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Ben leads the Editorial team at WordPress.com / Automattic, and contributes to Longreads, Discover, and The Daily Post.

On Identity, Miyazaki, and Japanese Bathhouses

Still from Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away

There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.

In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.

Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.

After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.

That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?

A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.

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Can Detroit’s Legendary Techno Scene Survive Gentrification?

Stacey Pullen performs at the 2016 Movement Electronic Music Festival in Downtown Detroit's Hart Plaza. (Tanya Moutzalias/The Ann Arbor News via AP)

Techno emerged in Detroit’s minority and queer communities as the city descended into decay in the late 1980s. A couple of decades later, after having reshaped electronic music and club culture around the world, the scene is alive — but changing. At Roads and Kingdoms, Akhil Kalepu writes a history of techno that goes all the way back to Motown. But he devotes special attention to a contemporary tension between the genre’s diverse, underground origins and an increasingly white, affluent scene in Detroit and beyond.

In Detroit, much of the electronic music world rejoiced when techno veteran Dimitri Hegemann of Berlin’s famed Tresor nightclub announced plans to open a branch in Packard Automotive Plant, a former DIY venue for the local rave scene. For many locals, though, it was yet another example of a white European taking something made by their predominantly black city: the gentrification of a genre seeping back into physical space.

Despite its genuine Detroit roots, Movement [Electronic Music Festival], too, has had its part to play in the gentrification of electronic music and, by extension, Detroit. The inaugural festival, held in 2000, was the brainchild of Carl Craig — a second-generation techno star in his own right — and Carol Marvin of the event production team Pop Culture Media. They saw Hart Plaza, dead in the center of Detroit’s beleaguered downtown, as the perfect place to host a techno festival, even if most of the city’s residents were unfamiliar with the scene.

Since those first years, Movement has gone from a free event to a paid one, passing through the hands of several directors along the way. Despite changes in leadership, Movement still plays an important role in the narrative of Detroit Rising, which is also the story of Detroit Gentrifying. Hart Plaza itself is now the centerpiece of one of Detroit’s many “revitalized” neighborhoods. As in similar urban zones across the U.S., rising rents have driven out a predominantly middle-class economy, replacing local businesses with high-end establishments and luxury apartments—the early stages of the trend that turned former underground capitals like New York, London, and Tokyo into velvet-rope and bottle-service cities. Growing electronic music scenes in Asia, Africa, and South America show promise, though most investment in those regions goes to venues that cater to the developing world’s growing elite.

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The Vegan Mayo that Dare Not Speak its Name

Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Unlike a small appliance that squeezes juice out from a pouch or a vending machine that sells stuff (looking at you, Juicero and Bodega), vegan mayonnaise actually has a distinct value proposition, a quality that sets it apart from its yolk-rich, emulsified step-cousin. It’s odd, then, that a key moment in vegan-mayo startup Hampton Creek’s trajectory was to stop using “vegan” in describing their products. At The Atlantic, Bianca Bosker charts co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick’s transition from outspoken animal-rights rabble-rouser to a Silicon Valley executive fluent in the complementary discourses of wellness, environmental consciousness, and instant gratification.

Though he said he still believes “every single word” of his past entreaties, Tetrick has largely sanitized his public remarks of references to animal abuse since finding that they fell flat with the broad group of retailers and shoppers he hopes to attract. He now hews closer to lines such as “We’ve made it really easy for good people to do the wrong things.” Though Tetrick has been a vegan for the past seven years, he discourages his marketing team from using the word vegan to describe Just products. The term, he says, evokes arrogance and wealth and suggests food that “tastes like crap.” Instead he promises customers a bright future where they can eat better, be healthy, and save the environment without spending more, sacrificing pleasure, or inconveniencing themselves. “A cookie can change the world,” Hampton Creek has asserted in its marketing materials.

The message is a rallying cry for a particular kind of revolution. Tetrick launched Hampton Creek in an era when investors were reaching beyond traditional tech companies, and businesses that might otherwise have been merely, say, specialty-food purveyors could leverage software—and grand mission statements tapping into Silicon Valley’s do-gooder ethos—to cast themselves as paradigm-breaking forces. Venture capitalists have poured money into start-ups aiming to disrupt everything from lingerie to luggage to lipstick, with less emphasis on the product than on the scope of the ambition and the promise of tech-enabled efficiencies. Hampton Creek offered idealism that could scale.

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“That Was the Final Straw”: On Reporting From Venezuela as It Spiraled Downward

diego looking at Caracas landscape.
Diego, who's on the verge of leaving Venezuela, was followed by reporter Christian Borys during the July protests. (Daniel Blanco)
diego looking at Caracas landscape.

On July 30, Venezuela’s anti-government movement quickly collapsed after a controversial, and possibly fraudulent, vote radically extended Nicolás Maduro’s presidential powers. On the ground in Caracas during those fateful days was Canadian journalist Christian Borys, whose Longreads Exclsuive about the unraveling of Venezuela’s Resistencia movement, “You Can See the Battle Scars,” came out last week. I recently chatted with Christian over email about the protests’ sobering aftermath, and the experience of reporting from a country caught in a dramatic downward spiral.

* * *

It’s been almost two months since you returned from Caracas. Have you been in touch with some of the people you met there? What are they telling you about the current state of things?

Yes, I’m in touch with someone almost every day. The weirdest part about what’s happening now is that nothing is happening. The movement against the government died the day after the big vote on July 30. It was as if everyone either gave up the fight, resigned themselves to a future under a dictatorship, and returned back to their work-life routine or got out of the country. A lot of people told me that their friends just left afterward. That was the final straw.

You’ve reported about protests and civil strife before, in places like Poland and Ukraine. How was the experience in Venezuela different for you as a journalist, and as an observer?

Venezuela is in a far more difficult situation than any other place I’ve been to. It’s devolved into one of the worst places in the world to live, and although they’ve managed to avoid any sort of massive internal armed conflict, people are struggling just to get basics. You have people picking through trash to find food, which you can certainly find in any country, but everyone we spoke to said that they’d never, ever seen that in Venezuela before. The food shortage and poverty had grown so extreme that people were forced to pick from scraps. We heard stories about women turning to prostitution to make a dollar, about how insanely difficult it is to acquire medicine if you can’t afford it, and even about the trouble of acquiring something as basic as a T-shirt if you want a new one. The prices have just gone to such extremes in relation to the wages that nothing is remotely affordable anymore.

People with access to U.S. currency can live like kings in Venezuela because the currency has fallen off a cliff, but not everyone has relatives in the U.S. who can send them dollars. It’s this slow descent into the abyss. I think it was Diego — a young man featured in the story — who said to me, while we were at a market, something like, “Man, this is such bullshit, nothing is affordable anymore.” And I asked him about when he began to notice the changes. He said it was slow, so slow that you just got used to it each time it happened. Each time there was a spike, you thought it can’t get worse, but then it did. For reference, when I got there, the currency was below 8,000 bolívars per one U.S. dollar. When I left, it’d dropped to 20,000 to one dollar amid the chaos. Now it’s gone all the way to 30,000. People’s real earnings have just gone up in flames.

One of the most striking things in your piece is the way it conveys the normalcy of danger. How did it feel on the ground while you were reporting? Was there a sense of imminent violence, whether from the authorities or from random crime? Has it affected the way you went about reporting this story?

The dangerous part about Venezuela — and why it was so different than Ukraine, for example — is that when you cover war, you generally know which direction the threat could be coming from, you know who could be out to cause you harm. In Venezuela you had no idea, and the options were limitless as to who might put you in danger. There was SEBIN (The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service), robbery, kidnapping, National Guardsmen, Venezuelan officers, and random murder. It was an especially difficult place to work during that time because there were checkpoints, even casual ones, all around. Authorities were looking for suspicious groupings of people in cars to figure out which ones could be protesters. There was a lot of paranoia on our part about who was watching us — and it was definitely justified. One day, on July 30 actually, the day of the Constituyente vote, a middle-aged man came up and snapped my picture, then rushed away. My colleagues and I were concerned we’d be picked up.

Your reporting took you to very different areas in Caracas — from affluent enclaves to some of the poorest barrios. Does the despair, and the reactions to it, transcend these divisions, or did you see it play out differently across socioeconomic fault lines?

Yes, we went all over the city. I wanted to make sure we saw the whole spectrum of opinions, and frankly, everyone young, without exception, was against the government. It didn’t matter if they were ultra-poor, like Gaucho, or wealthy, like Federica — who are both are featured in the story — the young people were universally against their government. It makes sense when you look at the statistics and realize that they no longer see any future for themselves in their own country. I think people sometimes discount or can’t empathize with how difficult it is to have to pack up and move to a different country, even if you speak the same language. I mean, moving apartments can be enough of a pain in the ass, but fleeing a country, finding a new place to live, building a new social and professional network, restarting school, finding a new job, starting a career from scratch, learning a new culture, establishing new routines. Those are all emotionally exhausting.

Bringing this back to a North American perspective, the concept of political “resistance” has seen a major resurgence this past year. And it’s almost always framed in optimistic terms. Your story shows the moment where a resistance movement very clearly hit a major, perhaps fatal, dead end. Is there anything that can be learned from the Resistencia activists you’ve witnessed in Caracas in the days before the July 30 vote? What’s in store for this now much-weakened movement?

I honestly have no idea what can be learned. I was shocked to see the movement die off the day after the vote. I expected some massive uprising to take place, as did many people, except for the veteran correspondents who’d spent years in Venezuela. Several people told me to expect nothing much, but it seemed like such an intense moment that I discounted that theory a bit. But that’s exactly what happened.

Some people tried to explain it to me afterward as the failure of the opposition politicians to actually keep the trust of the movement. Their message changed so often, from “Let’s march on the Presidential Palace!” to “Pull over and turn your cars off in protest.” People were disheartened by their leadership, especially when they saw their leaders willing to cooperate with the regime in the wake of the vote. I mean, people on the street were screaming “dictatorship!”, and yet the politicians who’d asked them to give their lives for this movement suddenly changed views and began to negotiate. I guess the people felt betrayed. The only way you can ensure that doesn’t happen is if you make the resistance movement apolitical, meaning you don’t let a political party co-opt it and lead the charge. You’d have to let civil society lead it, and do it for the betterment of society, not for the political goals of any party. How you can ensure that a politician doesn’t step in and take over is beyond me.

As far as what’s in store for this movement, I honestly have no idea. I feel like the country is just going to lose a ton of its young, talented people and devolve further into a shadow of what it once was economically and culturally. I don’t know if there will be a big challenge to Maduro’s regime anytime soon.

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We Watch HGTV for the Destruction, Not the Makeovers

Chip and Joanna Gaines
Joanna Gaines and Chip Gaines, hosts of home-improvement show, Fixer Upper. (Photo by Brian Ach/Invision/AP)
Chip and Joanna Gaines

It’s fitting that my experience of HGTV programs like Fixer Upper is limited to visits to my dentist (I don’t own a TV). There, lying horizontally on the dental chair, I watch drywall being torn down and linoleum floors uprooted just as restorative violence is performed on my teeth. In her recent Vulture piece on the strange, persistent allure of HGTV, Caitlin Flanagan exposes several truths. One is the deep connection between these shows and real-estate speculation — a link so powerful that not even the 2008 financial meltdown could break it. Another is that we might think we’re watching HGTV for the dramatic, post-makeover reveals, but the real source of pleasure lies in the (highly gendered) celebration of destruction. Fixer Upper might be ending after its upcoming fifth season — HGTV announced it this week — but the spectacle of temporary annihilation is bound to go on.

On Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna help home buyers on limited budgets get the most out of their investments by choosing “the worst house in the best neighborhood.” That’s an old real-estate canard that has long been dismissed, but no matter — when Joanna starts describing all the wonderful things she can do to it, thoughts about resale value melt away into dreams of sliding barn doors, over-tufted sofas, and newly built “mud rooms” where the kids can stash their backpacks and soccer gear. Once the buyers have chosen their new house, they’re whisked away and the work begins.

It is as though Chip has spent all of Act One in a quivering agony of self-control, but at last he is free. He grabs a sledgehammer and, with Joanna’s permission, starts bashing away at the first wall she has marked for destruction. SLAM! CRASH! BANG! Chip is finally in concert with his true nature. This banging away at walls is the centerpiece of every HGTV show that involves renovation — as do all of its most popular programs — and there is something profoundly satisfying about it, even though it’s a preposterous way to go about the task. Taking out a single wall when you want to leave the rest of a room intact involves carefully cutting the drywall, teasing it off, and then taking down the framing behind it. But the reckless bashing makes for good television, and it dramatizes the signal design imperative of HGTV: Whether you live in Burbank or Barcelona, you absolutely must have an open kitchen.

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Changing of the Guard, Bee-Style

The death of a monarch is never simple. There’s a vacuum of power that needs to be filled, an anxiety of influence that requires the successor to establish their power quickly, and a challenging period in which the memory of the deceased is negotiated and shaped (in some cases — hello, French Revolution! — this phase can last centuries). In a lovely essay at Nautilus, John Knight explores the war of succession that followed the death of the original queen in his Brooklyn-rooftop beehive. It’s a conflict not just between a wannabe-queen and her reluctant subjects, but also between human and insect, each following their own complex protocols for survival.

As far as I can tell, my queen died sometime in the spring. Queens typically live for about four or five years, so this caught me by surprise. A new queen, however, is a regular event in the life of a hive. Beekeepers frequently replace their queens every year or two to introduce genetic variety and ensure that the hive has a strong monarch who can lay enough eggs to keep the population up. Bees can also raise their own queen, and when I did an inspection early that spring, I was pleased to see that mine had taken the initiative. Before she died, my old queen must have laid a few fertilized eggs that worker bees raised as replacements. They would have selected six or seven fertilized (female) eggs and fed them only royal jelly. When the first queen hatched, she would have immediately killed any unhatched competition and ideally flown a few mating flights, storing enough semen in her abdomen to spend the rest of her life laying eggs.

While a newborn queen may seem ruthless, the success of a beehive hinges on allegiance to its queen. Though she can mate with an average of 12 different drones, there is only one queen, which makes for a hive of closely related bees. As a new queen begins to produce her own pheromones, the hive slowly aligns with her as the old bees die and new workers hatch. In a sense, the hive is genetically wired to be loyal to the monarchy. If the hive was to raise multiple queens, or if the workers were to start laying eggs, the interests of the population would slowly fracture.

In a healthy hive, a queen will lay hundreds, sometimes thousands of eggs each day in spring and summer, which she either fertilizes or doesn’t. The fertilized eggs, the females, can either grow to be workers or queens. The unfertilized eggs become male drones that do nothing but inseminate the queen—quite literally, flying bags of semen. Drone bees, though crucial for reproduction, don’t forage or sting or raise brood—they can’t even feed themselves.

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‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ Has Made Traditional TV Recaps Obsolete

Still from Showtime's Twin Peaks: The Return, episode 8.

It might be technically over, but it’s been hard to let go of Twin Peaks: The Return, whose final two episodes aired last Sunday. I’d worried about this 18-part work, and how the powerful waves of nostalgia its arrival sent across the web would alter my experience of it. In the end, it was breathtaking: horrific, funny, bold, and masterful — even at its most frustrating.

The middle stretch of the series coincided with the seventh — mostly mediocre — season of Game of Thrones. The juxtaposition was revelatory: I realized how limited my tolerance of narrative experimentation had become in this supposed golden age of prestige television. On the right side, flimsy, expensive, predictable storytelling. On the left, something beautiful and impossible to define, at once seductive and hermetic. The two shows also encouraged very different types of engagement. Sure, redditors have come up with outré theories about both Jon Snow’s parentage and Agent Dale Cooper’s tulpas. But where the former forced you to think in straight lines and pose questions about verisimilitude (“how did those ravens fly so fast?”), the latter invited lateral explorations, detours, and multilayered analyses.

Speaking of which, Sarah Nicole Prickett has written gorgeous, spiral-like reviews after each episode (or pair of episodes), which Artforum has since collected into one mammoth post (the final installment is still forthcoming). These essays take the (mostly dull) genre of the weekly recap and inject it with a sense of intrepid questioning. Here, for example, is Prickett responding to the show’s eighth episode, likely the best hour of television I’ve ever watched.

Imagine having been a child in the jaundiced dawn of the Atomic Age, anticipating the death of all you’d known, the reality at Hiroshima and Nagasaki transposed on your Manhattan, or your Missoula, Montana. Imagine seeing one photograph in particular, depicting the instant shared death of a hundred thousand people and thinking, “I have an idea.” Seeing a perfect image in . . . a mushroom cloud, and making it your own. Who is so outrageous? Sylvia Plath? Bruce Conner? I would kill someone to have that kind of brain, which is why God didn’t give it to me. He gave it to Lynch, who reappears on The Return as FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, now with a fancier office, and behind his wide desk, as we saw in the third hour, a wider black-and-white photograph of a nuclear blast. Five hours later, this completely inappropriate decorating choice is explained.

We go to the first detonation of an atomic bomb, in White Sands, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, at 5:45 AM (MWT). The date and time, with its stressed specificity, is like an evangelical’s save-the-date for this year’s doomsday. The Trinity Test we are about to see did in fact take place, but a shimmer of unlikelihood, like this is unbelievable, remains. The cloud mushrooms and swallows the camera, so it feels like we’re shrinking, like Alice in . . . Hell. The colors are too much for words: imperial purple, incarnadine orange, gold. (Lynch, in his wonderfully inadequate explanation for dissecting a stranger’s recently deceased cat in his basement, said that “when I opened up the inside, it was unbelievable—the organs inside the cat were brilliant colors, and as soon as the air got to them, all the color started draining out, right before your eyes.”) The rest of the episode is in lambent black-and-white, as in Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). There are quivering shots, almost stills, displaying staticky, patterned abstractions that look like Ross Bleckner’s paintings after AIDS. Bleckner has said that the disease, with its radioactive threat, was “a total paradigm shift in consciousness, a rupture.”

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Moonshine: The Black Tradition of Distilling ‘White Whiskey’

Culinary appropriation is a thorny phenomenon to pin down. More or less everything we consume came to be through hybrid, murky lineages: people move (whether by choice or by force), communities clash and interact, and tastes evolve. Very few food items have a neat, uncontested origin story. But as Lauren Michele Jackson shows in her Eater essay on the erasure of black influence from artisanal-food culture, some trends are impossible to deny. Black labor and black innovation had been instrumental for many American staples, yet by the time barbecue, beer, or malt liquor resurfaced in recent years as craft items with major cultural cachet, they’d been (and still are being) thoroughly whitewashed. The same goes for what might be the whitest of spirits (in the popular imagination, at least): moonshine.

For now, the public image of what distilling looks like in America remains white, even in the face of more recent history. Moonshine, experiencing a craft renaissance of its own, almost exclusively conjures a certain image of backwoods whiteness and Prohibition-era bootlegging — a product, in part, of the white cultural monopoly on all things “country,” while black people are endlessly “urban” — an image that continues to be burnished by vested interests. “We as a society have created its value and meaning, bound up in images of mountains and overalls and shotguns and the way a man wears his hat. I played my part in this fiction,” admits the writer Matt Bondurant in an essay about his family’s moonshining legacy and his efforts to tell their story.

The rural is as much a domain of black life, and moonshining was a part of it. “I lived in a totally black world,” the artist Jonathan Green said in a recent conversation with the poet Kevin Young about his family’s moonshine production. That world was not an urban jungle but a Southern, rural community of landholders, farmers, hunters, and store owners. “Moonshine was also called a happy drink, it was also a medicinal drink,” Green said. “I only knew of moonshine as a sort of miracle liquid, if you will.” As a child, Green’s grandparents allowed him peeks into moonshining; he recalls the long early morning walks with his grandfather to stills that “were always hidden” deep in the woods, and how family visiting from out of town always left with crates full of moonshine. “I only saw moonshining as a major part of my family history and culture.”

But now that moonshine is a part of craft culture, what’s ultimately left to do is “package the story, feed the legend, make some money,” as Bondurant writes. Only white stories seem to have made it into the package.

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If Clean Food Is for Everyone, Why Are Its Gurus All Young, Pretty Women?

Our notions of health and wellness (both charged terms these days, one might add) are still stuck in a paradigm that wouldn’t be out of place in ancient Greece; what goes on inside us must somehow be visible and recognizable on our bodies’ surface. In her Guardian essay on the rise of orthorexia — the obsession with consuming pure, “perfect” foods — Bee Wilson traces the history of a recent-yet-oh-so-familiar publishing trend: using youthful, traditionally good-looking women to sell both specific products (hello, coconut-and-oat energy balls!) and an amorphous, ever-shifting “clean” lifestyle.

Every wellness guru worth her Himalayan pink salt has a story of how changing what you eat can change your life. “Food has the power to make or break you,” wrote Amelia Freer in her 2014 bestseller Eat. Nourish. Glow. (which has sold more than 200,000 copies). Freer was leading a busy life as a personal assistant to the Prince of Wales when she realised that her tummy “looked and felt as if it had a football in it” from too many snatched dinners of cheese on toast or “factory-made food”. By giving up “processed” and convenience foods (“margarine, yuck!”) along with gluten and sugar, Freer claimed to have found the secrets to “looking younger and feeling healthier”.

Perhaps the best-known diet-transformation story of all is that of Ella Mills — possessor of more than a million Instagram followers. In 2011, Mills was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition characterised by dizziness and extreme fatigue. Mills began blogging about food after discovering that her symptoms radically improved when she swapped her sugar-laden diet for “plant-based, natural foods.” Mills — who used to be a model — made following a “free-from” diet seem not drab or deprived, but deeply aspirational. By the time her first book appeared in January 2015, her vast following on social media helped her to sell 32,000 copies in the first week alone.

There was something paradoxical about the way these books were marketed. What they were selling purported to be an alternative to a sordidly commercial food industry. “If it’s got a barcode or a ‘promise’, don’t buy it,” wrote Freer. Yet clean eating is itself a wildly profitable commercial enterprise, promoted using photogenic young bloggers on a multi-billion-dollar tech platform. Literary agent Zoe Ross tells me that around 2015 she began to notice that “the market was scouring Instagram for copycat acts — specifically very pretty, very young girls pushing curated food and lifestyle.”

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Corals and Crabs Get Moonstruck, Too

Image by Piith Hant, via WikiMedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The moon has been on my mind lately. Maybe it’s the upcoming solar eclipse (of which I’ll only get to see 88% percent, alas), or the number of times “lunatic” has been used in political commentary over the past few months. Of course, if you’re a coral reef off the coast of Australia, the moon has always been a crucial element in your existence (specifically: your sex life), and humans’ heliocentric obsessions are just plain silly. As Ferris Jabr lovingly shows at Hakai Magazine, moonlight has only recently started to receive the attention it deserves from marine biologists and other environmental scientists — and their lateness is part of a broader, sun-versus-moon cultural binary that has perpetuated itself through the centuries.

In antiquity, the influence of the moon on earthbound life was intuited—and celebrated. Our ancestors revered the moon as the equal of the sun, a dynamic signature of time, and a potent source of fertility.

“Time was first reckoned by lunations, and every important ceremony took place at a certain phase of the moon,” wrote English classicist Robert Graves in The Greek Myths. A 25,000-year-old limestone carving discovered in a rock shelter in France depicts a pregnant woman holding what appears to be a bison horn with the swoop of a crescent moon and 13 small notches—a possible paean to reproductive and lunar cycles. And some early Meso-American cultures seemed to believe that the moon deity controlled sexuality, growth, rainfall, and the ripening of crops.

In more recent times, the importance of the moon to Earth’s creatures has been eclipsed by the great solar engine of life. The sun is searingly bright, palpably hot, bold, and unmissable; our steadfast companion for many of our waking hours. The moon is spectral and elusive; we typically catch it in glimpses, in partial profile, a smudge of white in the dark or a glinting parenthesis. Sunlight bakes the soil, bends the heads of flowers, pulls water from the seas. Moonlight seems to simply descend, deigning to visit us for the evening. We still perceive the sun as the great provider—the furnace of photosynthesis—but the moon has become more like mood lighting for the mystical and occult; more a symbol of the spirit world than of our own. “There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery,” wrote Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim. The sun’s immense power over Earth and its creatures is scientific fact; to endow the moon with equal power is to embrace fairy tales and ghost stories.

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