she slumbers post-coitally, the guy who is objectified refusing to be, as the girls joke, “They’re just going to raffle us off.” But they refuse too. By killing themselves, the Lisbons reject their restricted lives. “What do girls have? Well, they have their bodies,” says Handyside. “That’s [their] weapon, that’s the thing that [they] can possibly use or indeed withdraw.”[[{"fid":"6700796","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":"281","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sofia Coppola might have withdrawn herself had the press responded to The Virgin Suicides as they had to The Godfather Part III, but after a warm reception at Cannes, she was reborn. The 28-year-old director was no longer merely Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, she was an individual. Emboldened by the response in France, she turned further inward for her next film.Lost in Translation was, of course, about loss, too, but of a different kind. A young married philosophy grad finds herself aimlessly wandering the halls of Tokyo’s Park Hyatt, crying long distance to a “friend” back home who doesn’t seem to hear, her absentee husband equally oblivious. When she first visited Japan, Coppola told The New York Times, she “felt like teenage girls were running the whole country,” which makes it an apt setting for a delayed adolescent like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson was in fact only 17 during filming). The overgrown, subdued Eloise soon comes across a famous actor (Bob, played by Bill Murray) in the midst of his own midlife crisis. They karaoke, party, sushi, watch late night movies. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be,” she tells him, before he tells his own wife, “I’m completely lost.” The first time they see each other, in an elevator packed with locals, Charlotte and Bob catch each other’s eye and share a smile—they are each other’s compass. “To me that’s like the most comforting or best thing in life,” Coppola told The Guardian, “when you have a little connection or you both find something funny, and it makes you feel not alone.”[[{"fid":"6700801","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":"320","width":"576","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Though the press speculated about how autobiographical the film actually was, Coppola responded in Filmmaker, “There’s a part of me in that character.” The truth is, for a long time she was as lost as Charlotte. It is thus unsurprising that her most autobiographical work would be vocal about its search for personhood, a leitmotif that permeates all of her films (without, however, the oft-associated finding of it). “I always like characters who are in the midst of a transition and trying to find their place in the world and their identity,” she told Rookie. This was the all-encompassing theme of her life for about a decade, when she was afraid that, like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, she would end up a nothing, a nobody—it’s a fear she reflects on screen over and over again. “To me, the films are about how everyone has to decide how they want to live their life,” she told the Boston Phoenix, “as opposed to how they’re supposed to.” Supposed to. For young women the expectation becomes even more loaded. And Marie Antoinette is the biggest supposed to of all.Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography of Madame Deficit, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette follows the Austrian dauphine from the age of 14, when she is sent to France to become queen at a time when she knows more about pugs than politics, to the French Revolution. The director told Vanity Fair she could identify with the 18th century royal, “coming from a strong family and fighting for her identity.” The moment Sofia was born, bestowed upon her was what Handyside refers to as “a simultaneous burden and privilege.” Barely out of the womb, she was cast as a baby boy in The Godfather, cast, in a sense, as heir to the Coppola dynasty both on screen and off. The way her image was co-opted by her family, Antoinette’s was by Versailles (though at least Sofia’s uterus remained her own). “I think there is a sense in which she is debating her own past,” says Handyside of Sofia’s films, “and the way she was commandeered as image.” Each of her heroines are found in a role they have not really chosen, the confines of their lives symbolised by their entrapment within houses, hotels, schools, castles. “I think there’s an element of the female experience that you have certain boundaries,” Coppola recently told Film School Rejects. But her mother thinks it might be more personal. “Perhaps Sofia is part of all these women,” Eleanor wrote in her diary. “Growing up she was in a way a princess in Francis’s kingdom. On his sets she was treated as the adored daughter of the boss, a child of a celebrity. She was not seen as a thinking, feeling person with her own identity and acute perceptions.”As an adult, Sofia erects gothic edifices within the construction site of contemporary feminism. Her films interrogate a reality in which women are told they are equal, yet know they are not. Without an alternative, says Handyside, “you repeatedly get these fantasies as the answer.” The moments of acedia in her films—on pillows,77“Nobody throws girls on pillows like Sofia Coppola,” Nathan Lee wrote in Film Comment. in grass, on each other—the confetti-fuelled fetes, the forlorn looks out of fishbowl windows, the sly winks that shatter the fourth wall, the floaty sojourns—Petit Trianon, underwater tea, travel snaps—all luxuriate within the bounds of femininity. As Handyside puts it, “it’s just killing time,” a suspended reality as you yourself are slowly killed. In Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom, Allison Pease writes that modern literary depictions of boredom are “an acknowledgment of the profound dissatisfaction of a group of people who found themselves on the wrong side of agency, interest, and meaning.” Sofia’s “girliest film set” thus focusses on Antoinette’s teen years—“the earlier, fun days,” according to the director—icing the merry monotony in a “cookies and cake” palette. “You’re considered superficial and silly if you’re interested in fashion,” Sofia told Vogue. “But I think you can be substantial and still be interested in frivolity.” Frivolity itself speaks volumes, Antoinette’s tight corsets, for instance, are tight for a reason—privilege means more even when you want less. Though the Queen of Versailles is the quintessential symbol of white privilege, Sofia believed she deserved as much of a voice as she did, particularly considering the din of public perception. Hence the scene in which Marie Antoinette is appalled by the rumour (which persists to this day) that she scoffed at the poor, “Let them eat cake.” Handyside believes Sofia is drawn to ostensibly unsympathetic women like Antoinette and the girls of the Bling Ring because, regardless of their means, “we’re all in a culture which doesn’t have answers” for women.[[{"fid":"6700811","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":"552","width":"1024","style":"font-size: 13.008px;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Spent after Marie Antoinette, Sofia took time off to bring up her first child. It was her daughter who inspired her to write her second original screenplay, Somewhere, about a prominent actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), and his relationship—or non-relationship—with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). This is Sofia’s first male hero, but, aside from his gender, he is not so different from her heroines. Sure, he objectifies women—“[Sofia] has a lot of sympathy for male foibles,” says Handyside—but he feels as lost as his predecessors, once again within a rambling palace (in this case, the crumbling decadence of the Chateau Marmont). Johnny bides his vague time falling asleep on the women he is with, texting the ones he is not, otherwise sitting constricted in a plaster mask recalling Antoinette’s girdles and crying on the phone like Charlotte to an unsympathetic listener. “I’m fucking nothing,” he says. “I’m not even a person.” His future, like everyone else’s, is unclear as he leaves his car behind in the middle of nowhere and yells to his daughter under the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter, “Sorry I haven’t been around.” But his words are only for show. Only the audience hears them—they are not for her. This as opposed to the final confidence shared between Lost in Translation’s Bob and Charlotte, which we are not privy to, but which somehow equips Charlotte to face the future. In Cleo’s case, there is no roadmap, she is as lost as Charlotte was.[[{"fid":"6700816","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":"576","width":"1024","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Coppola designed Cleo as “a kid in this grown-up world” who in the end is as adrift as her father, crying over her absentee mother, abandoned by both of them. Her happiness can only fluorish in the interim, prior to this epiphany, within the ignorance of innocence, “where being a girl is wonderful and it buys you this space of transcendence and evasion from adult problems…but the price is that you’re never allowed to grow up,” says Handyside.  There is nothing worth knowing beyond this, the end being the refusal to continue—to die, to walk away, to be escorted off the premises. “I think the feminism in the films,” Handyside adds, “is precisely that there is a refusal of what womanhood means.” The way her father is nostalgic for the old country, Sofia is nostalgic for youth—an idealized sanitized notion of youth, anyway—in which you don’t have to know who you are, decisions don’t yet have to be made, and there are only feelings and experiences and being. This is why she always chooses the girl’s potential—an eternal becoming—over the woman’s reality. Because how do you commit to adulthood when you don’t know where you stand?Coppola wasn’t planning on another film about kids. But then along came the Bling Ring, a group of privileged California youths who burgled celebrity homes in 2008 and 2009 and stole about $3 million worth of possessions. As Coppola told Indiewire, “there’s kind of just the universal teenagers getting in trouble and wanting to be part of a group—that part I could totally relate to.” This film parts ways with the rest by depicting adolescents who are not trying to get out, but instead trying to break in. Versailles is what they want, that sparkling assembly line of shoes and clothes and money. Their homes are a uniform affluent fawn—a peach-hued image of Calabasas the inspiration—but the ones they breech are rich in technicolour. “We had so many beautiful gorgeous things,” says the character Marc in the film.[[{"fid":"6700821","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":"478","width":"680","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The Bling Ring was a comedown after Somewhere, which had won the Golden Lion at Venice. The film was particularly criticized for erasing Diana Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant who did not have U.S. citizenship and was threatened with deportation over her involvement in the Ring. Though Tamayo was reportedly small enough to get through the doggie doors of celebrity homes, in the film it’s the character Nicki’s sister (Georgia Rock) who accesses Megan Fox’s abode this way—Tamayo, and the fact that her conviction could have lead to her expulsion from the country,88She plead guilty and received three years’ probation instead. did not appear on screen. Korean-American Katie Chang, who played the character of Rebecca Ahn in the film, based on the real-life Rachel Lee, remains the rare exception in Coppola's parade of pale patrician faces. “I think Coppola seems to be suggesting, you don’t have to necessarily be white, but being white really helps,” says Handyside. It certainly hasn’t hurt her. As a teen, Coppola had thick dark eyebrows, a long mahogany mane and a pronounced nose, but as she got older, her hair got progressively lighter and shorter, her eyebrows thinner, her makeup and clothes more discreet. “If you think about Italianness, it’s associated with excess, with sexiness,” says Handyside. “She’s almost reinvented herself as a wasp.” Sofia is not Versace, she is Marc Jacobs, and her characters follow suit, often dressed in powder blue, often blanched out to make them even more alabaster than they are, the kind of women who Helmut Netwon might have photographed had they been old enough to qualify.Those who do not pass, do not make the cut. The Beguiled is the latest example. The second adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel unravels during the Civil War at an all-girls boarding school that is disrupted by the arrival of a wounded soldier. The plot is largely preserved, the convalescent, McBurney (Colin Farrell), seducing three women—Nicole Kidman’s commanding head mistress, Kirsten Dunst’s shy teacher, Elle Fanning’s student temptress—who choose not to fight amongst themselves, but to unite against the sybarite. In so doing, the controlled, civilized, quiet confines of their school erupt into a chaotic, barbaric mess of carnage. “Control, civilization, quietness, they’re about femininity,” says Handyside, “they’re also about very strict classical WASP norms of femininity.” The operative word being WASP.[[{"fid":"6700851","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":"268","width":"477","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Sofia’s Beguiled excises the shrewdest character in Cullinan’s story—the school’s slave, Mattie (played arrestingly by blues singer Mae Mercer as Hallie in the 1971 adaptation)—with the film’s only nod to the Civil War’s racial foundation reduced to “the slaves left.” Coppola has said in several interviews that her focus was specifically on the power dynamics between men and women. She told The Hollywood Reporter that she wrote Mattie out, “because I didn’t want to treat that subject lightly,” adding more recently to BuzzFeed that Mattie’s was “a really interesting story, but it’s a whole other story.”999“I would love to have a more racially diverse cast whenever I can,” Sofia told the site. “It didn’t work for this story, but of course I’m very open to stories about many different experiences and points of view.” Presumably that is also why she turned the book’s biracial teacher, Edwina, into Kirsten Dunst. But Edwina’s whitewashing is particularly puzzling considering her background would have been perfectly positioned within Coppola's oeuvre-wide theme of identity. In Cullinan’s novel, Mattie surmises that the reason Edwina is so isolated from the rest of the school is “because she don’t know who she is—she don’t know what she is.” In the film, we are meant to believe that it is simply Edwina’s oppressive timidity that has separated her from the faces that look exactly like hers. But you can’t help hearing the strains of Beyonce’s “Sorry” when you see Fanning on Instagram recreating a scene from Lemonade—The Beguiled shot on the same Louisiana plantation1010“I didn’t see Lemonade, but I saw the chair and it was explained to me,” Sofia told The Los Angeles Times.—casting herself as Beyonce and Dunst as Serena Williams, both of these white actresses clothed in antebellum cotton.*Sofia Coppola, 2017, sits on a winding staircase surrounded by femininity, pre-pubescent to middle aged. Drenched in light, dressed in pale ruffled ankle-length frocks, frozen in place, the seven girls and women around her gaze out from their cramped quarters with various conflicting expressions. The director, 45, is in the middle, white shirt, black pants, white runners, androgynous, the contemporary center of control around which all these females orbit. Coppola is as quiet in this photo as she is in real life. She is so soft spoken that her mother regularly had to strain to hear her when she was a teenager. And when her father commanded her to speak up on set, she did not. Neither do her heroines. Even Marie Antoinette, as loud as she is in dress, often holds up a fan to obscure her mouth. “There’s a sense in which they are saying, ‘You know what? You don’t have to shout,’” says Handyside. Sofia pushes silence, privileging imagery over dialogue, her scripts sparse, her visuals abundant. When I interviewed her at the end of 2010, her sentences would trail off, dissipating into the ether, often unsatisfying—too brief, too superficial. I described her then as “disconnected,” and there continues to be a sense that she keeps herself disengaged from the world (even outside the media). “I think it’s a survival strategy,” says Handyside. “I think sometimes she gives people enough rope to hang themselves with just by not responding.”It is also a way of performing femininity. Coppola will play the submissive, placating her male actors in particular, but inevitably obtaining from them what she wants, sometimes to the point of objectification. “It’s just like my fantasy to get him to sit there and dress him exactly how I want him to be and do everything just exactly how I want,” she said of Bill Murray on the set of Lost in Translation (he nicknamed her The Velvet Hammer). She quietly inverts the male gaze, in Lost turning John Kacere’s painted portrait of a woman’s rear into a moving image that barely moves, laying it across the screen a spell too long, prompting us to question our own gaze. In Somewhere a bed-sprawled Johnny Marco is surrounded by naked gyrating women but sees none of them. In The Virgin Suicides, a muscular demigod floats in a pool of electric blue, in The Bling Ring it is the un-sculpted boy who is self conscious. In The Beguiled too, we see McBurney’s body—caressed by the light, like a Roman statue—immobile, entirely under the power of the women around him.1111“Colin was a really good sport about being our token male,” Sofia told Vanity Fair. “He knew that he was the object.“Like so many of her heroines, Sofia Coppola seduces to control. She learned this, no doubt, being surrounded by men—father, brothers, cousins—ensconced in an industry guided by their sex. She says she was indulged growing up but it was an indulgence stemming from a stereotypical notion of femininity. Her father, his physical presence almost as overbearing as his psychological girth, is ubiquitous in behind-the-scenes footage of her first three films, manspreading on set, making suggestions even after his daughter has already secured an Oscar. Even filmmaker Wes Anderson, an old friend of Sofia’s, told The New York Times, “You want to look out for her. She turns everyone into her big brother.” Of the more than 20 people I contacted about Sofia Coppola, less than a handful agreed to speak with me. In the wake of The Godfather Part III, this is how she likes it. This is her own story, why would she not want to direct it?Her own story, the way she tells it, repeatedly returns to adolescence, those years which were abruptly taken from her, which she continuously reclaims on screen. To Coppola, womanhood is imprisonment, girlhood is freedom, and her feminism lies in her refusal to compromise the latter. She will not, for instance, adopt the “feminist” label, despite her constant devotion— albeit a devotion that is blind to intersectionality—to female identity. When she became the second woman in the history of Cannes to win best director for The Beguiled (a film with a set in which, according to Variety, women outnumbered men), she thanked another feminist icon, Jane Campion, the only woman to win the Palme d’Or, for “being a role model and supporting women filmmakers.” But her inspiration was Jo Ann Callis, specifically her 1977 image “Woman with Blue Bow.” The photo shows an angelic blond with curly hair, her head thrown back, only her neck and nose visible. Around her throat sits an aquamarine satin bow which connects to her lacy white strapless dress. Look closer and it seems the ribbon is forming a groove in her neck, as though it is a fraction too tight. Behind her is water coloured wallpaper of blue leaves, three golden birds flying around her as though she is some kind of S&M Cinderella. “It reminded me of the feeling of femininity and frustration I wanted to achieve in The Beguiled,” Sofia said.“Nous sommes des filles”—“We are girls”—say the students in the film as they conjugate the French verb but do little more to project their gender. Sofia chose to re-adapt The Beguiled in order to express “the women’s point of view,” but the story does not really change. The women remain pale specters cut off from the dark war raging outside. In their decrepit estate they have become arrested in time with only McBurney to remind them of the outside world, one which promises excitement, but also brutality. To preserve their innocence, they must destroy this man, though in so doing they destroy their own prospects. Like a caged beast, McBurney trashes his bedroom after losing his leg at the hands of the women. In protest, he screams, “I’m not even a man anymore!” but it is a mere storm in a teacup, the same one that brews inside these women. To little effect. The film ends where it starts, with a girl searching for sustenance, with the women dragging a man in and then out of their coven. Sofia’s heroines have tried to get out and tried to get in, but this is the first time they simply choose to stay put, a sort of cynical acceptance of their lot. The last scene of The Beguiled shows the body of McBurney outside the closed gates, behind which the women watch from the steps of their crumbling institution, ashen and still, in a sense as dead as he is; yet, even then, nowhere near as free.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
Anxiety at the Gates

Why did I go to work for the TSA? To try to connect with my father? To soothe various concerns as a new father myself? Was I researching a book? Having a midlife crisis? All of the above?

1.It was my first shift of Transportation Security Officer on-the-job training at Albany International Airport’s only checkpoint and I was told to shadow Steven, a fast-talking, big-bellied former car-salesman. We started our rotation at “divestiture,” the Transportation Security Administration’s term for the place where you surrender your belongings. I rehearsed the script about emptying all pockets, putting laptops in their own bins, and removing shoes, jackets, and belts. After fifteen minutes of that, it was onto the next task. We moved from bag search to the walk-through metal detector to document checker to exit to the scanner, then back around to divestiture. Steven pattered advice my way as we circled the checkpoint. “Carry extra gloves in your back pocket,” he said. “Make sure they’re not too tight. And remember, you’re in charge. This is your house.”It didn’t feel like my house, which I’d left at 4 a.m., tiptoeing out so as not to wake my wife and three-year-old son. And despite my brand new, titanium blue uniform, complete with patches, epaulets, and a shiny nametag, I didn’t feel in charge at all. While I listened to Steven, I scanned the checkpoint for my fellow TSOs-in-training. Eight of us had just spent two weeks downstairs in a heavily air-conditioned, windowless classroom together. In our civilian clothes, we’d listened to lectures, learned how to read x-ray images, practiced pat-downs, and passed various tests. I caught sight of one of my classmates: Nina, a bubbly, former schoolteacher. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet as she worked the walk-through metal detector. She didn’t look in charge either, but the crisp new uniform leant her an undeniable aura of authority. She gave me the thumbs-up and I returned the favor, remembering my pre-dawn drive to the airport. A slow cover of “Feeling Good” had been playing on the radio as I pulled into the employee lot: It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life. I’d walked toward the terminal with the music still buzzing in my ears. Red lights glowed out on the tarmac. Under the layers of asphalt and concrete, there was marshland. Along the chain link fences, cattails still grew tall, rustling in the wind. They were stiff from the cold and I listened to them brush like bamboo against the fence, an odd but soothing windchime.Steven thumped a hand down on my shoulder. “Come on, man,” he said. “Focused attention please!” The lines around me at divestiture were backing up; suddenly there were two passengers in wheelchairs, another two passengers requesting pat-downs to avoid the scanner, and a young woman with a Siamese cat in a small carry-on. I struggled to recall the SOP for pets. I had to keep the lines moving. I needed to continue repeating my script about liquids, gels, aerosols, jackets, and laptops. As TSOs, we were supposed to Create Calm and demonstrate Command Presence, but I was starting to sweat and my voice didn’t sound confident to me and I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be saying into my walkie-talkie. I was grateful that Steven was there to help me out. Clearly, it would take a little longer to establish authority.Just a few rotations later, Steven and I were at the scanner when a familiar voice shouted, “This guy is an impostor!”I looked up and saw Gene, a friend and retired UAlbany professor, about to enter the scanner. He was old enough to keep his brown loafers on. I was already nervous enough. I feared I was now moments away from being fired.But I was the only one who flinched. I helped Gene through and quietly told him we’d talk another time. I watched him reunite with his wheelchair-bound wife—she’d been sent through the metal detector instead of the scanner. I heard her ask him the obvious question: “What’s Ed doing here?”Again Gene spoke at full volume, as if the checkpoint were his lecture hall, though I knew his wife had perfectly good hearing. “He’s researching a novel!” Gene shouted.The supervisor did not rush over to apprehend me. Steven was unfazed. “Is that grandpa a friend of yours?” he asked.“He’s a sweet guy,” I said. I expected him to ask for more details, but he was already focusing on the next passenger. Still, for the rest of the shift, and for many shifts to come, those stubborn questions stayed with me: What am I doing here? Am I an impostor? Am I researching a novel?2.When I sent in my application to work for the TSA, my father was on the brink of eighty and I was struggling to communicate with him. Too often, when I talked about him with my own son, I told stories about my childhood that were laced with resentment. I emphasized how many chores and rules there were around the house, how my father was often on the road (he was a traveling textile salesman), how he had a talent for finding flaws in whatever I happened to be doing, from setting the table to stacking the firewood to filling the water pitcher.My father never went to college. He went to work for his father after high school and, aside from a brief stint in the Air Force Reserves, he worked in his father’s business for almost his entire life. Those two Schwarzschild men shared a dank, basement office for decades and then, after my grandfather died, my father had that office all to himself for a few decades more. In other words, he was a grinder. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him truly relax. If pressed, I’d say the closest he ever got was when he was in the basement of our house, in the workroom he shared with the furnace and the hot water heater. He could sit in there for hours, painstakingly assembling and painting model airplanes.He loved to fly. When he’d signed up for the Air Force Reserves, he’d hoped to become a pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. He became a paratrooper instead.Whenever he flew on a commercial flight, he’d bring home one of the plastic emergency cards as a souvenir. He kept them in folders he could clip into three-ring binders. He encouraged his family and friends to help him enlarge his collection if they happened to be traveling. Over the years, I brought him dozens; they made him, for a moment, smile with approval. After decades of collecting, he had a shelf or two of binders, all of them filled with brightly colored illustrations of emergency exits, seat belts, and inflatable slides gently delivering passengers from planes to open water. Many of the airlines no longer exist. If you’d like to see the entire collection, along with the model airplanes, they now sit on display at the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum in Horsham, Pennsylvania.Which is all a way to say that maybe if I worked a grinding airport job for a while, I’d come to understand my father better, and resent him less, before it was too late. At the same time, sometimes I thought applying for a job with the TSA was evidence of a mid-life crisis. I was closing in on fifty, my son was three, and I’d been working as an English professor for seventeen years. Every day offered evidence of how little control I had over the world around me. Call it the mid-life crisis of an authority-seeker. Instead of speeding around recklessly in a shiny red sports car, I’d take an entry-level, rule-bound job, work the 5-9 a.m. shift, and learn how to divest tired travelers of their plastic water bottles. Then I’d race over to the university and bring a whole new perspective to my classes in contemporary literature and fiction writing.The fact that I’d become a father myself also drew me to the job. What does it mean to be a parent during the “War on Terror”? I felt as haunted by the collective tragedy of 9/11 as anyone, but I was also haunted by the ways daily living in the United States had changed from 9/12 forward. I bristled at the bunkering of public buildings (like the state capitol buildings a few blocks away from my house), the pervasiveness of surveillance and searches, the sudden expansion of airport checkpoints. When I used to fly home to Philadelphia from St. Louis or San Francisco or elsewhere, my father would be there at the gate, waiting to embrace me, eager to hear details about the flight. When it was time to leave again, he’d walk me to the gate and wait with me, waving farewell as I boarded the plane. My students were growing up in a very different world, as was my son. These days only those with tickets can be with us as we board and deplane. Our farewells and reunions usually take place in the shadow of a checkpoint.3.Day after day, shift after shift, I kept trying to feel in charge at the checkpoint. I found that, in some ways, my time as a writer and professor provided good training for most duties of a Transportation Security Officer. Years of grading papers meant I could check documents at a good clip. Thanks to a specialization in film studies, I’d spent a good deal of time examining images on screen, searching for unusual, hidden, crucial details—fine practice for working the x-ray machine. And my first teaching position, right out of graduate school, took me to a small Southern women’s college, where I learned a certain genteel politeness—politeness that served me well as I searched through bags while harried passengers stood by, scowling and impatient.No part of my teaching experience, however, prepared me to perform pat-downs.Back at that Southern women’s college, I’d learned that the only really acceptable form of student/faculty physical contact was a high-five. On rare occasions, there were fist bumps, but these risked the perception of violence. Now, every morning, as part of my job, I was supposed to run my hands up and down the legs, torsos, and arms of my fellow citizens. I was supposed to do this in such a way that no one would feel groped.My fellow rookies and I practiced on each other first, patting each other down multiple times. There was nervous, lighthearted banter about touching junk and how much worse it would be in North Korea and why the men finished practicing before the women did. Our cheerful instructors offered guidance. They said the procedure was clinical. Exert the same pressure you use to spread peanut butter on a sandwich. Say clearly what you’re going to do and then do it. We’d grow numb to it before long, they assured us.As we practiced, a few lines from Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” kept running through my mind: Sometimes I think this whole world/Is one big prison yard/Some of us are prisoners/The rest of us are guards.How could I put my hands on someone else like this?And yet, was there a better way to keep our airplanes safe?Whitman’s “A Song for Occupations” offered this: Neither a servant nor master I…I will be even with you and you shall be even with me.But how could I perform pat-downs in such a way that they’d foster both security and compassion?I remembered Newjack, Ted Conover’s book about the year he worked as a Corrections Officer in Sing Sing. Day after day, he’d had to do much more than the TSA’s standard pat-down and he voiced his worries about the consequences of his actions:“Leave it at the gate,” you hear time and again in corrections. Leave all the stress and bullshit at work; don’t bring it home to your family. This was good in theory. In reality, though, I was like my friend who had worked the pumps at a service station: Even after she got home and took a shower, you could still smell the gasoline on her hands. Prison got into your skin, or under it. If you stayed long enough, some of it probably seeped into your soul.I didn’t think I’d be able to work a year at the checkpoint, but I wanted to stay at the job long enough to understand more fully what had drawn me to it. I hoped my soul—as well as the souls of all the passengers I encountered—wouldn’t be stained. I knew airport checkpoints were disturbing, dehumanizing, and frightening places for many people. And these days, more than ever, it becomes almost impossible to pass through an airport without thinking about how many people are detained on their way. How many have their property confiscated. How many leave feeling violated. How many are forced to leave and forbidden to return. But, back then, I tried to reassure myself: Albany’s checkpoint was a bright, airy, high-ceilinged space. I hadn’t witnessed any inappropriate behavior. Technically, as TSOs, we weren’t even allowed to detain people—that was police work.My professorial intellectualizing didn’t help much the first time I had to shadow a TSO named Lance, a hard-working bodybuilder so thick with muscle he had to walk through the scanner sideways. He showed devotion to all the rules, held at least one other security job, and went to night school. When he wasn’t working or studying, he was watching cop shows, preparing himself for the latest threats. In other words, he was a true believer with big aspirations in the security field. Only a fool would have tried to get in his way. When he watched me perform a pat-down, I flubbed my lines and forgot to check the passenger’s feet. Lance was not impressed. “That being-nice stuff,” he said, “you have to let that go.”The next time I was paired with Lance, he focused harder on my pat-down technique. Again, he was not impressed. “Have you been practicing your verbiage at home?” he asked.“Not really.”“It’s a yes or no question,” he said.I felt like a student woefully unprepared for class. “No,” I admitted.He shook his freshly shaved head and went over to speak to the supervisor. When he returned, he led me off to the side of the checkpoint and told me to practice a pat-down on him. A few of the other officers and officers-in-training glanced our way. I noticed a few passengers watching too.“Do the whole script,” Lance said.“Can you see your belongings,” I began, “or would you like me to bring them over here?”“You need to enunciate better,” Lance said.“I’m going to use my hands to pat down the clothed areas of your body. I’ll use the backs of my hands on the sensitive areas, the buttocks and the zipper line. I’ll be clearing your collar and your waistline with two fingers. And I’ll be clearing each inner thigh, sliding up until I reach resistance.”“Say it like you mean it,” Lance said. “You need to do pat-downs like they mean what they’re supposed to mean. Every pat-down is done to make sure the person in front of you is not a risk, right?”I nodded and went on, nervous, wondering if my job was on the line. “Do you have any internal or external medical devices? Do you have any painful or tender areas on your body? Do you have absolutely everything out of your pockets?”“This is your house,” Lance said, echoing one of Steven’s opening lines.“A private screening is available if you’d prefer. You can request one at any time.”“Go ahead,” he told me.So I did what I said I was going to do and, as was the case with every pat-down, eventually I was on the dull brown airport carpet, on my knees. I cleared Lance’s big feet, his legs, and I went up until I met resistance.“That’s better,” Lance said. “Remember, if you’re not doing a pat-down properly, then you’re doing it improperly, and isn’t your whole Mr. Nice Guy thing about not doing anything improper?”When I stood up, the rest of the checkpoint was still humming along as usual. Was I being hazed? Humbled? Embarrassed? Schooled?All of the above, of course.Later in the shift, while we were working the bag search position, a young woman lost the backing to her earring. She seemed willing to let it go, but I knelt on the carpet again and managed to find it, a small speck of silver amid the brown strands studded with dust.The woman beamed at us as she reattached the earring. “My day is going to be much better now,” she said.That pleased me, and it pleased me even more when Lance, smiling, looked my way and said, “You got a hawkeye or something?”Just forever seeking the approval of my father, or father-figure of the moment, I could have said.Security. Homeland. Fatherland. Maybe my motivations for seeking a job with the TSA were simpler than I thought.That night, at home, while my family slept, I made sure to study my verbiage.4.If this were a tabloid exposé or a steamy roman a clef, you might expect to hear tales of corrupt, inept, mean-spirited TSOs screwing in family restrooms, smuggling drugs, stealing laptops, and tormenting the elderly, all while failing one critical Homeland Security test after another.I’ve read those stories. I’ve spent time on websites like Taking Sense Away, where a former TSO not only wrote about the failings of the system at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, but also periodically published e-mails from other TSOs around the country eager to share their own critiques of the system. I closely follow coverage of the TSA in the news and it seems clear that far too many officers abuse their power. Toddlers are patted down. Cancer survivors are forced to remove their prosthetic breasts. The list goes on.I have no desire to be an apologist. Also, I held the job during Obama’s presidency. The job and the way airport work is done seem likely to keep changing drastically as Trump continues to make appointments and sign executive orders. Who can say at this point what sorts of orders TSA employees might be compelled to carry out in the months and years to come?A mantra I heard throughout my training helped me understand my time on the job: If you’ve been to one airport, you’ve been to one airport. While I can’t speak to what happens at other airports or what might happen in the future, I can tell you what I experienced and observed during my time at Albany International. It’s not a particularly sexy or edgy reveal. I saw a diverse group of men and women of all ages who sought TSA employment because it offered a combination that seems scarce these days: entry-level positions with real health benefits, job security, and the possibility of career development. For all its supposed faults, the TSA is an opportunity for thousands of people who want to help keep their finances and/or nation secure. I watched Steven and Lance and Nina work hard every day. Some were more skeptical about the mission than others, some were more crass in their conduct than others, but everyone I saw performed the job they’d been trained to do as best they could.I’ve held other entry-level jobs over the course of my life: kennel cleaner, dishwasher, waiter, gardener, gravedigger, office temp, lab assistant. Working as a TSO-in-training was as challenging as any other work I’ve done, including writing and teaching. At the checkpoint, we were often urged to practice focused attention, hour after hour, shift after shift, and it could get exhausting. We rotated from station to station, repeating our scripts, studying documents and images, searching bags, and we were supposed to perform each task as if our lives and the lives of everyone around us were continuously at stake.In my best moments at the checkpoint, however, I came to feel that security done right could be downright peaceful, even uplifting, a way to rise above our world of constant distractions. In this context, it’s revealing that the TSA lingo for passengers is actually PAX. The PAX passed by, pulling their rolling bags, poking at their devices, chatting with other PAX and non-PAX in distant locations, and there was an odd, pulsating beauty to it all. Peace, PAX. We’re all PAX of the world, just a swirl of souls. We pass through airports to lift off and land, like so many drops of water, bound for our time in the clouds. We’re carried aloft for miles and then we descend back to the earth’s surface. The world spins and we spin upon it; it is, like almost everything else, beyond our control. The tickets can say whatever they say. Everyone knows the person who arrives is not the same person who departed. Whoever we are, we won’t be for long.5.The application process to join the TSA was complicated and lengthy, involving forms, tests, physicals, and months of waiting; the resignation process was surprisingly swift.After I’d been on the job for a few months, a group of people started leafleting the checkpoint, encouraging PAX to opt out of the pat-downs. The story drew local media coverage, and when I read the article in the Albany Times-Union, I noticed it had been written by a friend of mine. He could’ve easily seen me while reporting, and then I would have become part of the story. And if it wasn’t that friend, it would eventually be a student of mine, or a parent from my son’s school, or someone else. Gene’s day-one moment of recognition hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention, but I probably wouldn’t be so lucky next time. I didn’t want to become the story, at least not until I figured out for myself what the story was.So, the day after I read the Times-Union article, at the end of my shift I went downstairs to the HR office, right across from the windowless classroom where I’d been trained. I told the woman behind the desk that I wanted to talk about resigning. She asked if working afternoons instead of mornings would help. She said if I was interested, it might be possible to take some time away and get re-instated later. Her kindness caught me off guard. I considered changing my mind. Then I told her I’d made my decision. She handed me a pen and a blank sheet of paper so I could write a short resignation letter.“Do I need to say anything in particular?” I asked.“Just that you’ve decided to resign. Also include the date, your name, and social security number.”While I wrote a sentence or two, she prepared a few forms for me to sign. She asked for my DHS ID and told me to drop my uniforms off within forty-eight hours.“That’s it?” I asked.“We’re used to turnover,” she said. Then she told one of her assistants to escort me out to my car. I wondered if I was making a mistake. The assistant didn’t talk to me as we walked and he stopped at the employee lot gate to wait for me. Alone in my car, I took a long look at my TSA ID and parking pass. Then, when I pulled out of the lot, I lowered my window and surrendered the pass and ID to the unsmiling assistant.From the airport, I headed south on the thruway toward the university and parked in the faculty/staff lot. I grabbed my backpack, which was stuffed with books and a change of clothes. On the way to the Humanities building, my uniform hidden beneath my winter coat, I walked among crowds of students, thinking, again, of my father. Instead of going to college, he’d covered his own father’s territory, hawking textiles his whole life. Over the years, I’d come to believe that his obsession with rules and his inability to relax stemmed from the ways that job compelled him to serve others. His salary was completely determined by the commissions he made on each sale. In other words, as he travelled the northeast corridor, lugging sample cases from office to office, his success depended upon pleasing and winning over one boss after another. I sometimes simplified it this way: Serving as a paratrooper in the Air Force Reserves compacted his body; working as a salesman shrank his soul.I climbed the three flights of stairs to my office. I needed to prepare for class. I needed another cup of coffee. It was a relief to be down to one job again.Before I changed out of my uniform for the last time, I wondered again what it would be like to work as a TSO year after year, to remain in the TSA while my wife and I continued to raise our son. Would my soul shrink or expand? Would I come home from work most days feeling powerful or powerless? Could my work at the checkpoint be just as significant to me as my work on the page, or in the classroom?When I think about those questions now, in these early months of Trump’s presidency, I’m even less certain of the answers. It’s so easy to slip into despair about the seeming ineffectiveness of—and opposition to—writing and the arts under the current administration.But Trump wasn’t on my radar back then. I carried my questions into my office with me. I closed the door and started to change out of my uniform. As I traded the titanium blue TSA shirt for an English professor’s simple white button-down, I thought about something that happened a few days before I resigned.I was working the document checking station, reaching for the next person’s ID and boarding pass, when I found myself face-to-face with another former university colleague. Judith and I had never been close, but we’d worked together and, when she retired, it so happened that I wound up moving into her office. We’d chatted a few times about whether or not she wanted the two pink wingchairs she’d left behind. We’d also bumped into each other once at the local food co-op. “Well, you better get on back to my office,” she’d joked. But at the checkpoint, she didn’t really see me. My face was still my face. My last name was printed on the silver nametag pinned to my chest, and there aren’t too many Schwarzschilds in Albany. I looked at her and wished her a nice trip when I returned her documents. She stepped away, oblivious, because from where she stood, I fit in. The checkpoint was my house and I was guarding the gates of Pax Americana. I was not an impostor.Sure, I was slightly hurt she didn’t recognize me. But, more than that, I felt strangely proud.
Along Came Harvey

My father defaulted on his dreams, abandoned his daughter, and resigned himself to living on a futon in his parents’ living room. Then he bought a two-foot-tall stuffed rabbit.

I was twelve years old when my father, sitting next to me in his Cadillac outside my school, looked at his hands, calloused from hours at his electric guitar, and informed me that I was an adult, that I no longer needed him as a parent. He’d be leaving tomorrow, he told me, to drive down to Vegas to become a professional poker player. He was good at poker, had taught me everything I knew about the game, late nights skipping homework, betting pennies on the floor of his apartment from the age of eight, when he and my mother had divorced.My father never made it to Vegas. He drove five hours to his parents’ home on a stark suburban street in Ottawa, and stayed there, on a futon in their living room, for twenty years. It didn’t make sense to me at the time: he was a gambler, an adventurer, a man with an insatiable thirst for life. These were all the impressions I had as a child, and all, save that he was a gambler, were false. My father had never lived alone. He was afraid of travel, of flying, and was not, as a gambler, equipped to take care of himself, let alone a child, financially. So his mother and father took him in. Perhaps out of the same strange sense of obligation I felt towards keeping him happy. More likely, I think, they felt they owed him. My father’s own childhood, from what I’ve heard, had it’s own extreme hardship between the war, the depression, and a father who swung between domineering and outright abusive. Together, perhaps unconsciously aware of this dynamic, they lived in an insular, isolated world, making their weekly trips to the casino, and to the Denny’s up the street for weekend brunches. This was their life, and as far as I could tell, they were content with it.He would call once a year or so, around the holidays—or, rather, would have his mother call me and then pass him the phone, so adamant was he in his resolve to never again hear the sound of my mother’s voice. He and my mother had fought on a regular basis, sleeping in separate bedrooms and keeping opposing work schedules until they finally decided to get a divorce. The divorce resulted, as many do, in a vicious court battle, and in rages within my father that would manifest as statements, during otherwise calm mornings, about how he would like to shoot my mother between the eyes or drive her off a cliff.I began to wonder, after he left, if part of what prompted his departure was my increasing resemblance to my mother. He’d gone almost instantly from the central figure in my life to a near-stranger. I flirted with suicide, withdrew socially, and took up hours of lying on the floor listening to ’90s grunge. He, meanwhile, had defaulted on his dreams, abandoned his daughter, resigned himself to a futon in his parents’ living room surrounded by craft supplies and Dollarama knick-knacks. It was during that first year in Ottawa that my father bought Harvey.*Harvey is a stuffed white rabbit, about two feet tall and cuddly, purchased from the gift section of a local bookstore. Harvey wears a black tie on special occasions, and is rarely left alone. My father would sit Harvey on the futon next to him during movie nights with his parents and carry him around in the local shopping mall during weekly outings with his father. He loathed his father, the war vet with a bitter disposition who, following the three strokes and tracheotomy, could express himself only in hisses, grunts, and seemingly random pointing.He and my grandmother put up with Harvey, though, both handling the stuffed rabbit with the tired resignation of those who knew well the stubbornness of their son, and no longer had the energy to fight it. During weekend brunches, my father would sit Harvey in the chair next to him, order him a coffee, and smile at the waitress with unwavering confidence in the charm of his quirk. On the rare occasions that I was invited into their world I would glimpse this ritual, sitting across from my father and Harvey with a blank expression, a daughter too fixated on keeping her father’s love to display anything other than total compliance. There was such pride in the way my father presented his eccentricity to the small world around him. He had inserted himself into his parents’ life with success. He could do as he pleased. Now, with Harvey beside him, he’d upped the ante, proving to himself that he could take these little impositions to another level. Everything about him—the way he smiled in his cowboy boots and black cowboy hat; the thinning ponytail that crawled down along the back of his neck like a snake; the quickly aging and ratty rabbit—served to confirm his status as a man who could do whatever he wanted, regardless of how those around him might feel about it.*My father’s obsession with Harvey began with the Jimmy Stewart film of the same name, in which Stewart portrayed Elwood P. Dowd, a lovable anti-intellectual with his own Harvey—also a rabbit, though his was six-foot-two, invisible, and a bit of a smart-ass. From the time I was six or so, my father and I would watch the film annually, and he would transform into a child, eyes wide and mind open, receptive. He saw Stewart as a guru, mouthing the words as he said them: “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I’ve finally won out over it.” This quote, I would realize years after his departure, was the key to my father’s approach to life.Having grown up with a rigid, controlling father through the Depression, and having known nothing but poverty and perhaps frequent acts of aggression, I imagine my father’s interest in reality was beaten out of him at a fairly early age. My grandfather fought overseas in the Second World War. While he was gone he forbade my grandmother from working to keep the family well fed, and when he returned, he brought a warring aggression that unloaded itself almost exclusively on my father. I wonder if, for my father, part of the appeal of moving in with his parents was the reversal he might have felt, suddenly a strong and imposing force in his now sickly, silenced father’s life.In the film, Dowd’s sister is desperate to be married, and his mother desperate to marry her off. His insistence upon parading his imaginary companion scares off friends and suitors alike, leaving the women in his life at a loss. Eventually they come to a sort of resigned realization that this invisible rabbit is important to Dowd in a way that overshadows them altogether.*My father was conflicted, he once confided in me, about Jimmy Stewart as a person. How, he wondered, could he play a hero such as Elwood P. Dowd in one film, then turn around and play a detestably selfless communist in another? The selfless communist he referred to, with notable disdain, was George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. During the four years in which I lived alone with him for three days a week, between my parents’ divorce and his ultimate exit, he refused to let me watch that film, claiming it was communist propaganda that aimed to undo everything great thinkers such as Ayn Rand had worked so hard to achieve. My father didn’t read much, but when he did, without fail, he read Ayn Rand. He carried her books like bibles, quoting from them, much as he did Harvey, with an earnestness, a devotion, that seemed to me unwavering. My father was rarely an angry man, generally blissful in his willful neglect of the needs and demands of others, but when he talked about It’s a Wonderful Life, he became something almost frightening, shut off, righteous. It was a trait I’d known he carried with him always, hidden beneath the easy smile, and knowing about the trait is what kept me good. Knowing it was there meant knowing the maintenance of his cheery disposition depended upon me, on my ability to maintain my “good girl” status, to stay obedient, easygoing, to accept and embrace whatever it was he wanted to give, including Harvey.For those four years, we did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. I learned not to want much, not to ask for meals or to go out for a few hours to visit with a friend. I existed to keep him entertained; together, we went to his favourite horror movies, or to the pool halls and racetracks at the outskirts of Mississauga. He didn’t think about things like washing my clothes or cooking me meals, and I was so eager to be loved that I learned quickly not to push for such things. While he stepped into the full glory of his most selfish, most imposing self, I shrank proportionately. I stopped knowing how to even begin to think about what I might want or need.I was thirty when I finally saw It’s a Wonderful Life. I’d barely spoken to my father in a decade, save for the odd birthday text or holiday greeting card. That was how long it had taken for me to feel free enough in my autonomy to do something I knew would displease him. By the end of the film I was crying the way I wouldn’t allow myself to even when my father announced he was leaving: loudly, sloppily, and with uninhibited dejection. It was a beautiful film. It exhibited a Jimmy Stewart who cared about the people, the state of the world around him. Here was a version of manhood my father had so ardently hidden from me, protecting me from the knowledge that one could be generous, and giving, and that it could benefit those around him in profound ways. I, of course, knew how to be giving, having been trained well as a child. What I didn’t know was how to receive, the way those around George Bailey did, the benefits of such generosity. I was crying because it was heartwarming, but more than that, because while I’d cried plenty for the loss of my father, I’d never cried or even properly acknowledged the loss of wellbeing I’d suffered while in his presence.*The last time I saw my father was February of last year. He called out of the blue from a number I didn’t recognize to tell me he was dying. I agreed to see him one last time before he started a rigorous treatment of radiation and chemotherapy for stage-four lung cancer. They’d taken a chunk of his brain, where the cancer had spread, and the scar was still fresh, a Frankenstein’s monster gash across the right side of his head. He had, in addition to a flesh and bone wife who fixed us tea while we made small talk, a family of Harveys now. The rabbits sat in a pile on the couch, some smaller than others, some brown or beige, dressed with scarves or hats, some naked. He washed them monthly, he said, in the machine. His wife adopted the Harveys as though they were her own, and fretted about their comfort: was the temperature right? Were they dressed warmly enough? Did they have enough space? Did they feel loved?I hadn’t seen my father since his own father’s funeral. Harvey wore a black silk tie for that occasion, and when the family went to Red Lobster afterward, he sat between my father and me. My father leaned over Harvey and opened his wallet in front of my face. There was a photograph, a little school photo of me when I was ten years old. You could see the meekness, the awkward way I held myself after the divorce. The year this photo was taken, my parents were engaged in a vicious court battle, I had just been diagnosed with a supposedly insurmountable learning disability, had been held back in school, and was generally on the verge of suicide. To my father, though, as I’d been well trained to please him, I was a smiling, obedient girl who enjoyed the horror movies and casinos and pool halls he brought me to. In showing me this old photograph he believed he was showing how much he loved me. I looked at the photo, saw in it the desperation of our two realities, and told him I had a more recent photograph he could have. I’d just finished graduate school in New York and had a smiling headshot, black cap, red lipstick and all. My father shook his head, folded up his wallet again, returned it to the back pocket of his black.“No thank you,” he said. He told me the photograph represented the time when he loved me most. Sure, he still loved me now, he’d offered, in a way, but it was different. My father moved a glass of water a little closer to Harvey’s face, I suppose to make it easier for him to drink should he suddenly become animate and thirsty. I sat silent, waiting for the ordeal to be over, for freedom, again, from my father’s reality.
Mourning My Dad, the Identical Twin

The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until he passed away.

In 2011, my father died. Technically.Let me start again. My dad, Tony, was an identical twin. He and his brother Tom were tall, blonde, thin-legged and blue-eyed with a surprisingly Italian last name. They typed terse emails with their index fingers and loved The Godfather movies. They shared bad senses of humour, ice cream dependency, discomfort with long phone conversations (save for with each other), and business acumen.Tom is still alive. My dad isn’t. The fact that I’ve always had an exact replica of my father, with a startlingly similar voice, mannerisms and, well, face, never really struck me as exceptional until my dad passed away.As is custom, the funeral was bleak. In the memorial line up of family members, seeing my uncle exacerbated the strange reality of loss. A few guests were unfortunately or hilariously caught unaware that Tony had a twin brother. Reactions to Tom ranged from shock to clinginess. People insisted on reminding my uncle of his uncanny resemblance to my dad. Tom responded, patiently, way too many times: I know.In the ’80s, the only feature that distinguished my dad from Tom was a thick, blonde cowboy moustache. One day, well into a confidently moustachioed decade, after much urging from Tom, my dad shaved. The twins then tried to confuse my cousin and I about who was whose father—It’s me, your daddy, one of them insisted—and neither my cousin nor I could distinguish. They were that identical. This experiment ended in tears. My cousin and me: paralysed and afraid. Betrayed? I was about five years old at the time.I’m not sure what the fear was. Was I worried about making the wrong choice and losing my dad’s faith, failing a test of some kind? Or was it that I couldn’t be clear about what made my dad my dad?*Tom and Tony’s likeness went deeper than their appearances. A particular freaky twin thing happened during a summer in the ’90s when my parents brought my brother and I to a little hotel on Prince Edward Island. We went for a walk into the charming town to marvel at, I don’t know, the gables and the red clay beaches, probably, when my dad stopped on the sidewalk and said something like I think Tom’s here. Minutes later, we heard a car horn and turned to see my uncle cackling out the window. The twins had, without knowing, booked the same vacation, at the same hotel, for the same damn week.Coincidences like this are called tacit coordination—the phenomenon that people can successfully coordinate their decisions without communication. Though it can happen in many social contexts, identical twins in particular enact synchronous behaviours or decisions frequently, and have a high incidence of tacit coordination. The social bond between identical twins has been described as among the closest and most enduring of human social relationships.The genetic commonality of identical twins may underlie their similarities and social intimacy, and the perception of physical likeness can cause others to subconsciously reinforce similar behaviours.While my dad and uncle were growing up, people could never be sure who was who, so each twin was often called TomTony. One word. The twins would answer to each other’s names; they were so wrapped up in each other and indistinguishable that to be recognized as an individual might’ve been expecting too much. And really, how could you maintain any behavioural or psychic distance if you share everything, including your name?Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, in a family of nine children, the twins were like their own unit. As my Uncle Tom puts it, they kept each other company and, as far as I can glean from second-hand stories and my own experiences with their hard-ass Canadian Auto Workers union activist parents, protected each other amongst the chaos.I called my uncle recently and asked about some of his twin memories. He said one of the hardest times for them was when my dad failed grade 7, which meant that Tom and Tony would no longer be in the same class. The twins cried over their report cards outside the school; the repercussions were overwhelming—separate grades, separate classrooms, Tom would start high school a year sooner. They were devastated at the idea of being apart. On their walk home from school the twins formulated a plan: Tom promised to intentionally fail grade 8, leaving Tony enough time to catch up so that they could be together again. Of course, when their hardline parents caught wind of this, the twins were scared off from following through with the scheme.I wonder, if they’d followed through, if their relationship would’ve been different. Maybe my dad’s 13-year-old follies gave the twins enough distance in their education to grow some independence, to maintain their bond, but who knows, maybe into their adult years they still would’ve preferred to have been synched up. Still, they went on to work the same jobs at A&P grocery, eventually becoming twin co-managers, and put themselves through business school at the University of Windsor, one year apart.My uncle got married in August of 1977. Following a job offer, he and his wife moved to the Toronto area after the wedding. It was the first time Tom was away from home, and the first time in their lives that the twins wouldn’t share a room. The twins were distraught and crying as the reception wrapped up. My uncle’s wife stepped in to get Tom on the road to their honeymoon, prying the twins apart.My uncle’s family were the only LaSordas who moved out of Windsor. Most of my life Tom’s family has lived across the border in Michigan. When our families would visit, the twins were giddy. TomTony essentially reverted to being little boys. They matched each other. One exception was the development of my uncle’s slight American accent, notable on words like dah-lers, which my dad hated. If one twin lost weight, the other would try to lose weight too. Haircuts. Glasses. Clothing. They’d explained their constant evaluation of each other as disciplining themselves so they could still look alike. They wanted to.Tom and Tony have their differences, however subtle. My dad, minutes younger, was more outgoing. He’d starred in a middle school production of Our Town, and brought up his glorious moment of stardom on the regular. He dated a few women before he met my mother. Tom, on the other hand, married his high school sweetheart. In their careers, too, Tony was preoccupied in creating, and Tom was interested in contributing; my dad started his own marketing company while Tom worked at high level corporate for auto companies. Both twins were blind in one eye—Tom’s left, Tony’s right—one of the only physical attributes in which they were the inverse of each other.As a non-twin, I think all of the blurred identity stuff sounds annoying. When your self is so tied up in another person’s, I assumed there’d be a longing for that sort of individual distinction, maybe some resentment at having a persistent and dizzyingly close model for comparison. Instead, my Uncle Tom explained that being mistaken for someone else or someone not being sure what name to call him made him feel special. With every milestone or piece of good news, Tom says he and my dad were never jealous or competitive in any negative sense. If anything, the twins felt as though they were achieving vicariously, maybe even taking credit for it by genetic association.As Tom remembers, in Windsor, Ontario in the 1950s, identical twins were rare. Everyone around them seemed to reinforce their twinness; together, they were magnetic. “People stared, stopped us on the street, asked us questions,” he said. “We were rock stars.”*My dad died suddenly, after what should have been a routine heart surgery. He was too young—everyone I knew made sure to say so, as if confirming that this loss was indeed tragic. His death shattered me. I went through unnerving phases like eating only comfort food. I threw away a manuscript I’d “finished,” adopted a kitten, never talked about his death, and then sometimes talked about it.It’s only recently that I’ve considered how deeply and distinctively his death must have shattered his twin. I think of my uncle witnessing my dad being extremely ill, struggling, and dying; it would be horrific in ways unique from my own experience. Losing a life partner and a best friend is its own grotesque and crushing blow. But with their resemblance, my uncle could’ve been glimpsing himself in such a state, not unlike a Dickensian spectre of what-is-yet-to-come.[[{"fid":"6700756","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":"2448","width":"3264","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Kinship genetic theory suggests that our ratings of grief intensity will increase proportionally with genetic relatedness to the deceased. Several twin-specific bereavement studies have found direct association between the degree of gene similarity (which is highest in identical twins) and anticipated grief. Using a rating system called the Grief Experience Inventory (GEI) selected aspects of twinship—preoccupation with the co-twin; disruption of shared birthdays; reactions to meeting or seeing other twins—were significantly associated with high GEI scale scores.In terms of experiencing grief for a co-twin in comparison to another sibling, my uncle can speak to both. Two younger LaSorda brothers passed away in the twins’ lifetimes: one at age of 16, and one at age 39, both unexpectedly. Of course these were tragedies that my uncle grieved, but when his twin died, he said the loss felt completely different.Twin researchers Nancy Segal and Thomas Bouchard have found that the mean grief intensity rating for twins was higher than for non-twin siblings, and significantly higher than that for spouses. My uncle echoed this finding: “A twin is more like a wife or a husband,” he said, “but bigger than that, because with a spouse, you could maybe meet another one. You can remember a time before. A twin leaves a void that’s always, always there.”*Tom and Tony have left their children a legacy of similarities, in a way. My cousin, Jackie, and I are the first-born kids of the twins. We share some physical traits (kind of tall, kind of blonde, fast walkers), but the parallels in our behaviours are what I find most striking. We both move around a lot (too much). For several Christmas holidays in a row we’ve chosen the same gifts for our mothers. We’ve both gone to university and later pursued two Master’s degrees: one academic and one Fine Arts each. We are intensely self-deprecating, solitary, and we were given the same prescription antidepressant.Oh, did I mention we’re both writers?As the children of identical twins, Jackie and I share 25 percent of our genes instead of the usual cousins’ share of 12.5%. Biologically, we’re half-sisters, not cousins. An identical twin parent is as closely related to his own children as to the co-twin’s children. At first I was surprised by my cousin’s grief when my dad died, but then again, I’d feel the same way. Our dads are our favourite people for the same reasons.*What I struggle with is the question of whether grieving my dad is made easier or harder by his twinship. You hear it all the time when someone loses a loved one: what I’d give to see them one more time, to be able to call them, hear their voice, hug them. I have that option, sort of. This father-clone.Since his death, I attempt to formulate my dad’s opinions about events that unfold, about the arc of my life since his absence, even thoughts about former tensions in our relationship. I hold on to my metaphorical grief suitcase. I can get insights from my uncle, though I rarely consult him; in part because I worry it’s painful for us both. When I called Tom the other day and asked for advice, I can say with confidence that what he told me is exactly what my dad would’ve said, down to the idioms and the nervous, excited laughter when answering the phone. So, in a way, the twin thing is a privilege.In another way, I can get petty. I see my cousins enjoying their lives with their dad. I watch Jackie grow annoyed sometimes, probably the same way I was, by her dad’s conservatism (maybe born out of the vehement working-class socialism they were raised with), his struggle to talk feelings, or his crippling awkwardness at drive-thru windows. I also see how my dad would’ve aged, how a few more years would’ve softened him.On the phone with Tom, talking about my dad, I was nervous. My uncle relaxed, and recounted story after story of his favourite twin memories. I jotted down Tom’s words in my notebook for over an hour—a shockingly long phone call for one of the twins. Tom and Tony were excellent baseball players. One season, they were placed on separate teams and pitched. Both made it to the finals—Tom’s team won. The Windsor Star featured a small clipping with a photo of the indistinguishable twins facing off with their uniforms and gloves, but the caption stated that Tony’s team won. Tom jokes about demanding a retraction from the paper, but the reality is neither the championship nor the headline mattered: their wins and losses were vicarious. As I listened, I began to step back and recognize that Tom is whole—a person who can offer me a distinct relationship and a perspective on my dad that I could never otherwise access. I stopped fretting about the upsetting parts of their identicality, because those exist in the similarities and the differences. I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of sparkling individuality while hunting for what I needed from my uncle, which is my dad.
Nine Short Essays About ‘Someone Great’ by LCD Soundsystem
[[{"fid":"6700626","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"LCD Sounsystem - Someone Great (DL Link)","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]1. What do those humming sounds at the beginning of the song remind you of? Personally, I always think of grocery store freezers, the sound of which falls into that wonderful category of “almost music.” Like the occasionally sweet scrapings of a tram-car, or the borderline drumming of a forceful rain. There’s a lot of excellent ambient music being generated by our surroundings. Poignant, emotional stuff. But, usually, I don’t pay attention to it, unless I’m pointedly avoiding another sensation. Like how, at the dentist, I’ll mentally harmonize with the drill so I don’t think about what it’s doing. Or how I realized, during my ex-girlfriend’s accomplished description of my emotional problems, that I really like the sighing sound of passing cars.There was a cool night outside. The wind was yelling in the trees. Crickets were talking about whatever. What I wanted was silence, but there’s really no such thing. Even in the most soundproof rooms, you can still hear your heartbeat. Sylvia Plath famously called it “the old brag of my heart,” but in such moments, my heartbeat always feels like an apology. Sorry this is still happening. Poom-poom. So sorry. Poom-poom.All through the song, the freezers keep going. They’re slightly dissonant, almost wrong. Over the course of a decade’s obsessive listening to this song, I’ve heard it all sorts of different ways. Sometimes, rather than focusing on the lyrics, or the beat, I zero in on those weird freezer sounds—the noise that precedes and outlasts everything else.2. Walter was a garbage collector—one of many in my neighbourhood, who made a little cash from collecting bottles and cans and returning them to the liquor store. Every morning, he’d stop by while I was smoking on the stoop, and tell me what he’d found. Sometimes there was treasure. An expensive pocketknife, or a birdwatching guide. Walter said that these moments made a hard job worthwhile.His job was hard because, first of all, garbage, but secondly, because he had to compete with a whole cabal of old ladies who had their own rival operation. He showed me a little map, a very detailed map, of all the neighbourhood alcoholics, in whose bins could be found endless paydirt.It was a great little friendship. But I screwed it all up when I told him I wanted to write a story about him. He immediately accused me of being a spy—a covert representative of the other collectors, who were all trying to crack his secrets. After that I still saw him in the neighbourhood but he didn’t make eye contact.3. I know there’s a new LCD Soundsystem album coming out. What I’ve heard so far is good. Whatever. I’m writing about the old shit. Because the new shit could never hit me in the same way.Sorry, James Murphy. Not that I think you’ll take it personally. You know about the power of the music of youth. That’s why most of your best songs are ripoffs. It all sounds like New Order, or Talking Heads, or Heaven 17. Because those are the artists who first terraformed your insides. They gave you feelings you can’t ever have again. Feelings you gave me, the first time I heard your second album.You know this song is special, too. During what was supposed to be your last concert, after you played it, you retreated to the corner of the stage, and you had a little cry. You had a little huddle with Nancy, who comforted you. (She’s the keyboard player, maybe the one making all the freezer sounds.) Who could blame you? Being haunted in your apartment alone is hard enough. Being onstage for the last time, I imagine, has a way of inflating all that jiggery-pokery of the soul.But it wasn’t the last time. Because you’re back now. Playing shows again, making new music. Given how much of a music nerd you are, you know how badly comebacks usually go. (For every Leonard Cohen, there’s a thousand Frank Blacks.) It doesn’t matter, though, does it? You’ve got to keep trying, even though failure is nearly assured—you’ve got to keep attempting the capture of what looms inside you. Even though you can’t possibly, because, as the song goes, it keeps coming. It grows and grows. And yet, you can’t stop reaching out, as far as you can. You have no choice.4. Rumour has it that the song is about the death of James Murphy’s therapist, Dr. George Kamen, to whom the album is dedicated. The interpretation fits the lyrics well: “I wish that we could talk about it, but there, that’s the problem.” In the context of a doctor/patient relationship, this is clever: Murphy called Kamen whenever somebody died, and then Kamen went and died himself.But the rumour is incorrect. I know who the song is about, and it’s not some dead Bulgarian doctor. First of all, the person the song is really about is not dead. Secondly, to my knowledge, she’s never met James Murphy. Strictly speaking, she never actually existed, being that she was a fantasy I rudely assigned to a real person—an excellent person, really, but not the boundless rescuer I’d thought she was, the suture for my nonspecific wounds. James Murphy has never revealed her name, and neither will I.5. Here’s a pasta recipe.—Cut an onion in half. Throw it in a saucepan with a can of diced San Marzano tomatoes, and half a stick of butter. Boil it until it’s reduced to about 70% of its original volume. Season to taste.—Boil spaghetti in generously salted water. Wait for it to get nice and toothsome.—While you’re waiting, try and identify what’s going on with your sense of being somehow alone on the planet. Is it abating? Or are you just getting used to it?—And also, what happened with all that stuff you used to be passionate about? The German poetry, the documentaries, and so on. Whatever you thought about in school. You got distracted somehow. Diverted by all that laundry and that career stuff. Then the diversions became mostly everything. But that turns out to be okay. You can have lots of fun decorating your living room, and kissing your girlfriend before the void. Sometimes you cook dinner.—The sauce and the pasta are burning. You forgot about both of them. Disconnect the smoke alarm, dump the burning food in the sink, and go out on the deck.—Outside, the city, below you. Just beyond your view from four stories up, everything is going on. A dog is reading the instructions it finds in the pee of another. In a barely lit room, an atom-splitting gaze arrests its human object. And you, a soft, peachy coward, safe for the moment, alone on a Sunday evening.6. Everyone should date my girlfriend. But I am, so you can’t. Sorry about that. We have a great time. It’s the best relationship I’ve ever been in, and every day I learn more about love. Sometimes we drive to a mafia-owned bakery that’s open 24 hours, and nervously eat calzones under the fluorescent light.But nostalgia is immune to this knowledge—that I’m happier now than I ever was. Nostalgia says, “remember when your heart felt like neon wine, and you were drinking it through a crystal straw?” It sits ready, somewhere in a special foxhole of grey matter, waiting for the slightest moment of discontent or unease. Springing all over the mind, it says, “you were tremendous once. How did you arrive in this dreary circus?”7. Any time you spend with someone could be the last time. Which is so weird, because, usually, you don’t know that’s the case. Nobody tells you. Fate never says, in a buttery murmur, that after this brief chat, you won’t see Jimmy again on earth.Every remark is potentially final—potentially the last thing you tell a friend before they die, or just go somewhere. Most are wildly insufficient for that purpose. For example, scrolling through Facebook Messenger, I see that the last message I sent to Jill was: “nice nice re: format.” Imagine if she never heard from me again. Bye, Jill. Nice nice re: format.Most people I’ve ever met, in fact, I’ll probably never see again. All those kids from school. We’ve already exchanged our last looks, our unceremonious farewells. Troy saw me last when I was being pushed into the mud by another boy. Pippa gave me a concerned look as I left the party abruptly. My grandmother was having trouble eating a biscuit. “That’s kind of gross,” I thought. She was a good person.And at some point, I’ll have trouble eating biscuits, too. My jaw will weaken, and my gag reflex will lose its refinement. “Are you okay?” my currently unborn nephew will say. A few hours later, I’ll stop breathing, after saying something pithy, like, “could you pass me the tissues.”8. “You’re smaller than my wife imagined / surprised you were human.”9. It’s easy to be good to someone when you no longer exist. Your coffee breath no longer lingers in their nose. Your head doesn’t stain their pillow. Once or twice you let them down—neglected their emotions simply because you couldn’t be bothered. That doesn’t happen anymore.You never tell them the same stories twice. You never tell them a story at all. You watch their story elapse, from a brief, impassible distance, just around a corner in the sky. Their bar mitzvah, their recitals. They do a decent job of being alive. Not perfect, but pretty good. You praise their little foibles. The fidgeting nobody else can see.You get prettier, too, when you’re not around. Your less appealing angles forgotten. Your yellow teeth. The kind of impressionistic soft focus that flatters everyone. All of that sweet Terrence Malick garbage. That’s how they see you.And downtown, they walk beneath condominiums that make expensive shadows in the post-rain air as thick as cake. They occupy the very last parcel of oxygen on the rush hour bus. They feel dirty, and when they get home and wash the dirt off, they feel old. “I should catch up on email,” they say, to nobody in particular.Who could forget you? Everyone. But only partly.
‘If I’m Writing About Anybody, it’s a Political Statement’: An Interview with Elizabeth Strout

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author on her new book, Anything is Possible, being a natural observer, not judging your characters, and stand up comedy. 

In Anything is Possible, the sixth and most recent novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout, the residents of Amgash, Illinois, clash, collide, pass judgment and fall in love with one another. Though the stories interconnect, every chapter focuses on a different character. Dottie Blaine, the owner of a bed and breakfast, becomes a quiet observer of the subtle anxieties and humiliations of one of her guests. Pete Barton prepares for the homecoming of his sister, celebrated novelist Lucy Barton, and suddenly becomes painfully aware of how his humble, dusty life must look through Lucy’s eyes.That last name will be familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout. In early 2016, she published My Name is Lucy Barton, a novel narrated by the astute eponymous character while she recovers from surgery in the hospital. Fragmented and poignant, Lucy Barton reflects on her career as a writer, shifting identity as an artist, complicated relationship with her abusive but devoted mother, and the stark contrasts between her poor small town upbringing and current life in the city. My Name is Lucy Barton becomes a recurring motif in Anything is Possible; her success as a writer is in the background to the others’ stories, and the residents of Amgash both resent and admire her for getting out.Strout is as thoughtful a writer as she is a speaker. She takes her time answering questions and doesn’t waste words, meticulously engaging with her characters and their worlds as if they are as real as any of us.Anna Fitzpatrick: It's a unique conceit, to have Lucy Barton’s book, and then have a second book where they're all talking about the first book. Her memoir that they read in Anything is Possible, was that intended to be My Name is Lucy Barton?Elizabeth Strout: Yes, it was.So it exists in the universe?Exactly. I had originally conceived of the entire project as one book. I thought, "I'll write My Name is Lucy Barton and then I'll have Lucy write these stories about her childhood." In the end, I thought, no, because her voice is so distinct. I didn't want the reader to turn the page and go into a third person narrative. It just didn't seem right to me. And then I thought, forget it. She didn't write the stories. I wrote the stories.There would have been certain limitations, if Lucy was the writer behind Anything is Possible. It would have been her interpretation of these characters.Exactly, so I let that go. But that was my original concept.So did you write them at the same time?I wrote a lot of Anything is Possible at the same time that I was writing My Name is Lucy Barton. I would skip over and write scenes of Mississippi Mary or the Pretty Nicely girls.A lot of the book is impressionistic; chapters will contradict or challenge the assumptions of characters from previous chapters. How honest do you think a memoir can be, in that regard?I think Lucy Barton was trying to be as honest as she could be. That's why I kept having her qualify her statements. She would say, "Well, I think that's what my mother said." Because I wanted her to be as reliable a narrator as possible, and she understood that writing memoir meant that she could only think that's what she remembered. So, I'm not sure.She's reliable in the way she's unreliable.Yeah.The story jumps around in time a lot. You have this anti-spoiler approach to writing. Like, in Olive Kitteridge, where you'll flash two decades into the future for a few pages and then goes back to where you left off. So it's not really about the plot. I'm not particularly interested in plot, and I never have been. I don't write with plot in mind. But I write with some change in mind. There'll be a change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. I figure that out as I go along.Do you care about plot when you read other writers?No.What writers do you like?I like Elena Ferrante. I liked her books a lot. I have loved Alice Munro and William Trevor. I think those have been my bookends. They're just so wonderful in their own ways. Alice Munro has so much authority on the page, and William Trevor can just flip a sentence so gently and gorgeously. I love Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Philip Roth and John Updike and those American landmarks. I love Virginia Woolf, and the Russians. Tolstoy and Chekhov and Turgenev and Pushkin.Was there a freedom, in writing Lucy Barton, because you could have characters react to it? Even within her book, she brings her work to a writing workshop, and the teacher flat-out says, "This is what the book is about." There was. I wrote that scene—I don't write anything from beginning to end. I write these different scenes and see how they work together. I had written [writing teacher] Sarah Payne a number of times before I realized she would even be a writer. I thought, "Oh, this all works together. We'll have Lucy look up to her and go to her." And when I realized I could have Sarah Payne tell the reader what the book is about without Lucy having to tell the reader what the book is about. When Sarah says, "This is a book about a mother who stayed in a marriage because at that time everybody did, except for these different people who didn't. She's happily recounting all the bad things to these women that didn't stay in their marriages." Then I realized, oh, this is helpful.How did you first conceive of Sarah Payne, if not as a writer?You know, the first scene I wrote with her was just somebody Lucy met in a clothing store. They had a nice little exchange. Then I thought, okay, let's go back and make this something.There's that line in the other book, where Angelina's husband tells her, "You're in a love affair with your mother." And that's kind of a lot of the book, these passionate relationships that aren't romances, but with family members. Exactly. I wanted, not that it matters at all, but I wanted Anything is Possible to almost be like a hall of mirrors that reverberated with My Name is Lucy Barton. Like Charlie Macauley, the Vietnam vet. He's a reverberation of Lucy's father in the sense that these two men were damaged forever by war, so there's that. Then there's other little things I wanted to reverberate.I saw a lot of parallels between Patty and Vicky, the way they stand separate from their siblings, but Patty really responds to Lucy's work whereas Vicky has this coldness. When Abel Blaine is recalling how Dottie was twelve years old and was told at school, standing in her stained dress, that nobody was too poor to buy sanitary pads, and that reverberated in My Name is Lucy Barton where Vicky was told by her second grade teacher that nobody was too poor to buy a bar of soap. There were just those little things that I just wanted.Theme and variation.Yeah!Do you consider yourself a political person?I've always believed that phrase, "the personal is political." If I'm writing about anybody, then it's a political statement in my way of thinking.Obviously you started this a while ago, but now every week the New York Times has a profile on small-town white working-class communities. It's interesting, I was just a little ahead of that game. I do think my work is political. It has to be. Anybody who is recording the human experience is recording something political.Abel [a character from the last chapter of Anything is Possible, who has a strange encounter with an actor from a community production of A Christmas Carol] is a Republican, but he's really insistent on telling everyone that he pays his taxes, and he's not going to cheat on them. It was funny because I realized, Abel Blaine has gone from eating in dumpsters to marrying the boss's daughter, which we know from My Name is Lucy Barton. The mother tells Lucy he marries the boss’s daughter, and in fact he did. So when Scrooge says, "Oh, you married you way up," Abel is embarrassed. I think he was in love with his wife when he married her, but he did marry into this position of power, of changing from his class dramatically just as Lucy did. Thinking about him I realized, okay, he will be a conservative, and he will be a Republican, but he'll have this fundamental decency in him, which it used to be Republicans did. There are men like Abel Blaine who believed, I'm not going to cheat on my taxes. That's who he is, and he says that he's been successful in business, even though he married into money, he's been successful because people have been known to trust him, and trust in business is everything. He is, in my mind, a very trustworthy man. Not wanting to skimp on his taxes was a way of showing that.Would he have voted for Trump?I really don't know about Abel Blaine. I think Lucy's sister Vicky might have voted for Trump. I don't know if Abel would have. He may not have voted. [Laughs] Except he seems like the type of person who would take it seriously. So I don't know.You know that saying, the one I think applies to most good fiction, "You can never truly hate someone if you know their story"?To know all is to forgive all.I was trying to figure out if there was an exact source for that quote earlier, but when I Googled it, it was attributed to the actress Emma Stone, which doesn't feel even a little bit right. Anyway, it comes through a lot in your books, but there are characters who are still a little bit ambiguous. There's the chapter where the couple is spying on the people who stay in their guest bedroom. And we don't know that much about [the husband] Jay. So we don't really understand his story. Like, what is it that makes him have to do this? The story's more Linda's story, about what made her stay in the marriage and do that. Jay's behaviour is just so creepy, and I'm perfectly aware of that. But I don't judge him as I write. I don't judge any of my characters as I write, which is so freeing.How so?In real life, we are judgmental. We just are. And I think we have to be a little bit to maneuver our way through the world. But when I go to the page, I'm just not at all, so it's just fun in the sense of not having to—my job is just to know my characters as well as I can, and to report on them.I think it's healthy in real life to be judgmental. To say, "Hey, why is this guy spying on women?" But fiction—Exactly. And I expect the readers to make their judgments. They should. But I'm just saying, as the creator…I've heard that you've done stand-up comedy.Oh god.Is that true?Yeah, it is. Many, many years ago.Because you started writing when you were older…I started writing when I was four years old.But you started publishing later.I had a few stories in small literary magazines in my twenties. I think I even had one in Seventeen or Redbook or something. But I had been writing for so long, and it just wasn't right. It was almost right, but it just wasn't right. And I kept thinking, "What's wrong with this?" In my mind, I thought it must have something to do with honesty, because it always does, I think. The real stuff. I kept thinking, what am I not being honest about? And so I had just moved to New York and I was interested, you know, we would go see stand-up comics and I was just interested in it. I realized we laughed at what was true. So what would happen if I was responsible for making a group of people laugh? What would come out of my mouth? And I thought about it more, and I thought, well, let's give it a try. So I took a class. It was terrifying. Every week somebody else would drop out, and those of us who made it through would have to perform at the Comic Strip in New York. And I did, and it was, it really was one of the most terrifying things I had ever done. But the point is, it was very successful. First of all, they laughed. Thank God.Did you have friends in the audience? No. And I didn't let anybody come.Which is liberating in its own way. There was nobody I knew that came. Not one soul. But it was a full house. But the point is, I learned as a result of my routine that I had been writing over the course of the semester, that's when I really understood that I was a white woman from New England.Did it also take going to New York to realize that?Absolutely. It absolutely did. If I hadn't gotten out of New England, I never would have realized that I was from New England. But being in New York at that point for a number of years, and realizing my jokes were on myself for being so New England.Like Jerry Seinfeld but, "What's the deal with lobster bisque, am I right?" [Anna laughs for a long time at her own joke.]I can't even really remember it. But I remember understanding like, Oh. Oh, this is who I am. This is funny. It worked.A lot of comedy comes from dismantling power. I don't think your books would have worked if you were like, "Hey, look at these small town poor people!" You have to be there.There's been a lot of debate about what's okay to joke about, and I think too often it comes down to a question of free speech as opposed to, well, what's funny? I think comics should get a pass on everything.Yeah?I mean, they have to. That's their job, to say the unsayable.But it's not always funny. "Controversial" is such a big umbrella. Something can be controversial but subversive, and something else can be controversial but reinforce the same old. I think your books are powerful because you have characters in the book who make jokes or make fun of the kids for being poor, or who tease Patty for being fat, "Fatty Patty." But those jokes aren't presented as funny in your books. It's just bullying.Right.Do you strive for humour when you write?I never try to do anything except be emotionally truthful. That's always what I'm trying to do. I think sometimes I am funny, because life is funny at times. But I don't try to be funny.Do you ever surprise yourself, searching for that emotional truth?Constantly. Constantly I surprise myself. To my mind, that's a good thing, because if I'm not surprised the reader won't be surprised. If I go in knowing everything, it will not be as interesting to the reader.What were some of the things you learned, with this one?Just every story, I never really know where it's going to go. Starting with Tommy Guptill, I didn't quite understand until I had him talking to Pete Barton, that Pete was going to take his father's responsibility for burning those barns down. I didn't even understand that until all of a sudden I thought, "Oh wait, wait, wait. Here we go."What's it like for you going home? When you see people you know in real life who might have assumptions after reading your books?The people I know in real life know that this is not my life, but I use every single thing that I've experienced or observed my entire life for my work.You seem very observant. Yeah. Exactly. I'm always, always, always watching. People are just so interesting to me, and they've always been more interesting to me than anything else in the world. So I watch. And I listen. Everything. It's just how I live. Every single thing gets absorbed. And then maybe years later it shows up in some story.When did you start doing that?Absorbing things?Yeah.Oh, I think I was pretty young.Were you aware you were doing this?Yeah, I can remember sitting with my mother when we went into town. I'd sit in the car with my mother. She'd see a woman walking by and she'd say, "Oh, that woman's hem has not been fixed for quite a while. I guess she's depressed." It'd just be so small, but I got so interested in that woman, in that I'd be peering at her walking down the sidewalk and I can remember thinking, I wish I could see her home. I wish I could follow her home. I wish I knew if she had pom poms on her shower curtain. That's how curious I was. All my life. Starting as a young kid, I was just so curious about people and their inner lives.As someone who is so observant of other people, are you conscious of how you present yourself?Yeah. I mean, it's funny because I almost feel I don't have a self, which is crazy, because obviously I do. But I don't...it's hard to explain. I'm not as conscious of myself as I am of other people.Are you constantly absorbing other selves?I think so. I think it also probably had to with my background, which was very isolated. When you're not interacting with other people, I think the self isn't developed in terms of a social self. My self has always been an observing self. Isolated like, as an introvert, or geographically?Geographically. You talk about your mother making these observations. You dedicated Olive Kitteridge to her, and call her the best storyteller you know.She's a fabulous storyteller. She verbally can tell a story. It's so interesting, because I'll watch her take a strand of the narrative and bubble it over, and always bring it back. She's a natural storyteller. She has very intuitive powers. I think I do too. I'm aware how good her intuition is in terms of telling a story and going for the real thing in a person. She taught writing in high school. What did you read growing up?I don't remember reading children's books at all. I think I have a memory of my father reading me a Beatrix Potter story once. At a very young age, I was reading adult books. I remember reading John Updike's Pigeon Feathers when I was six or seven years old, because it was on the coffee table. I read that from beginning to end. I didn't understand it, obviously. But I did understand that being a kid was not where it was at, you know? I realized something was going on with this grownup world. I think that's true when you're developing a creative sense. You absorb everything and don't really discern what's good. Up until high school, a lot of my favourite books were just titles I had heard adults mention, and then I would go to the used bookstore.Exactly! And then you'd just absorb all of them. And that's really, really what I did. I would make a list for myself at a young age, starting around twelve or thirteen, I would make lists of books I had heard of, and just read them all. And then we had a set of Hemingways, full complete works. My grandfather had been sold the complete works of Hemingway by some traveling salesman, and so they sat there on the shelf and I went through those at age seventeen from beginning to end. When was the first time you remember really loving a writer?I can remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in the third grade, and that was memorable for me. And then I can remember reading Lolita when I think I was about fifteen, and I loved it. I just loved it. I wept, I thought it was so beautiful. What did you love about it?I thought it was a love story. I really saw that book as a love story. That killed me. And then Hemingway's books, it was interesting, because I understood some were not as good as others, but I loved him. I loved his work right away. Have you read Lolita since? Has your relationship with it changed?I have. You know, it has changed, but I still cling to that first reading of that because it was so memorable to me. You know, when you get older—there's a freedom in being able to read things when you don't know what the world thinks of them. I remember these friends of mine, their parents were so against Lolita. I just resist all that because it was what it was to me. I had romantic sensibilities as a teenager, both about life as well as what I thought a being a writer and reader meant. I read books like Romeo & Juliet and Wuthering Heights, and then later you're told, "These aren't actually about being in love! These are about these messed up relationships." But just cause you're in love doesn't mean it's going to be pure and healthy. You're exactly right. I had the very same experiences with Wuthering Heights. People say it's not a romance, but it's incredibly romantic. Incredibly romantic. Incredibly romantic. I couldn't agree with you more. It's warped and upsetting—Because it's real life in a certain way. Obviously when you're fifteen you shouldn't model your real life relationships off it—But who cares? You're just reading and absorbing this intense situation.
‘Everything I Do Is In The Same House, Just On Different Floors’: An Interview with Kyo Maclear

The author of Birds Art Life on spark books, the art of stillness in children’s literature, and collaborating with illustrators. 

Kyo Maclear skirts and samples fact in her fiction. In her picture books, word play often becomes literal. Virginia Wolf posits the animalization of Virginia Woolf’s bad mood, Julia, Child imagines the cookbook author reverted to childhood. Her most recent picture book, The Fog, licks at the realities of global warming, but through the eyes of a people-watching bird.Birds Art Life, Maclear’s first title to officially live in the bookstore’s nonfiction section, flips that perspective. Whether working in fiction or non, Maclear is reaching for a whole story, a more full understanding that neither could truly tell on their own.In Birds Art Life, she chronicles a year, she contemplates art, she looks at birds. She follows around a man she identifies as “the musician,” though his primary role is as a non-commital guide to the solace of urban birdwatching. She wants to find the missing piece, a way back to her life before it was shaken by her father’s unreckonable illness. But there is no widget to be found, only a new understanding, a clearer emotional truth.When Maclear and I sit down at a picnic table in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park on a blustery weekday afternoon, she is quiet, clutching her coffee and shivering just a little. Maclear’s particular way of being quiet is patient. Thoughtful, easy. She is generous with her attention. For the last third of our conversation we are interrupted every few minutes by an uncomfortably close and alarmingly fearless squirrel. The interview slowly melts into elaborate personal stories of past squirrel encounters, none of which are transcribed here.“A spark bird could be as bold as an eagle, as colourful as warbler, or as ordinary as a sparrow, as long as it triggered the awakening that turned someone into a serious birder. Most birding memoires begin with a spark bird [...] I began thinking about “spark books”. It occurred to me that most ardent readers would be able to pinpoint the book that ignited their love of reading.” - Birds Art Life, page 113Serah-Marie McMahon: In the book, you describe the summer as a pre-teen in Japan when you felt yourself become a reader, and you list your friends’ spark books, but nothing of your own. Does one exist?Kyo Maclear: I’m not sure if I have one specifically. I had a fetish for Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, which is bizarre looking back. I can't read it without cringing now—it’s so heavily Christian, its symbolism so overwrought. But something about it resonated. My copy was lovely, illustrated by Herbert Danska. I still have it.When you’re a child, adults are kind of giants. They dwarf you in different ways, with their power. This giant was captivating, how he reforms through the child figure. He was beautiful to me. And there was this garden. It’s a bit of colonial story, but The Secret Garden was also very important. Gardens enchanted me, especially the hidden garden, the walled off garden. These little Edens, little Utopias. I found them magical.Did you have a garden growing up?In England we had a garden. In Toronto my mother uprooted everything growing in our backyard and built a Japanese rock garden. It was her attempt to re-envision the landscape in a way that felt familiar to her. I grew up with a lot of plants that aren't native to Ontario or Canada, but yeah, I always had a garden. Do you have a spark book?I think mine is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. That book was really important to me, it opened my eyes as a kid to the nature of independence. That you don't need to rely on your parents to provide your sense of wholeness. You can go find it yourself. And maybe it will be messy, and maybe it won't turn out exactly how you think, but you can be responsible for your own happiness. Oh, I loved that book too, for the same reason I think. I was always attracted to what I call “orphan stories,” even if the parents were there. Kids who took off, and through their own wiliness had these great adventures. The idea of staying overnight in a museum was enchanting to me. I grew up in museums, it was a rare common bond between my mother and I. It was a space we could connect through, with pictures in a way we couldn't through words.Both your books this year revolve around bird-watching. How do you tell a story differently with a book for children than you do with a book for adults?Everything I do is in the same house, but it's all taking place on different floors. My kid writing floor, my adult writing floor, my scholarship writing floor—I'm writing a dissertation now. They are all different ways of telling stories, but they are all concerned with the same themes.I find myself thinking a lot about kinship, how we might form it in more inventive ways. In The Fog, a human and a bird find a sense of kinship, these little lone wolves finding each other, understanding and really getting each other in a way that their own species don't. In Birds Art Life I found this weird kinship in a totally motley crew of urban birders, somewhere I never expected to find a sense of community. I'm generally not a person who seeks community. I'm such a solo person, almost agoraphobic. I like the idea of finding tribes in ways that are non-tribal, and that are unexpected.What is the role of an illustrator in authoring a picture book?I love what images can do, above and beyond just parroting the words. A really special picture book will take a story into another dimension, provide something atmospheric. When we were working on The Fog, I sent the illustrator, Kenard Pak, a link to an old book. It was from the ’60s maybe, called Hide and Seek Fog. It had a real sense of atmosphere to it, the pages almost felt damp with fog. I could have described that feeling in words, but Ken captures it so beautifully with his clouds and mist, above and beyond anything I could ever design. I love the collaborating. It's something I gravitate towards again and again. Doing something that is not solitary.You both avoid community and are attracted to work specifically that is not solitary. It is contradictory, I know! I think maybe I am comfortable when there is a structure and context. I'm socially awkward in so many ways. Being part of a project makes it easier. Truthfully I just love creating things with other people. It's pure joy.What does that collaboration look like?I always have art notes in my manuscript, take-it-or-leave-it notes. I don't intend to be a guiding hand, but I give over a lot of the motoring along of the story to images, and I need to actually be specific about what I'm intentionally leaving out. Whenever you see words in the art, I've written those. Other times I leave gaps and ask the illustrator to please fill it. To create a wordless spread that captures a certain sensibility, or whatever.Sometimes in my text I play the straight man. I want the beat to fall on the illustration, so there is kind of a de-dant de-nah. I leave it to the illustrator to finish the thought, to imbed humour in a way that plays up the earnestness, makes it a little funny.That needs to be a conversation between two people, you can't do it if you're the only person creating something. It's not monologic. It's not a monologue, it's a dialogue. You can create a lot of humor that way. I really need to have a sense of play to derive any pleasure from what I'm doing.Most of the interpretations of The Fog include a strong environmental message, but I read it differently, as a metaphor for depression.Well, that fits in with my whole oeuvre, which is mood disorder. [laughs] I’m always somehow dealing with themes of depression, or anxiety, or OCD.I don't even know if depression is exactly the right word. Being too much in your own head. But once you connect other people and realize they feel the same as you, it gets easier. The fog begins to clear. I love that. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I mean it fits. It's about the idea of naming things, having things named for you. How important that is. How you are in a squishy and uncertain place before things are defined or a consensus is made about what's happening. So there is also that theme of normalization, how you can get accustomed to the most inhospitable conditions.You talk about the idea of a “the new normal” in Birds Art Life as well, what we accept as our new baseline.Right, the shifting baseline. One conversation I had with Ken, which I think is still unresolved, was the kind of open-endedness of the conclusion. Some people are going to have a hard time with it. People who want it to be more pragmatic, have an environmental message about how everyone took action, how everyone put solar panels on their houses and the fog disappeared through collective action. It's really not that. We veered away from that story, despite some counsel from a good friend of mine who's a climate change activist. He suggested we might want to be more activist, but we felt like it was all implied.We left it to the reader to come up with their own ideas about where this story should go. The ending isn't conclusive. The bird and the girl are left thinking about what to do tomorrow. The reader still sees all these messages in the water, and there’s a sense that something else is going to happen, but we didn't want to tie it up in a tidy bow. Ken was really very adamant about that.I wanted to ask about the girl, the human part of the relationship in The Fog. Did she come out how you envisioned her?Ken and I had talks. Because he's also Asian I could be forthright with him and say: I want the Asian character to be Asian. I don't them to be racially indistinct or some ambiguous any-ethnicity. I want them to be look really East Asian. And he's like: got it. He had planned on doing that anyway. It was nice to have a conversation where he didn't get defensive, where he understood right away.It's not just that I want there to be more children of colour in picture books, I'm also increasingly interested in how certain ethnicities are not seen in nature. We see a lot of stories of Asians in cities. I'm trying to figure out ways of telling stories that are unexpected in setting, placing characters where you wouldn't necessarily assume them to be.I read the post you did last year about identity and representation in children's books. Do you still feel the same way?Yes. I feel like I could add to it now though. It was a very modular piece about the need to parse this idea of diversity. There are many different kinds of diversity, and what we've seen is a resurgence of casual diversity. Everybody and their uncle, and their sister and their, I don’t know, dog, are writing books where there's some sort of rainbow tribe. I think that's really well intentioned, but it stops us from asking questions about what inclusion really means, who's writing picture books, and what publishing looks like. We needed to be more specific in this conversation.Since I wrote that piece, people have drawn my attention to things that I hadn't noticed before. Like about how animal stories are not neutral sites. My friend was talking about Finding Dory, and how she felt the characters were particularly white in certain ways. How it's culturally coded. I don’t know if I would have thought that way, or questioned animal stories, or like, stories about shapes. Those too can have assumptions embedded in them—about who they are spoken about, and who they are spoken for. It's an ongoing conversation basically.Your picture books, while being very much for children, definitely appeal to adults. Not in the Disney movie way of winking pop culture references over the kid’s head so parents don’t fall asleep, but that seem to understand how to tell a powerful story. How considered is your audience?This actually preoccupies me. When you publish a kids book it will say ages 4 to 8, or whatever. I know why they do it, but in some ways I wish they wouldn't. I write picture books for all ages, which is not to discourage children as readers. My books can be entered at different levels. That's the way I'm writing them.It's such a silo, you know? Kids Books. It's such a silo. All books should be read by all people. I like the non-categorical books, books that jump fences. I'm drawn to those. So why not let picture books jump fences too? Why not put them in art sections, or Julia, Child in the cookbook section? I mean, why not?A great picture book has more in common with the poetry section than with some things in the kids’ section, like a middle grade novel. Not because picture books are necessarily "poetry" in structure, but because they are siphoning down such big ideas to so few words. The rhythm is so important, in a different way than it is for a novel.Yes! Yes. And I don't know if a poet would cross over as successfully into middle grade as they would into picture book writing. Anne Michaels did it well, but I think it can be difficult. I’m sure there are some unusual middle grade readers who don't care about plot, but at a certain age there’s an impatience with just beautiful language.I've been thinking a lot about Hayao Miyazaki’s films, partly because I'm writing about it right now for my academic work. In an interview with Roger Ebert he talks about this idea of the gap—what he calls the japanese word ma—the kind of stillness that doesn't move things along.In picture books there are so many moments like that. In Miyazaki films there are so many moments like that. They are usually concerned with nature, and take place in a field of grass that has nothing to do with the plot. The background rushes to the foreground, and suddenly you're by a stream. It’s given you insight into the character's temperament, or mood, but it's not actually about plot.Picture books can allow for those moments, capture its beauty. I think that's why I return to them again and again. That stillness is so important. I almost have narrative sickness. I'm tired of narrative. It's weird.I want to end with a line I loved in Birds Art Life, "The more I encountered the reality of birds, the more my secondhand impression of birds began to fall away.” Do you think this is also a role kids’ books can perform? I think that’s true of really good kids’ books, to defamiliarize the familiar so that we can see it again, but in a specificity. We tend to fall into habit-mind, like with a drawing exercise. You draw the vase, or the flower pot, or whatever, and you're doing it from habit-mind. It looks a certain way. Then someone asks you to do a blind contour, and now you're really seeing it. You’re seeing every change and texture, every little detail, every chip. Kids’ books should do that particularly well.
My Family’s Favourite Forgery

On the art of imitation. 

There was a painting hanging in the house where I grew up—Troll Forest, my mother called it. As a child I found the scene scary: it’s a moody forest, the kind where the sunlight doesn’t reach all the way to the ground. Among the rocks and trees there’s a stone structure that resembles a troll, one of those large, ugly creatures described in Nordic folklore.To a connoisseur, it’s probably not a very good piece of art. I like the colours, though: shades of rust red, steel blue, muddy yellow. Having looked at that picture for over 30 years, my feelings have moved from fear, to indifference, to affection. It looks a bit amaterur-ish but I like it a lot—it’s always been part of my life. I like looking at Troll Forest for the same reasons I like looking at the face of a person I’ve known forever.There’s a signature in the corner of the painting, in neat block letters: Samuel Slyngstad, 1978. Over at my grandma’s house, Samuel’s signature can be found on three more canvases. A couple of my uncles have Samuels too, and my father’s cousin even has her own version of Troll Forest. Samuels everywhere! Clearly this Samuel Slyngstad was an artist of some repute.It was a long time before I realised that Samuel wasn’t actually a famous painter. I first started looking into Samuel some ten years ago out of idle curiosity, only to find that no one had heard of him. There’s nothing on the Internet. But in my family, everyone knows his name. How did Samuel Slyngstad, obscure painter, became so famous to us?I asked my mother about Samuel the last time I visited. But she knew nothing about him, except that his painting came to us through family. “Your dad’s mother, it was her brother, let me think. The woman he was married to, I think Samuel was her father.” Not much, but it was a start.Samuel Slyngstad was remarkably ordinary, I came to learn: he lived his whole life in Ålesund where he was born, a manual labourer whose hobby was painting. Every single one of Samuel’s paintings are copies, imitations of works by fine artists. Does that mean there’s an original Troll Forest out there?*My father met Samuel several times as a child, he tells me when I call to ask about our old painting. “Every summer we’d travel down to mum’s parents at Sunnmøre, and most years we’d stop to visit Uncle Arthur and Aunt Bjørg. Her father Samuel lived upstairs,” he says. This was at Ragnvald Jarls Street in downtown Ålesund, a mid-size coastal town in Western Norway. “Their house was full of his paintings,” says my father, suggesting I contact his cousin Yngve, Samuel’s grandson.I find Yngve Eiken on Facebook where he responds almost immediately, more than happy to talk about his grandfather’s paintings. “I never thought of Grandpa as an artist anyone would know about,” Yngve tells me in his singsong Ålesund accent. “He never wanted to hear anything of it!” He laughs. “They wanted him to join them at the city art collective, but Grandpa refused, telling them he had no business being there. I suppose he didn’t really think he was good enough. He didn’t want to be called an artist.”While Samuel may have refused to call himself an artist, people enjoyed his work, and they wanted to buy it. So when friends, family and the occasional tourist came knocking, Samuel had to find a way to reconcile this demand with his non-artist self image: “He asked for payment to cover the canvas and the paint, nothing more.”Yngve spent a lot of time with his grandfather as a boy, making things and going on trips to the woods. When Yngve and his parents eventually moved away from the house they shared with grandpa, Samuel would visit every day. “He was a man of routine. No matter the weather, every day he’d come at 4 p.m., or if it was a Sunday, at 11 a.m. He’d sit for an hour before going home, always on foot.”Samuel’s most productive years came towards the end of his life—he was a widower for two decades. “Four of the eleven Slyngstad siblings were painters, but none of them could afford to go to art school,” says Yngve. Samuel would find pictures of famous paintings in books, or in newspapers left down on the docks, and tear out pages to take home. There he’d sketch the image onto a larger canvas and add colour—often from imagination if the inspiration was black and white.When I describe my parents’ picture, Troll Forest, Yngve knows the one I’m talking about even before I’ve sent him a photo. “That’s Troll Rockslide,” he declares confidently. He has one just like it, and his sister has one too. He laughs. “So there are four or five of these ones, huh? I had no idea.”*The art of copying fine art has a long history; the likes of Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh learned the craft by copying the old masters. And since most people can’t afford the originals, there’s always been a market for buying copies. Today, industrial-scale art copyist operations are plentiful in China, so if you want a knock-off Matisse you can get one in just a few clicks. But if you want a copy that can fool an art connoisseur, you need to hire a specialist.Susie Ray, an art copyist living in Cornwall, England, says it takes much longer to copy a painting than to create an original. Her bread and butter is painting for people who’re looking for exact replicas of famous works. People seek her out because they have the original in a vault but want one for the wall, or because they don’t have the real deal but want people to think they do—Ray is very discreet.Ray will only replicate a painting once: “I put in a huge amount of energy. It’s recreating someone else’s work, and [it takes a vast] amount of time and concentration.” The process is a lot like solving a puzzle, says Ray, explaining how she needs to use the same type of canvas, paint and brushes as the original, and replicate the way it dried so the textures build up in the same way. “You have to approach the painting the same way the artist did. Because you are copying, you’re painting a lot slower, so you have to [try to] keep the same spontaneity of the original painting.”Ray always signs the backs of her copies, as she has no desire to pass off her works as originals. “People often talk about how the original painting has an aura to it,” she says when I ask how she views her copies in relation to the originals. “But if you take a good copy and put it on the wall and no one knows, it still has that aura.” Ray laughs. “I don’t make it too complicated, though. I just make the copy.”*Just how important is authenticity? I know the Samuel painting I grew up with isn’t one-of-a-kind, so whatever value it has will always be about something else. But authenticity remains something we covet. I thought about this recently when I visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, wandering around in silent awe among the thousands of originals, many of which I’d previously only seen in reproduction. To stand in front of a Picasso is to be in the presence of true genius, watching as mastery meets mad creativity. Maybe if they’d all been copies it wouldn't have made a difference to my experience—except that if I’d known, I’d never have bothered going.We look for authenticity everywhere. Travellers look for so-called genuine local experiences away from the crowds; we seek out true versions of dishes; we buy director’s cuts of films and unabridged books. Even those who prefer a no-stress pool vacation and the mildest curry on the menu may well cop to a desire for a degree of authenticity in their interactions, as I learned when a then-boyfriend discovered I’d been texting the same holiday photos to a friend as I did to him. We want our experiences to be meaningful, and this often translates to a desire for originality. But does this mean they need to be unique to have value?“I love the process of seeing a painting emerge. It's an original experience,” says Antonia Williams, an art copyist who also makes her own art. Speaking via Skype from her home in Portugal, Williams laments the quality of copies from industrial-scale operations in China, where the painters have never seen the original, let alone researched the methods. “There’s an awful lot of bad copying around, by people who don’t understand the method of slowly building up a painting.” A bad copyist may simply start in one corner and move across the canvas, says Williams, instead of building up the layers to replicate the process of the original artist.Williams’s favourite artist to copy is Chardin, the 18th-century French painter. And it’s when she describes the process of copying Chardin that I finally understand why someone might choose to dedicate themselves to the art of copying: “It's very subtle. The colour is very subtle. When you start painting, you understand how complex his paintings are. When you look at it you think, ‘Oh that's lovely.’ But when you start copying, you realise his vision was very specific, what he was searching for. When I'm copying the painting, I'm also experiencing his search.”Samuel was a family man who built roads and bridges for a living, stone by stone in the streets of Ålesund. For him, being an artist seemed impossible. At first I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t create original works, but after speaking to the art copyists I think I see what he was doing: copying works of famous artists let him experience a world otherwise out of reach.*Troll Forest currently sits in a closet in my mother’s house, relegated there from the living room, by way of a few years in the hallway. My plan is to save our Samuel from obscurity and hang him on the wall of my home in London. I know it’s a copy—it’s not even a one-of-a-kind copy—but still, it’s valuable to me.I can just about picture Samuel, flicking through newspapers left around the docks of Ålesund, finding Troll Forest in one of them and deciding to give it a go. I’d come to accept that the inspiration for Troll Forest was some random, obscure picture I’d never find, but after speaking to Yngve I decided to take one last crack at it. Armed with the proper title—Troll Rockslide—it’s almost rudely easy. My jaw literally dropped as my laptop screen filled with the original that Samuel must have copied, like a magician flicking back the curtain to reveal the trick behind the illusion. The style is different but this is definitely it: “Trollura i Jahrskogen”—Troll Rockslide in Jahr Forest. Painted in 1933 by Henrik Sørensen, a Norwegian artist who’d studied under Matisse, the canvas resides at Holmsbu Gallery in Hurum, an hour’s drive south of Oslo. In fact, the entire gallery is situated within the very same moody old forest that the painting depicts.Henrik Sørensen was a passionate advocate for preserving the virgin forest, presumably the reason why he chose it as the theme of Troll Rockslide. Samuel Slyngstad would have created his copy in his studio in Ålesund, steadfastly refusing the label of artist as he channeled the experience of being one. My copy of Troll Rockslide was a gift to my parents from family, shortly after they’d moved into their first home and had all those bare walls to fill. “He was a bit folksy, Samuel. It was art for the everyman.” That’s my father’s take on the appeal of Samuel’s work. Just like the art of copying is a window into someone else’s experience, owning a copy lets you peek into a world that you otherwise may have no access to.My unoriginal and inaccurate copy of Troll Rockslide is miles from being authentic, but now more than ever I feel like it’s part of a bigger story—it’s had a secret life for all these years. My painting is the story of an artist striving to save a precious forest, a dock worker dreaming of a creative life, a young family starting out in a country village—and now, a daughter who’s crossed borders to live in a global metropolis. I don’t need a copy to be in the presence of art—London has dozens of museums full of famous originals and I can go and experience them whenever I want. But that’s not what my Samuel Slyngstad canvas is about. My beloved fake is a reminder to me that everyone wants something, and it’s good to dream a little.
One More Time Around: Remembering Chris Cornell

The singer walked a line between overt masculinity and brooding sensitivity—fearlessly exploring the dark, wailing with the voice of a man who could sound like he was trying to escape his own body.

Chris Cornell and Soundgarden had always been there. The memories come quick: Being transfixed by the melting Barbie doll in the “Black Hole Sun” video on MuchMusic. Terrorizing the neighbourhood while blasting Badmotorfinger in my friend’s mom’s minivan. Playing “Outshined” on guitar a thousand times in my dad’s basement. Hating Audioslave. Eternally defending these legends against accusations of being corny or dated to people who just didn’t get it, man. To a lot of people, they were just that band—the last classic rock band you could talk about for hours and headbang to for even longer. To me, they were everything a true classic rock band should be.So when the news reached me via fragmented texts yesterday morning—from close friends, estranged partners, old tourmates—all with some combination of “Chris Cornell” and “this is awful,” I feared, rightly, that a lifelong hero had passed. Worse: It was suspected, and later seems to have been confirmed, to have been a suicide.Though never too far from the public eye, Cornell seemed to be a private man, with his own demons rarely surfacing despite having a longstanding relationship with drugs—as did his peers Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and Scott Weiland. Unlike those frontmen, though, his personal life never quite seemed to get the better of him; his songs dealt less with wallowing in his own pain than assessing and confronting it. When it comes to depression, this tends to be a productive approach.How are you supposed to feel when the people you grew up idolizing decide they no longer want to live their hallowed lives? How does one reconcile that kind of loss with their own struggles? And yet, somehow I understood. The devastating climax of “Slaves and Bulldozers” rang immediately through my mind: “Now I know why you’ve been shaking.”*An Adonis with a voice any singer would make a Faustian deal for, Cornell was one of the last larger-than-life rock stars left. He and Soundgarden were a crucial part of the Seattle scene in the mid-to-late ’80s, which gave way to the grunge explosion in the early ’90s. They had landmark releases on both Sub Pop and SST—labels synonymous with “indie rock” and true meccas of gritty guitar music in their time—and they did it well before many of those labels’ most iconic acts even got signed. Their early material could sometimes be mistaken for macho riff rock, but moments like the tense but tranquil bridge on “Loud Love” and the slow, grinding build of “Beyond the Wheel” showcased their ability to pull the listener into a world much more menacing than Cornell’s bravado and guitarist Kim Thayil’s shrieking leads let on.They were veterans of their local scene, making the jump to a major label during the early stages of majors snatching up indie bands before many of their peers. Instead of watering down their sound as so many would upon making a similar transition, they became even more complex, growing into a sort of post-modern Zeppelin on later records such as their major label debut, Badmotorfinger, and their opus, 1994’s Superunknown. They took the stark, metallic sound they’d honed alongside contemporaries like The Melvins and Mudhoney and started incorporating more psychedelic elements, never fully settling into any one style but rather constantly building upon their own. The first four songs on Badmotorfinger—“Rusty Cage,” “Outshined,” “Slaves And Bulldozers” and “Jesus Christ Pose”—comprise one of the most ferocious openings to any rock record not named Appetite For Destruction, and I owe all of my future spine and throat problems to the amount of time I have spent screaming along and headbanging to these tunes since I was a pre-teen. I have often said that if you can’t get down to at least one of those four songs then you must hate rock music, and I stand by this statement.As the group’s often shirtless leader, Chris Cornell walked a line between overt masculinity and brooding sensitivity. In an era where seeming like you knew how to sing or play was a strong case against your credibility, the guy wailed like Robert Plant while his bandmates flexed their deceptively dexterous muscles and made no apologies for it. What separated Soundgarden from their jock-rock ancestors was Cornell’s willingness to go beyond mere histrionics and push his superhuman voice to its absolute limit. His band fearlessly explored dark, murky waters via intricate time signatures, odd tunings, and serrated guitar assaults to match their singer’s opaque, cerebral lyrics and incomparable vocal range. If you enjoyed unstoppable guitar riffs with a healthy dose of melody, then you were never going to find a more satisfying band than Soundgarden. A song like “Slaves and Bulldozers” strikes you less as a group of masturbatory virtuosos than four desperate men trying to capture the precise feeling of a nervous breakdown, and when Cornell breaks through to his highest vocal register, it sounds like a man trying to escape his own body.[[{"fid":"6700516","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"SLAVES AND BULLDOZERS LIVE - SOUNDGARDEN","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]With Temple of the Dog, Cornell reckoned with Wood’s heroin-related death on songs like “Reach Down,” which lyrically works as both a touching tribute and cautionary tale after witnessing his dear friend spiral into addiction. His lyrics were never as blatantly autobiographical as Cobain’s (who he would be nearly twice as old as at the time of their respective deaths), and his public persona never seemed to revolve around drug problems or legal troubles the way that Staley’s and Weiland’s did, either. These comparisons are not meant to minimize each singer’s own personal turmoil, but rather to illuminate the fact that in spite of his own issues, Cornell had seemed to overcome each of them on his own terms and come out stronger as a result. That mindset seemed to extend to his other facets of his life and career, too: the Timbaland collaboration, the "Billie Jean" cover, the Von Dutch tank tops, Audioslave—there was a sincerity in everything he did. He always meant it. Then why, even through the shock, did his sudden death make a sort of sense to me? I am not and would never presume to know what any person is dealing with internally when they choose to commit suicide, and it is a somewhat morbid preoccupation for people to give posthumous meaning to an artist’s work when they take their own lives. But, as someone who has struggled with depression for the better part of their own life, I understand that it is not a thing one can defeat in a single sitting. It is an ever-morphing monster that one must constantly learn and re-learn how to conquer, again and again. And unfortunately, it is a long-term battle that people like Chris Cornell—as charmed as his life might have seemed to a kid who grew up singing his songs—sometimes lose.It’s a common reaction for people to condemn those who kill themselves as “selfish,” but I have trouble reaching this conclusion myself. There is nothing readily apparent in Chris Cornell’s lyrics or public actions that would indicate he did not fully appreciate life—his own and those of his family and loved ones. And yet, as a friend informed me as we both discussed his death at 3:30 this morning, he was found dead roughly an hour after he’d walked off that stage in Detroit. Whatever form his depression had last taken seemed insurmountable for him, and for all the battling he had done throughout his life, he had reached this conclusion for himself, and then, tragically, acted upon it. I wonder, perhaps selfishly, what this means for people like myself who deal with depression, and what it would take in my own life to conquer it once and for all. His decision suggests that, whatever it is, it must certainly have to come from within, which is both liberating and terrifying. Now I know why you’ve been shaking.
‘I’ve Had These Feelings and This Fight for My Entire Life’: An Interview with Jen Agg

The restaurateur and author of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch on reclaiming the narrative, writing as catharsis and redacted nudes. 

About a week before I interviewed Jen Agg, author of the newly released memoir I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, I spoke about my own work at a Ryerson University journalism class. All of the students were women, and they all wanted to know how I navigated writing about my own life. Wasn’t I afraid of saying too much? Wasn’t I afraid of angering the people I wrote about? Wasn’t I afraid to talk about feminism? Wasn’t I just afraid?The word rattled in a way that’s truthful. I tried to be inspiring. I told them that nobody has a right to tell their stories but them. I said that the world would be better if more women shared their stories. I said, be vulnerable, but I also said be courageous—dissolve your fear like salt in water, throw your tears down the sink. The unsettling truth, though, is that it can be scary to turn your soft underbelly to the world, to show strangers your rage and fear and all the things you did wrong and right. The words freeing and cathartic and terrifying can shift unexpectedly, like one of those where-did-the-ball-go? carnival games with the cup. The truth is that it’s by turns delightful and awful to be a real bitch—even if you’ve reclaimed it, even if it’s tongue-and-cheek.I wish I could have shown those women Agg’s book. I would have said, This is how you do it. Or maybe, I would have been more Agg-like: This is how you FUCKING do it!!! This is how you be yourself on the page. Be bold. Grow. Share your mistakes. Tell us how you got back up. Tell us how you soared. Be the hundred different things that make you the person you are and do not write just to be liked—your story is so much more important than that.As a feminist and head of her own super-popular restaurant empire, Agg tells us what it’s like to dominate an uber male, often misogynistic industry. But as much as this is a story about stumbling and triumphing as a woman in the biz, it’s also a story about simply being a woman with opinions. (So, like, basically, just a woman.) In I Hear She’s A Real Bitch, Agg cuts through the crap and lets us see who she really is—and how she got there. I chatted with Agg in her new Toronto restaurant Grey Gardens about periods, the word “outspoken,” and what it means to defy others’ definitions of you and tell your own story.Lauren McKeon: Over the years, you’ve had a lot of press coverage. It feels like a lot of people have tried to write your story for you and define who you are. How did it feel to be able to tell your own story and have control over it?Jen Agg: I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms, but I do think it was a big reason that I wanted to write the book. I was tired of being shoved into someone else’s narrative of who and what I am—usually based on them not knowing me at all, or based on a public perception that is hugely rooted in misogyny. So, yes, it felt good.To me it seems that often when someone writes or talks about a woman, there’s this tendency to try and fit us into these neat little boxes. Sometimes it feels like we’re allowed to be this set number of things, and if you venture outside that—well, watch out. That’s been my whole life. When people start to know who you are, they start to have ideas about you. Maybe one time you didn’t hire someone and then they tell seven of their friends what a bitch you are because you didn’t hire them—I’ve told stories like that in the book. Or maybe you just have the temerity to say what you think, which is not okay if you’re a woman. It’s really, really not. It’s hard to ignore that. I think the counter-argument people will make is, “Jen, it’s not that you’re a woman, but that you’re legitimately outspoken.” There’s a case to be made for that, but I don’t think I’m judged by the same standards that outspoken men are judged. Recently, I’ve had journalists call out misogyny in other articles written about me. It was heartening. Can you say heartening? It warmed my heart, but I think it’s also a sign of the times. I’ve had these feelings and this fight for my entire life, but it feels like our culture is finally starting to fucking catch up to it.You used the word outspoken, and you also tackle it in your book. I wanted to touch on that word: outspoken. A lot of the time, when it’s applied to women, it’s a slight, but when it’s applied to men it’s more like oh, he’s so courageous in his opinions. How gendered has that word become? What are people really saying when they call you outspoken?When people call women “outspoken,” they’re calling us rabble-rousers. Shit-disturbers. I’m literally quoting myself from the book, which is so fucking embarrassing. But that’s what they mean. They don’t mean that with men. I understand the point to balance. I do say more than what a lot of men say. And I do say what I think. But I do also firmly believe it’s a gendered term. It’s just rooted in the idea of a woman’s place, and a woman’s place is to sit down, shut up, cheerlead for the men—to make sandwiches, but not run kitchens.It’s so strange to me. The word outspoken should be a good word.Shouldn’t it? Yes!Like you’re standing up, you’re speaking out. Maybe we can Take Back the Night on it.Right? The word should be so good. Instead, it’s just become so gendered. The idea of women being loud isn’t something we’ve yet hurdled over.I’m going to pause you right there. It’s not even loud. This is actually a thing I’m starting to take issue with. I’m not loud. I’m calm and nuanced and able to think through my thoughts well. Just because I’m using all caps for emphasis—with tongue usually firmly planted in cheek—it doesn’t mean I’m literally screaming.I see the point. It’s okay to be loud. I like that idea too. At the same time, I’m actually not a screaming harpy. I’m not being extremely nuanced right now, because it’s so early in the day. I mean, it’s not really—but for conversations like these. But here’s what it is though: It’s not being loud; it’s just saying words. It’s just saying words. And that’s what’s so offensive to me. It’s not loud. It’s just speaking. It’s just speaking words. And when you start to identify “loudness” in terms of women who are just speaking words, it does us a disservice.There’s a moment in the book where you’re talking about some of the threats you get on Twitter and you say something like, “I have to laugh it off because what’s the other option?” Can you expand more on that?I make a little joke somewhere where I’m like: “I’m not getting rape threats. What’s wrong? You don’t want to rape this?” It’s an extremely inappropriate joke and I realize that, but I do try to twist it into something funny. That’s because it’s unimaginable to me that someone is so driven into a frenzy of rage by the words that I’m saying that they want to murder me, or they want me to get raped, or they want my tits to be cut off and fed to me, or whatever egregious thing it is they’re saying. You really do have to laugh.I read them to my husband sometimes and he can’t handle it. He gets more upset than I do. It isn’t even that I’m not upset by it, but for now it’s easier and better to not take it seriously. Not that I don’t think it’s serious. I think it’s serious and gross and really beyond the pale. I do think all of those things. But if I were to entertain the idea that any of these men actually wanted to rape me, I don’t think I would be able to sleep at night.Right. Either you let it infiltrate your own life—and it can—or you laugh. In a way it is ridiculous. It’s gross and wrong and all those things, sure. But at the same time, it’s also ridiculous that these people on the Internet are in such a frenzy.Because I said words. I do think it’s ridiculous and I try to ignore it. I also have this really remarkable ability—and I do think it’s remarkable and I don’t know if it’s just how much wine I drink—but I’m able to move past and forget things really easily. That’s not to say I don’t hold a grudge. I hold a grudge excellently. Although I also accept reasonable and legitimate apologies like a champ. But I can just forget shit. Someone can say something extremely cruel and cutting on the Internet or in a comments section somewhere and I’ll read it and say, “Oh that’s fucking rude,” but I’m able to file it away. It’s like water off a duck’s back. It’s very effective in controlling how I feel every day.Given all the stuff people write about you, did you ever think about how the book would be received when you were writing it?No, I really wrote it for me. I wrote it as catharsis. I wrote it as telling my story from my perspective. I know me better than most anyone else. Maybe not better than my husband, but I like to think I do. I just wanted to get the words on the page. It was remarkably easy to tell my own story. I just thought about plowing through each chapter and eventually I started to see it come together like a Tetris game. I also wrote the book while I was building two restaurants and living in two provinces. I wasn’t thinking about much other than fucking finishing it.I never get bogged down by what other people think, though. Of course, every once in a while I can get my feelings hurt. I’m not made of stone. I think people sometimes think if you’re a strong woman you can take on the world. And it’s like, “Yeah, basically I can get right back up, but I fucking have feelings.”Whenever I read women’s memoirs, the unsuccessful ones to me are the ones where women feel they either have to be so self-deprecating (I’m not that good)or, on the other hand, like they have to be superwomen (struggles do not exist). What I loved about yours was that there are the moments of confidence, which are deserved and awesome, and then there are the moments of vulnerability where you pause and show your feelings. It’s often really hard for women to do that because we face so many pressures. Was it a conscious choice for you, and how did you push yourself?That’s a great question. No, it’s not conscious. This is the thing that I think maybe people don’t understand about me. I’ve encountered some journalists who seem to believe that somehow everything on my Twitter feed is calculated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Five minutes ago, you said something and I wanted to tweet it and I resisted because I know we have limited time. That is how I tweet. And that is how my book works as well. This is, as much as possible, how I see myself and it’s an honest depiction of who I am. That’s what we’re searching for—who we are. Who are we? How do we exist in the world? And I really, really try to show all sides of how my personality developed, how I am in the world—all those things. That included things that were difficult to tell and it included admitting weakness at times in my life, which wasn’t easy. I also think that it’s insulation from other people putting those things on you. If I hadn’t told certain stories, I would be opening myself up to somebody saying, “Well, what about this?” I didn’t want that. I would rather be like, “This is everything; take it or leave it.”That touches on another thing I wanted to ask you.I’m just segueing for you.We’re like in sync, but not the band. That would be less cool. ANYWAYS. Returning to the idea of “This is who I am.” You mentioned catharsis earlier, which is interesting because while I was reading it, I kept thinking, “This must be cathartic for her—to tell her own story.” I think inevitably when women write their own stories someone will always say, “Well did you ask so-and-so if you could write about them?”It’s not their story.Right. It strikes me as expecting women to ask permission to tell their own stories. It really irritates me. You were very open about sharing stories about your interactions and relationships with those in your life, good and bad. Did you face that when you were writing this—or did you ever think, “I don’t know if I should mention this person?”Only one time. With my husband. With everyone else it was like, “This is fair game.” But with my husband Roland, I wrote about some very private things in our marriage. When I wrote that chapter, I felt it was important for all the reasons I just discussed: it’s my story and it was a turning point in our marriage. So, I called Roland. He likes when I read my work to him. What is more beautiful than your wife reading you a story? I was kind of crying as I read it to him, because some of it’s really emotional. He just listened to it. And I was like, “Honey, is it okay?” It was more like, “Are you going to be okay with this?” This is very private. And he said the best thing ever. He told me, “Honey, this is your story to tell, and it is not for me to tell you whether it’s okay or not.” But, yes, he was okay with it. It was such a relief.Speaking of Roland, I have to admit I laughed that I got to the part where I got to the redacted part [in the advanced review copy] about his nude drawing of you.  This handwritten note from you fell out when I turned to the page where Roland's drawing will appear in the book when it goes on sale, and it read "REDACTED! Nude. Of me. LOL—you'll have to buy the book"  and I thought, this is the best. Women get criticized for so many things, for telling their own stories—For being naked?Yes, for having bodies and saying, “This is my body, not yours.” How did that decision to share that come about—and even just to write about the body in the way that you do. How did writing that feel?It felt great. All of the art in the book is by women—except for the art by Roland. We weren’t going to do any photographs so it didn’t make any sense for anyone other than Roland to draw me. This is the true story of what happened. I was reading in bed. I didn’t have pants on because I’m in my house. Of course I didn’t have pants on! He comes in the room, and he’s like “Oh, honey.” He gets his iPad and he’s like, “I need a picture of your pussy.” So he made me pose. And he told me he was going to do a nude of me for the book. At first, I thought “Ohhhkay, that’s an interesting choice.” But then I realized that’s actually fucking cool. We talked about it and decided it’s art. As Roland said, “ Art is beautiful, your body is beautiful—so why not?” I’m sure I’ll get some negative, ugly backlash from shitty men about it, but I don’t care. It’s a beautiful drawing.Did it tie into your decision to talk about sex? They seem linked: the ownership of our bodies, and also the ownership of the statement, “Yeah, women have sex and we like it.” It’s complicated and complex and fun for us too.Absolutely. I didn’t think I could write a memoir of my life and not include my sex life. That would feel very incomplete. It’s a very important part of my life. The story I tell about losing my virginity—that is really what happened, of course. My friends really made me feel like it was seedy and obscene and I should be embarrassed. At the time, I was so young that I thought maybe they were right, and it stayed with me. Then one day, I realized they’re not fucking right. This is ridiculous. Men can fall dick first into any hole around and it’s fine. The idea that women’s virginity is a gift that we’re saving to give to the right person is fucking gross. I’ve always hated it.In a way, it goes back to telling our own stories. I feel like women have to keep telling their stories and more and more. We have such an incomplete understanding of women and their lives.It feels to me sometimes that women are not in touch with their own bodies because we’re just trained not to be. Whereas, I’m really sensitive to what’s happening. I know which ovary is operating which month and I think talking about periods is fine. We’re taught to be ashamed of this stuff at such a young age. Like: hide your tampon when you go to the washroom. I think most women probably still do that as adults. And part of my fighting instinct is to really loudly announce stuff like, “I’m going to go change my tampon.” Well, actually it’s actually a Diva Cup, obviously.So you also joke about white girl feminism a few times in the book.I am a white girl, technically speaking.It’s a huge conversation in feminism right now: How do we move past white girl feminism? How did your feminism evolve as you were writing the book?All the hard questions, huh? I don’t know if it evolved while I was writing. I’ve always tried to be intersectional. It’s obvious to me that I’m going to have an easier time fighting for feminism than a woman of colour will. And it’s always been obvious for me. I really do try to be an ally. It’s a complicated subject, but I do understand the concepts of how to amplify someone else’s voice: move aside and let people speak; when you’re on Twitter, do retweets and don’t just quote tweets; and so on. I really do try to do that. I understand the privilege I have, obviously. I understand my middle class privilege. I understand my white woman privilege. And I thought it was important to acknowledge that in the book, to not pretend to be oblivious to it. The more people that talk about it, hopefully the more it will seep into the mainstream in a real way—it’s starting to.Why do you think people are still so scared of feminism in general?It’s the status quo. People like the oatmeal they’ve had every day. They don’t want a different bread, even if it’s way better. Even women like the status quo, and especially the middle class. I had this great moment recently. A woman came into Grey Gardens with her husband. And I almost started crying in front of her as she told me her story, which is trés embarrassing. She told me that when she first came across my Twitter feed, she dismissed me. Oh, she seems crazy. But then she started to really read my feed. And she decided a lot of what I was saying made sense. Eventually, she started speaking up at work. She was a smart woman, somewhere in her 40s and none of this ever occurred to her—probably because she’s had a semi-privileged life. Now she calls herself a feminist, she speaks up at work, she engages in feminist actions. And, she told me it was all because she started reading my Twitter feed. It was really powerful. It meant a lot. So I don’t care about the haters. If I can have one story like that a month, that’s enough.