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We All Die In the End, But Our Skin Looks Great: A Reading List

Image by Ben Rose (CC-BY-2.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories

I am as superficial and vain as anyone who wants to look hot, fun, and flirty 900% of the time (and who achieves it maybe 20% of the time). But for 35 years of my life, my vanity was missing a piece. Then, sometime in 2016, the internet let me know that I needed to pay more attention to the largest organ in my body. Obsessive attention, in fact. I found it impossible to care that much about my skin, but my vanity did permit a certain amount of heightened interest in my birthday suit. So while I have not yet gone for diamond microdermabrasion, a fruit acid facial, a full-body salt scrub and seaweed wrap, gua sha, cupping, or a ritual beating with branches by a woman of Eastern European extraction, I have considered all of these! But why?

The answer, of course, is so that someone will love me. No one told me, specifically, that I must engage in one or all of these things or else risk a lifetime of loneliness, but the message that skin-care marketing sends is: Do this, or wither in isolation. It is demonstrably true that one can live happily and healthily with wrinkles, blemishes, dry skin, dark spots, light spots, inflammation, and visible pores on one’s epidermis. But digital marketing, that most seductive form of storytelling, got married to social media and found even more insidious ways to invade our brains. Look at enough of those headlines, subject lines, Instagram ads, sponsored tweets, and carefully crafted hashtags and calls to action and you, too, will fall into the abyss.

I had a great deal of fun researching the topic and I made it out without buying any goop from Goop, a website primarily known for selling pussy eggs to white women, which is surely some kind of tiny victory. So enjoy this array of skin-care research, stunt reportage, and opining from around the web.

Read more…

Sex Work and Workers: A Reading List to Get You Beyond Law & Order SVU and Pretty Woman

A group of sex workers and supporters are seen holding a banner during a demonstration in the Netherlands (Photo by Ana Fernandez / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories

The world’s oldest profession remains the most stigmatized, and it recently occurred to me that I still don’t actually know much about it. I have some friends who are very public about their sex work, but perhaps because I still have a certain post-Catholic prudishess, I’ve never watched any of their films or webcam stuff — I figure I’d either get squeamish seeing my friends in a sexual situation, or I’d ask a million very basic questions after, like, “So is there somebody to touch up your hair and makeup on set?” and “Do you get craft services and is it good?” and “How do you keep your nails that long and still do that?”

In addition to my out-and-proud pals who work in the adult film industry, I probably have some friends who do sex work and have never told anybody other than their clients. And I understand — they might face harsh criticism and even shunning by family and friends, the loss of their other jobs, eviction from their homes, and more.

You probably have some friends like that, too. The umbrella term “sex work” encompasses a wide variety of occupations. Dancing in strip clubs. Sugar daddy relationships. Street prostitution. Traditional, fully produced porn films. Personalized private images and videos in exchange for Amazon wish list fulfillment. Webcam sessions, old-school peep shows, erotic ASMR videos, and more. None of these things is exactly like the other.

The portraits of sex workers in popular film and television are typically idealized and sanitized or irrevocably grim and sex-negative. In researching this column, I wanted to focus on first-person accounts by sex workers from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And I was fortunate to find a relatively rare example of good reporting on sex workers.

1. “We Are Kinda Unbreakable” (Raye Weigel, Baltimore City Paper, September 2017)

Street prostitution, while loosely categorized under the same “sex work” umbrella as mainstream porn, is clearly more dangerous, more stigmatized, and potentially more punishing than most other professions. It is not glamorous. It is not highly lucrative. It is certainly not Pretty Woman.

Weigel introduces us to Rhue Cook, at her own desk in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB), ready to start her evening as leader of the Transgender Action Group community outreach night. According to Weigel, “The Human Rights Campaign compiled statistics about 53 known transgender homicide victims from 2013 to 2015. The number may be higher, however, due to a lack of accurate data collection on the subject or misgendering in reports. Forty-six of the victims were people of color, and at least 34 percent were likely engaged in survival sex work at the time of their deaths.”

Weigel, Cook, and a sex worker walk the streets, handing out condoms, support, and advice. The writer does a journalist’s most important job in a story like this: turning these community figures into living, breathing humans, and making them real to strangers who may read this article five minutes or 5,000 miles away from GLCCB HQ. 

2. “The Massage Parlor Means Survival Here: Red Canary Song On Robert Kraft(Red Canary Song, Tits and Sass, April 2019)

The sex work blog Tits and Sass was far and away the outlet most cited when I asked friends and Twitter followers for their favorite sex work essays. This author, Red Canary Song, is not an individual person but “a New York City based collective that supports Asian migrant massage and sex worker organizing in Flushing, Queens.”

The opinion piece addresses, in part, the high-profile arrest of Robert Kraft in early 2019. Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was charged with solicitation at a Florida massage parlor in a case law enforcement called a landmark human trafficking sting meant to rescue women victimized by an international criminal ring.

Like Charlotte Shane in Sports Illustrated, Red Canary Song calls bullshit, writing, “If this case was such a dire example of human trafficking, why [did the sting operation take] eight months? Why entrap and arrest ‘victims?’ This demonstrates either a lack of regard for the suffering of Chinese massage workers, or disingenuous targeting of high profile men through false claims of immigrant exploitation.” As usual, the sex workers face greater consequences than the clientele.

Red Canary Song advocates for “the funding of affordable housing, affirming healthcare, and food and cash assistance,” rather than throwing money at agents of what it sees as a sexist, white supremacist state and expecting said agents to treat migrant sex workers with decency. 

3. “What Mother’s Day is Like When You’re a Sex Worker & a Mom” (Maxine Holloway, Broke-Ass Stuart, May 2019)

Holloway, a new mom, is pretty happy to be a mother. But she faces particular stressors as a sex worker. She writes, “As I schedule appointments with pediatricians, talk with child care providers, and meet other parents at postpartum groups, I realize how grateful I am to be surrounded by people who love and support sex workers — and how difficult it is to open up.” She convenes a panel of sorts, interviewing three other moms who are also sex workers about everything from how to tell their kids about their profession to how to deal with parents who might judge their careers.

It’s really illuminating and I want you to read all the great quotes for yourself! But here’s one from adult performer Lotus Lain, whose daughter is in middle school:

“My friend Ana, who is also in the industry, is like a real sister, aunt, family member, and has seen my kid grow up since she was five. She has a cute nickname for my kid, helps with child care, and takes us to the beach when we are sad. I just didn’t expect that kind of depth and friendship out of this industry when I first started. “

Ckiara Rose, an environmental activist, sex worker, and mother to a 25-year-old son, speaks openly about a history that includes being stalked, enduring assault, suffering from drug addiction, and more trauma. But the temporary loss of her son to foster care looms larger than any of these struggles — which makes her current healthy relationship with him shine even brighter.

Gia DiMarco actually found her way to porn and other sex work because she was a mother who needed to provide for two small kids. She tells Holloway, “For me, being a sex worker has made me a better mom because it’s given me the ability to almost be a stay-at-home mom and still earn a good income.” Like Rose, DiMarco has experienced a custody battle in which her work in porn was used against her. She speaks about the extra need for privacy online, her self-conscious effort to never appear “too sexy” when picking her kids up at school, and the division of her personal life and her professional life.

4. “Sex Workers Are Not A Life Hack for ‘Helping’ Sexual Predators” (Alana Massey, Self, November 2017)

In an essay tagged to the then-recent New York Times article on Louis C.K.’s history of masturbating in front of women without their consent, Massey issues a powerful reminder that sex workers don’t exist to manage the hurtful impulses of men who want to violate boundaries. As a comedy writer, I found this line most poignant: “Sex workers are some of comedy’s most disposable people, which is made even worse by the fact that it’s a reflection of reality.” Massey’s own history of sex work puts her opinion into the grounded reality of her lived experience.

5. “Stoya: I Thought Female Sexuality Was An Okay Thing?” (James Reith, The Guardian, June 2018)

While I wasn’t on the phone when Reith interviewed the actress, author, producer, director, dancer, essayist, and activist known as Stoya, I know how difficult it is to distill the insights of a talkative, brilliant person into a finite number of words! And having worked with Stoya as well as having read some of her writing, I do believe she is both those things. This is a very good introduction to her philosophy and approach when tackling fraught subjects like sexism and sex work. She’s self-deprecating, thoughtful, funny, and accessible. She’s an intellectual, but she’s not a snob.

6. “What I Want to Know Is Why You Hate Porn Stars” (Conner Habib, The Stranger, March 2014)

Conner Habib is my friend, so there’s your full disclosure. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of them. In fact, he’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. program in sunny Ireland. A life in academia does not necessarily denote intelligence, emotional or otherwise, but Conner is deeply intelligent in many ways. He’s also been an award-winning gay adult performer.

In this essay for The Stranger, he writes movingly of lost love and of the seemingly fruitless effort to convince a boyfriend that porn is not inherently evil: “To him, me being in porn seemed out of place in the rest of my life. I’m a spiritual person and I went to grad school. I taught college English courses and studied science. The porn, for him, didn’t match up with all of that. I started to grow quiet. I didn’t like that I was growing quiet; after all, it was my big chance to talk about my job and my choices. But framed this way, in the form of contradictions, it didn’t seem right. ‘Contradictions’ was a word that meant I’d already lost the battle.

* * *

Years ago, I was invited to co-host an adult film awards ceremony with Stoya. She was an absolute delight, which always makes a job more pleasant. But I had never done comedy in front of a crowd of 400 sex workers (or any out sex workers, so far as I knew) so I asked her if she had any thoughts on what might suit this particular audience.

She gave me a great piece of advice, which I can summarize as follows: Never assume anything about sex workers — not their politics, not their family structure, not their religion or lack thereof, not their history with or without trauma, not their income, nothing.

From a hosting perspective, the show went brilliantly. The room was warm, friendly, smart, and silly. The sponsor, the blog and news website Fleshbot, made everything fun and good-hearted (thanks in no small part to then-site owner Lux Alptraum, a gifted writer and editor.) But I didn’t go on to learn much more about sex work afterward, not really. Not until now.

This particular column was an excellent reminder to me that if I say I respect someone or I say that I’m their friend, I ought to learn more about what they do, why they do it, and how it makes them feel. But that’s not just true for folks I’ve met and personally like — it is true for anyone from a community that I purport to regard with dignity and decency.

The work of unpacking one’s prejudices and fears never really ends, unless you end it. It can be tiring, annoying, and inconvenient. That’s good. Growth is often uncomfortable, physically and otherwise. But if it makes one a better friend or happier human, I’d say it’s more than worth it.

For more on sex work, more than I could possibly provide here, please become a reader of Tits and Sass.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber

Twitter Won’t Miss You: A Digital Detox Reading List (and Roadmap)

Follow the crowds to a world with less screen time. (Photo by davity dave via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories. 

Have you ever needed a break, but just not known from what? Everything seems fine…ish. Your job is OK, your friendships are all right, your health is decent, nothing dramatic to report. And yet, you’re stressed. Dissatisfied. Bored. Sometimes you even feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Maybe you should distract yourself by looking at Instagram. Maybe you should find someone with whom to argue on Twitter. Maybe you should see what your ex is up to on Snapchat.

Or maybe you should get the hell off social media for awhile.

At least, that’s the prescription issued by an increasingly vocal crowd of psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, writers, philosophers, performers, and general opinion-havers. The common term is “digital detox,” whereby an individual commits to a cessation of specific actions on one’s Internet-enabled devices for a finite period of time. One can go on this adventure with friends, family, or a likeminded group of strangers from, you guessed it, the internet.

I’ve been an enthusiastic and sometimes addicted social media user since approximately 2003. But after beginning my research for this column, I went on a digital detox of my own. It is small and manageable, and nothing so impressive as author Cal Newport’s suggested 30-day detox from all nonessential online functions. But it has improved my life already in measurable ways. Here are some writers whose approaches to their own vacations from the Matrix helped me shape mine.

1. “Unplugged: What I Learned By Logging Off and Reading 12 Books in a Week.” (Lois Beckett, The Guardian, December 2018)

Beckett nabbed what must’ve been the plum journalistic gig of the year: head to a tiny cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and read. Books. Made of paper. “This was a perfect assignment,” she writes. “For journalists on many beats — including mine, which includes the far right and gun policy — it had been a year of escalating violence during which conspiracy theories had moved into the mainstream.” And off she went, blissfully unencumbered by wifi. She brought a stack critically acclaimed books purchased at different independent bookshops and a plan was to read 30 books in a week, a number that sounds patently insane to me. She read 12. I’m still impressed — and envious.

The ensuing story is littered with gentle shade, which I always appreciate, and she’s a damn good writer: “I was not going to finish all 30 books at any cost, skimming to the right section of the right chapter in order to say one smart thing — in the U.S., we call this skill a ‘liberal arts education’ — but instead wanted the books’ authors and their protagonists to collide and argue with each other, to give me some different understanding of what had happened in 2018.”

2. “#Unplug: Baratunde Thurston Left The Internet For 25 Days, And You Should, Too.” (Baratunde R. Thurston, Fast Company, June 2013)

I adore my longtime friend Baratunde, though perhaps not as much as my mother, who has met the man twice and still has a copy of his 2013 Fast Company cover story somewhere in her house. He’s a great human.

And now that we’ve established my utter lack of objectivity, let’s hear from his 2013 self: “I’m an author, consultant, speechifier, and cross-platform opiner on the digital life. My friends say I’m the most connected man in the world. And in 2012, I lived like a man running for president of the United States, planet Earth, and the Internet all at once.” That very accurate description is exactly why it was so interesting that Baratunde Rafiq Thurston, of all freaking people, did a digital detox.

At the time, I remember worrying that he might burn out or possibly just suddenly up and die due to lack of sleep, so it was clearly a good move. I can’t imagine replicating what he did (no email?!), but since he was self-employed with a personal assistant and has an incredible amount of willpower, he was able to pull it off. His nine-point digital detox preparation checklist is incredibly helpful, and I intend to use it the next time I do one. My favorite line? “She transmitted this data by writing down the names on a piece of paper.” And yes, he was happier and healthier by the end of the experience. To this day, he goes on regular social media vacations, and I believe he’d tell you his life is better for it.

3. “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It.” (Cal Newport, New York Times, November 2016)

“I’m a millennial computer scientist who also writes books and runs a blog,” Newport writes. “Demographically speaking I should be a heavy social media user, but that is not the case. I’ve never had a social media account.” Newport lays out in plain, accessible language the notion that social media distracts from good work because it is designed to be addictive. It’s a notion with which I agree, based in no small part on my own lived experience; I have no doubt my writing output has suffered as I’ve devoted more and more time to social media. As Newport writes, “It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter.”

4. “Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes.” (Clay Skipper, GQ, January 2019)

Fast forward two and a half years. Newport, by now an in-demand speaker and author of two books — the latest is Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World — expands on his November 2016 Op-Ed. Newport is a reluctant self-help guru who would undoubtedly reject that label. In this interview (as in the one I heard with him on fellow PoB (Pal of Baratunde) Lewis Howes’s podcast “The School of Greatness”), Newport stresses that he doesn’t typically offer a program or prescription. However, his recommendation for a 30-day digital detox seems simple in concept and necessarily jarring to execute: one dispenses with all digital products that are unnecessary to one’s career and personal health. Check your work email and log into your bank app to ensure a direct deposit has gone through, but let Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts lie fallow for 30 days. Skipper is an able interviewer and Newport is a clear, experienced, and intelligent interviewee.

5. I Quit Social Media for 65 Weeks. This Is What I Learned. (Kareem Yasin, Healthline, February 2018)

Yasin interviews David Mohammadi, who left social media for over a year and loved the experience. A newly minted New Yorker, he abandoned the online pseudo-friendship industrial complex because he was worried he’d obsess over what was happening back in San Francisco. And he had good reason to suspect he’d be homesick — he’d tried the East Coast thing once, been endlessly captivated by his Bay Area friends’ Facebook updates, and ended up moving back to San Francisco. Years later, a more mature Mohammadi quit his job and decided to start a new career in New York with a clear mind unclouded by social media-induced FOMO. You likely won’t be surprised to hear his take: “The first week was hard. The second week was nice. And as I got closer to the end date, I just was like: ‘Wow. It feels great to be so present, and not just on my phone.’” But the benefits didn’t just extend to mental health — he made more money, too! Yasin writes, “Working as a boutique manager, [Mohammadi] noticed how his coworkers would constantly check their phones. Those two-minute breaks from the real world robbed them of opportunities to get more commissions — opportunities that would be theirs if they would just look up and notice the customers.”

* * *

Like you, probably, I have a personal Instagram account. Except it isn’t personal, really — with 14,200 followers, it is ostensibly a way to cultivate and grow an online brand based on me, myself, and I. I write essays and books; I do comedy shows; I lecture on mental health awareness at colleges; I pop up as a talking head in various capacities in various venues. Like you, probably, I want to be seen as an attractive person, so sometimes I use filters or put on more makeup than is absolutely necessary for a selfie. Like you, probably, I want to be seen as a capable person worthy of being hired, so I do my best to seem witty and fun but chill, man. Given that I want to write more for television and that a lot of my work falls under the category of “entertainment,” I have followed the conventional thinking in my industry, which boils down to “Always be selling (yourself).”

This thinking extends to my “personal” Twitter account (77,400 followers), despite my many qualms about the ethics of its overseers with regard to threats and harassment. It extended to my Facebook fan page, until I quit Facebook altogether because I don’t care what my least-favorite racist relative ate for breakfast — if I want to know what’s up with a boring person from high school, I’ll make private inquiries. When the current Russian government really loves something, I have to ask myself if I need that something in my life. (Note: I am aware that Facebook owns Instagram, and that I’m a hypocrite sometimes.)

Then there’s the Instagram account for my podcast (679 followers) and the Twitter account for my podcast (457 followers) and the Instagram account for my progressive lady-coat art project (26,200 followers). I don’t use Snapchat, because once I joined for 24 hours and my drunk friend sent me a dick pic framed by monogrammed his-and-hers towels in the master bathroom he shares with his girlfriend; I’m a Scorpio, and pseudoscience and common sense immediately told me the power of the Snap was too great for my personal constitution to handle. I also recently joined a few dating apps. And that led to more swiping, more clicking, more texting, more aggravation of writing-induced carpal tunnel issues. When an ex-NFL star asked me on what I’m sure would have been a super safe and not-gross date to his house at 3 a.m., I decided that Tinder was also too much for me.

At this point, and considering my sore wrists, the signals seemed to say, “SARA. TAKE SOME TIME OFF THE SOCIAL MEDIA.” I had 104,000 followers across social media, some of whom were double or triple followers and some of whom were robots, and while I loved each of them like my very own imaginary baby, Mommy needed a vacay.

First, I enabled the Screen Time function on my phone and discovered that I use it, on average, over seven hours a day. This horrifying fact led me to design the parameters of my moderate digital detox: I’d continue to use my email for work and social reasons. I would continue to use Twitter, but only to share my work or the work of a friend or charity. I would post a note announcing that I was taking an Instagram break until April 9, the day the second season of my podcast debuts, to give both a heads up to any former professional athletes that I wouldn’t be interacting with them there and to announce the premiere date. I would text when I felt like it, but leave my phone facing down when I wasn’t using it. I would remove Instagram from my phone, just as I’d done with Twitter months prior. At night and during my daily meditation practice, I would put the phone on airplane mode.

Following those simple rules, and only occasionally breaking them, I managed to reduce my phone time by 10 percent in the first week. I resumed the regular at-home yoga practice I’d attempted a month prior. I finished the outline of an hour-long TV drama pilot. I went on actual face-to-face dates with humans during daylight and appropriate evening hours. I visited with two friends. I got the “annual” physical I’d put off for two years. And I wrote this column.

While I intend to resume using Instagram on April 9, I will do as Cal Newport recommends: use social media like a professional, for specific purposes, and do not stray from said purposes. Twitter and Instagram will remain places for me to share my work and the work of friends and charities I admire. Sometimes, I will use these places to discover great writing, music, and more. Moving forward, I want to reduce my screen time by 10 percent each week until I average under four hours per day on my phone — and then I’ll try to reduce it even more.

I’m pleased with my progress. It may seem meager, but it’s a start. And I feel better already. So if you’ve considered quitting social media but have some qualms, do what I did: start small. Pop your head above the churning surface of our wild, untrammeled internet, and take a look around. Stay awhile. Your eyes will grow accustomed to real sunlight soon enough, and it’ll be easier to breathe. It’s pretty nice up here.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber

Labor Pains: A Reading List

A doctor examines a pregnant woman in Allahabad, India, 2011. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, File)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories. 

Prior to researching this column, I felt no significant babymaking desire tugging at my uterus. This is not to say I have not thought of being a mother or a stepmother. Adoption and foster-to-adopt programs have always held a special fascination for me, even when I was a little kid. But the biological mechanics of what happens at the end of the human assembly line — you know, the manner in which the finished product exits the factory door? That always freaked me out.

According to my mother, Child Me reacted to the discussion of labor and delivery with disinterest at best and revulsion at worst. Mom worried that she’d somehow made me afraid of it. In fact, she had not; she’d always spoken of pregnancy as the happiest time of her young life, and had two relatively swift and uncomplicated deliveries with healthy babies. When she was 24, I woke her up at 1:00 a.m. one October morning and was out in the world by a quarter past four, taking the traditional route. When she was 27, my brother took maybe six or seven hours on a Sunday in early December. She said he “shot out like a football.” I never knew how to react to that, and I still don’t.

As a child, I asked her how painful it was. She said, “Kind of like… having to do number two in a really big way.” She has since admitted this was an understatement, though one often does go number two when one does a vaginal delivery, but says “it wasn’t that bad” and “at the end you get a beautiful baby!”

My mother accepted long ago that making babies was not high on my priority list. She always encouraged my career and creative aspirations. I give her a lot of credit for not pressuring me about it like some women’s mothers do. I’ve told her that I just don’t have baby fever.

But then I researched this column.

And now…

Well, aside from abstinence from sexual intercourse, there is no greater method of birth control than reading birth stories. Add articles about labor and delivery as managed by the medical industry in the United States, and you’ve got a cocktail that should be nearly as effective as the common oral contraceptive.

My hat is off to women who go through with having a baby — and especially those who choose to do it again. That’s wild, lady! But as you’ll see from the stories I’ve collected below, some labor and delivery experiences are less than ideal, to say the very least. I’m glad real women share what really happens to them rather than glossing it over with some fairy tale bullshit. More real stories from real women who don’t pretend everything is easy, please. And more reporting on the way Black women and poor immigrant women are consistently offered a lower standard of maternal healthcare.

1. “I Think, Therefore I Am Getting The Goddamned Epidural” (Rebecca Schuman, Longreads, November 2017)

I despise every hippie braggart Schuman cites from Ina May Gaskin’s creepy-sounding books Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. At one point I also wanted to lightly smack her husband and kick the shit out of her anesthesiologist, though probably not as much as she did.

Dads make mistakes. It is a fact that my dad is awesome and also that while I was being born, he walked into the wrong labor and delivery room, misreading the name on the door. He did not recognize the gaping vagina before him and swiftly made his exit. During my mother’s second delivery experience, with my younger brother, he pissed her the fuck off by a.) complaining about the room temperature and opening the window when she was fucking cold and b.) bringing in a TV so he and the doctor and any orderlies could watch the game. But he turned out to be a splendid dad.

(As for a similar redemption for Schuman’s shitty, bored, Instagram-scrolling anesthesiologist, I have less hope. I’ve always regarded anesthesiologists as the groovy magicians of surgery — they show up, make your life better — or worse, if they want! — and then disappear. This gal seems to have gone to the wrong wizarding school.)

Schuman, who is one smart cookie, talks about Descartes in an accessible way and connects him quite easily to birthing:

“But what then am I?” he asked. “A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.” These might not seem to be questions (or answers) that one naturally associates with the act of giving birth, but perhaps they should be. The midwives in my books were asking versions of these questions, after all, and they shouldn’t be the only ones who got to. Indeed, what makes all that mother-Goddess-yoni-orgasm stuff disquieting is not actually its medical dubiousness. It’s the decidedly un-philosophical certainty of the operation.

If I still drank, I would toss back some bourbon with Schuman (though not if either of us were pregnant, obviously). Regardless, I would like to buy her a beverage or a large carbohydrate-based baked substance one day.

2. “The Lavender Room” (Cheryl Strayed, Slate, April 2014)

Cheryl Strayed had an ideal situation: the desire for a baby, good health, access to excellent care. Then she labored for 43 hours and pushed an 11-pound kid out of her undercarriage. I have no words other than “holy shit, what a warrior.” She is very encouraging of other women having their baby the way they want, which makes this a very sweet and loving story. When she mentions laboring while asking her deceased mother to help her, I got teary-eyed.

It also reminded me of how long labor can take. My sister-in-law and younger brother texted me a few hours after her water broke on a Sunday afternoon. I felt sure the baby would be there by the time I arrived to New Jersey on a flight from Los Angeles the next afternoon. Nope! I visited the hospital room, drank margaritas at the Stuff Yer Face in New Brunswick, New Jersey with the other aunties and an uncle and got a full night’s sleep before I finally woke up to the news that a child was born unto us. Now we are all obsessed with him and his favorite song is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads. He is 17 months old and looks like Wallace Shawn.

3. “I’ve Given Birth 4 Very Different Ways – Here’s What I’ve Learned” (Laurie Batzel, PopSugar, June 2018)

I think I love this woman. She curses way less than I do but she does not pull punches.

I’m a former ballet dancer and have performed in blood-soaked pointe shoes through severe sprains and other sundry injuries. My pain tolerance is not insignificant. But there is no pain on earth like having a baby. When the nurse told me it was too late for an epidural, I would have sobbed if I’d had the strength. I had marched around the labor and delivery unit for three hours straight to avoid Dr. Jerk, I hadn’t slept in over 36 hours, and, as badly as I wanted the “traditional” birthing experience, I would have performed my own C-section right then and there to make the pain stop. Seriously, it’s a good thing there were no spare scalpels, letter openers, or jagged shoelace tips lying around, because I would have gone rogue in a heartbeat.

She had two C-sections followed by two VBACs (vaginal birth after Caeseran). She also says that if a guy tries to convince you that passing a kidney stone is as painful as giving birth with no drugs, you can punch him “in the biscuits.” Starry eyes over here! She concludes with the very kind sentiment “there’s no wrong way to become a mother.” What a refreshing antidote to some of the “you must have a vaginal birth with no drugs so that you can be a true woman” bullshit I read while looking through articles.

4. “Lost Mothers” (ProPublica, 2017-2018)

In publishing, any subject can become a trend, a flash in the pan, a momentary topic of national chatter. Sparked in no small part by Serena Williams talking to Vogue about nearly dying after the birth of her daughter, 2018 saw more mainstream publications begin to cover the topic of maternal mortality among Black women. But organizations like ProPublica, NPR, and smaller independent publications had addressed the issue previously, and Black women themselves had been speaking up about it for years.

It is incumbent upon reporters at mainstream publications to continue to report on this humiliating and devastating national health crisis. In the meantime, ProPublica did the legwork with a series of articles about the many, many Black women who experience a ghastly standard of maternal healthcare in the United States.

5. “I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman” (Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Time, January 2019)

This story is vivid and it is horrifying and it is heartbreaking. Read every word of it. Here are a few: “When the medical profession systematically denies the existence of Black women’s pain, underdiagnoses our pain, refuses to alleviate or treat our pain, healthcare marks us as incompetent bureaucratic subjects. Then it serves us accordingly.”

6. “Why does it cost $32,093 just to give birth in America?” (Jessica Glenza, The Guardian, January 2018)

These statistics are stark. Writes Glenza:

Despite these high costs, the US consistently ranks poorly in health outcomes for mothers and infants. The US rate of infant mortality is 6.1 for every 1,000 live births, higher than Slovakia and Hungary, and nearly three times the rate of Japan and Finland. The US also has the worst rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. That means America is simultaneously the most expensive and one of the riskiest industrialized nations in which to have children.

So we’re paying the most in the developed world for the shittiest treatment in the developed world? Okay, makes sense. No wonder so many women reject the conventional medical approach to birth and buy into comforting “orgasmic birth is possible, babies just slip right out, pain is all in your mind and was put there by The Man, also buy my book and taint moisturizer” pseudoscience, rocketing from one extreme to the other.

As with anything else, it seems, a complementary medical approach is best, blending conventional medicine with alternative or “traditional” healing techniques. But while my complementary medical idea sounds delightful if you can afford to pay out of pocket, how may health insurance plans will pay for your midwife, doula, obstetrician, nurses and 1+ nights stay at some swanky, soothingly lit spa retreat? Oy vey, what a mess.

* * *

The other ways to obtain a beautiful baby without almost certainly going number two in the process have always seemed the more palatable options to me. Of course, the headaches and heartbreaks possible with adoption and foster-to-adopt are innumerable. Taking on the huge responsibility of parenting does not seem simple — nor should it, I suppose.  Plenty of abusive, nasty jerks have kids, and I rather wish they’d give up for fear of poop on the delivery table or too many forms at the agency.

I may yet become a mother. I don’t know. At present, I am glad to be an aunt; I am glad to entertain my friends when they have kids, or to entertain the kids so that my friends can use the toilet in peace or take a nap. I feel enormous gratitude that generations of American women have fought to ensure that women of childbearing age have rights and protections that were unthinkable years ago — as well as the right to prevent or terminate a pregnancy.

I feel energized to work harder to ensure better access to healthcare for all women, and to help make certain motherhood remains a choice. I should say “biological reproduction” because, as Batzel wrote, “There’s no wrong way to become a mother.”  And of course I know — and you now know I know – it is fine to choose to go without children. You’ll sleep more and save money, much of which you can spend spoiling other people’s kids. I can’t recommend that enough.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: A Reading List About Witches

The Witches Sabbath, by Frans Francken II, 1607.

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories (and some of her friends’ favorites, too). 

What is a witch, anyway? Is it an old woman with green skin stirring a pot of something weird and stinky in an animated fairy tale? Is it a man who lives in the wilderness in isolation and emerges only to perform specific rituals to bring the rains? Is it a hippie chick in Berkeley in flowing fabrics appropriating cultural totems and symbols in order to get a desperate wealthy tech couple fertile and baby-ready? Based on my research, the answers seem to be “sure,” “yes,” and “I mean, I guess so.”

Read more…

Boo: A Reading List About Ghosts

red, green, blue, and orange pac-man ghosts painted on a gray wall, with bright green grass on the ground
Photo by Jason Whitaker via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories (and some of her friends’ favorites, too). 

Tonight the subject is…ghosts. (Cue “WoooOOOOOOOOOOOooooo” sound effect.) Ghost stories seem to point to a reality beyond our own — or, at the very least, to an expanded understanding of what exactly this plane of existence encompasses. And from a philosophical perspective, I’m half Mulder and half Scully, which means I can find deep spiritual fulfillment from things that I’m 100% sure are total bullshit.

I was raised in rural western New Jersey, right across the Delaware River from the beautiful farmlands and forests of eastern Pennsylvania. Both sides of the river are dotted with 17th and 18th century homes and outbuildings, and many people speak of ghosts as matter of factly as my old neighbors in New Mexico speak of aliens: Maybe they hadn’t personally seen one, but their cousin sure did, and he wasn’t nuts. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I, too, have met many reasonably rational people who report ghost stories. I had a friend whose mother, a salt-of-the-earth woman with common sense and a practical nature, told me with no tongue in cheek about the ghost that lived in their farmhouse.

“I think it’s a little boy,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I get that sense. He’ll leave cabinet doors open. I can feel when he’s in the room and when he isn’t. When we first bought the house, I sensed him here. I could hear him rattling around in the basement. After the cabinet doors thing kept happening, I said out loud, ‘Hey, we don’t mean you any harm. We are going to fix some things in the house but we aren’t going to mess anything up or tear anything down.’”

She said she felt things were very nice after that, and that he still did the cabinet thing sometimes and she would say “Hello!” out loud when he did. “Maybe he’s lonely,” she said. “He’s mischievous but not mean.”

Like my friend’s mother, I was raised Roman Catholic. My relationship with the religion today is tenuous at best — I dislike corruption and mass sexual assault in any internationally franchised corporate entity, whether or not they get nonprofit status due to centuries of political influence — but I give credit to my loving Irish-Catholic father for teaching me an important lesson about belief. (My father, it must be stated, is also not a fan of homophobia, financial misappropriation, abuse, or incense.) Along with giant curly hair, he passed on to me a nearly prayerful awe for science. But his approach to spiritual belief — and belief in spirits — is deeply respectful, more so than my own. He said, “I think it would be arrogant to assume we know everything about this world and if other worlds exist. We don’t know what happens after we die. Maybe elements of energy or what we call a soul do stick around. And I do believe people who say they’ve seen things. Whether or not they were real ghosts, I can’t say.”

My religious background and the relatively open-minded attitude of my parents also influenced my curiosity about telekinesis, astral projection, astrology, clairvoyance, and the bestselling Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unknown” books. It certainly vaulted me in the general direction of witchcraft. Though I am a member of no religion and have a healthy skepticism about many things, I retain the desire for spiritual fulfillment and a connection with the divine. I also like ritual; I recently paid someone a couple hundred bucks to do a healing ceremony with me in a beautiful old house in Los Angeles. (It involved tarot, prayer, and creating a spell bag. I got to write down a list of things and then set that list on fire. It was great! Ten out of ten, would recommend.)

There are many genres of paranormal tale, and I believe the greatest of these is the ghost story. Do we see the people who’ve died before us? Is this simply wishful thinking? And if it is wishful thinking, why do some people report terrifying apparitions none of us would ever wish to see? Is this a collective human tendency to hallucination, or mental illness, or are ghosts really real? I don’t know, but I do know I’ve gotten to read some very good stuff on the subject.

1.  “Why Do People Believe in Ghosts?” (Tiffanie Wen, The Atlantic, September 2014)

Wen leads with three anecdotes about women who believe they may have captured images of ghosts via iPhone camera. Wen herself is one of these examples, and she does a medium-deep dive into why folks in our modern world still believe in specters and ghouls.

Recent surveys have shown that a significant portion of the population believes in ghosts, leading some scholars to conclude that we are witnessing a revival of paranormal beliefs in Western society. A Harris poll from last year found that 42 percent of Americans say they believe in ghosts. The percentage is similar in the U.K., where 52 percent of respondents indicated that they believed in ghosts in a recent poll.

Wen cites examples from Asia and mainland Europe, and consults scholars and scientists to figure it all out. By the end of the article, I came to the conclusion that there’s simply something wrong with the iPhone camera and the way it captures images, and that it was probably something notorious asshole Steve Jobs knew about and couldn’t fix.

2. “Ghosts Definitely Don’t Exist Because Otherwise The Large Hadron Collider Would Have Found Them, Claims Brian Cox.” (Andrew Griffin, The Independent, February 2017, suggested by Kara Hansen)

The headline alone is hilarious. Before reading this article I had no idea who Brian Cox was, but his photo told me this dude was wild, because he is giving us “deeply-moisturized Mads Mikkelsen on a casual science journey” realness. I’d also heard of the Large Hadron Collider, probably on an episode of Big Bang Theory or in an article I skimmed, but I didn’t know what the hell it was either. Now I do!

The LHC is the biggest particle accelerator ever built. It is includes a huge ring of superconducting magnets and accelerators that fling particles around, sending them into each other at such speed that they can be used to understand some of the most fundamental properties of the universe. In doing so, scientists can find out how elementary particles interact and behave, and understand how they work to compose the world that we see around us.

Sounds dope. What does all this have to do with ghosts? Well, Brian Cox, who is a TV-friendly professor at the University of Manchester, thinks the LHC would’ve seen a ghost if ghosts were real. It hasn’t, so ghosts are not real. Also important: Cox has a Beatles haircut, very on-brand for Manchester. And he was in a band, much like my friend Brian, who is a physicist but also half of the hilarious band Ninja Sex Party. Maybe they hang out.

Oh, Cox also has a podcast called the Infinite Monkey Cage, with which I plan to become obsessed. So he said some smart-sounding thing about all this on his show, and fellow TV-friendly scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson was all, “Friggin’ excuse me?” Except what he actually said was, “If I understand what you just declared, you just asserted that CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, disproved the existence of ghosts.” And Cox was like, “Yes.” Anyway, I’m going to become a Brian Cox fan, probably.

3. “The 10 Best Ghost Stories” (Lauren Oliver, Publishers Weekly, October 2014)

Lauren Oliver seems like a really neat person. She’s also a talented author. And while my columns here are reading lists and I don’t usually link to other lists, I’ll make an exception here. Oliver collects her favorite ghost stories, and I’m terribly embarrassed to say I’ve read none of them. I’ve certainly seen Kubrick’s screen adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, and I know it has key differences from the book. And I’ve seen any number of film, stage, and TV versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Anyway, I’ve got to get my shit together and check out all of her recommendations before I myself am dust and ashes, at which point I’ll pass on to my next life, or stick around this plane as a lingering ghost, or simply be dead and gone. Regardless of what happens, I doubt I’ll have much time to read.

4. “The Truth About The Paranormal” (David Robson, BBC, October 2014, suggested by Kara Hansen)

Robson opens with an anecdote about a naked Winston Churchill encountering the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. I am here for any and all naked Churchill stories, and to put it in the lede is a bold and brave move, so probably this article should get whatever the British Pulitzer is called. (It should be called the Bareass Churchill.)

His supposed contact with the supernatural puts Churchill in illustrious company. Arthur Conan Doyle spoke to ghosts through mediums, while Alan Turing believed in telepathy. Three men who were all known for their razor-sharp thinking, yet couldn’t stop themselves from believing in the impossible. You may well join them. According to recent surveys, as many as three quarters of Americans believe in the paranormal, in some form, while nearly one in five claim to have actually seen a ghost.

Read on for information on damage to visual processing centers in the right hemisphere of the brain, symptoms of epilepsy, and other reasons you might think you’ve seen a ghost when you haven’t. Turns out sometimes your brain tries to fill in missing information when, for example, you catch a glimpse of something unidentifiable in low light. Also turns out there are no more Churchill naked tales in this article, but you should still read it.

5. “The Spookiest Ghost Stories From All 50 States” (Mental Floss, October 2017)

There are so many delightful stories here. I’m highlighting one from Connecticut, our nation’s dullest state, as a reward for being a nice place to stop for a pee at the many Dunkin’ Donuts shops between Boston and New York.

In 1970, famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were called to combat the spirit of “Annabelle,” a demonic presence attached to a giant Raggedy Ann doll. For weeks the doll had thoroughly freaked out its owner, Donna, moving from room to room, leaving handwritten notes, and even attacking a friend who suggested Donna get rid of the doll, choking him in his sleep. Finally, a priest exorcised the doll and the Warrens locked it away in a special case designed to check its malevolent influence. But even that wasn’t enough to save one brash visitor to the Warrens’ museum, who reportedly taunted the doll and died in a motorcycle crash on his way home.

* * *

In high school, my mom and her sister threw a party when their mom was away. My football-playing, pot-smoking, drag-racing (not in the RuPaul way, sadly), respectful-of-ghost-believers dad (remember him?) showed up with his giant cloud of curly red hair and found her Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls, and proceeded to arrange them into a coital tableau to make his dumbass football bro friends laugh. My mom was enraged and embarrassed because she was trying to impress some guy and my dad was stealing focus. The point is, adolescent boys are gross and my mom wouldn’t go out with my dad for another year.

I’d tie it back into spectral ghosts but I keep picturing Raggedy Ann humping Raggedy Andy at a hormonal teen house party in Bound Brook, New Jersey in 1973 and now I’m snort-laughing on a flight to Dallas. Because for me, the most compelling part of ghost stories will always be the tales of who we used to be. Pantomime doll sex is just a bonus.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote.

Editor: Michelle Weber

Great Reviews Of Movies I Have Never Seen: A Reading List

In a movie theater, rows of red velvet chairs sitting empty in front of a blank screen.
Image by hashi photo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories (and some of her friends’ favorites, too). 

I will admit upfront that I haven’t seen as many films as I feel I should. I’ve written one, an adaptation of my third book, DC Trip. It was scary to contemplate: I thought, “I haven’t seen enough films to write a film.” And then someone pointed out that the average male aspiring screenwriter would never let that stop him, and I figured this was correct.

I realized — and this is applicable for any job, really — I shouldn’t negotiate from a place of “I’m so lucky anyone would consider me for such a gig.” I should negotiate from a place of “Hell yeah, I can knock this out of the park and I deserve this gig! I will learn what I need to learn, ask questions, do the work, and figure it out as I go along. And I will do a very good job.” And I started watching more films, because while you learn a lot by doing, you also learn a lot by watching. Plus, if you want to do something for a living, it’s only respectful to your art form of choice to, you know, actually study it.

Conveniently enough, I also recently got sober, which means I’ve got more time on my hands now that I don’t spend one to two days a week functioning at the intellectual level of a toaster oven. Did you know that if you replace alcohol with water, you’ll sleep better at night and have a superior command of syntax in the morning? True facts, my friends. You’ll also have to deal with a bunch of stuff you were ignoring, like credit card debt and emotional scars, but you can escape that temporarily at your local movieplex!

Read more…

Remembrance of Folks Past: A Reading List of the Stories We Tell

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories. 

In “The Depth of Animal Grief,” Carl Safina writes, “A researcher once played a recording of an elephant who had died. The sound was coming from a speaker hidden in a thicket. The family went wild calling, looking all around. The dead elephant’s daughter called for days afterward. The researchers never again did such a thing.”

How do we remember our dead? We hold funerals. We engage in rituals that celebrate a life and symbolize its worth. We build monuments — headstones, perhaps, or statues. And we do something else, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. To crib a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tiny little off-off-off-Broadway theatrical experiment “Hamilton”: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”

Who lives? We do.

Who dies? They do — as shall we.

And who tells your story? The living. And while we are among the living, it is our job (if we so choose) to tell the stories of those who’ve gone. I’ve been thinking (and writing) about death and endings rather often of late. Here are some lovely examples of obituaries and tributes, some chosen by me, some chosen by helpful friends.

1. “Anthony Bourdain and the Power of Telling the Truth” (Helen Rosner, The New Yorker, June 2018)

Helen was my editor when I did this death-focused piece about TGI Fridays for Eater. She’s consistently edited James Beard Award nominees and winners, and she’s been a nominee herself. Her piece about her pal Tony is beautiful. She gives a more-than-well-deserved mention to his longtime creative collaborator, Laurie Woolever. And boy, does Rosner ever land the dismount. What. A. Kicker.

2. “Remembering Mr. Rogers, a true-life ‘helper’ when the world still needs one” (Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly, May 2017)

I met Anthony Breznican — a gifted writer who regularly creates illuminating stories about entertainment and entertainers — after we spent 15 minutes chatting at a mutual friend’s barbecue, comparing his luminous Italian-American wife’s family funeral practices to those of my own clan. It was around the time his wonderful Twitter thread tribute to Fred Rogers went viral.

In college in Pittsburgh in 2001, Breznican was going through a hard time. This essay, based on the tweets, tells his story of running into Fred Rogers on campus. Here’s a snippet of what happened at what Breznican thought would be the end of a brief, polite exchange.

That’s when I blurted in a kind of rambling gush that I’d stumbled on the show again recently, at a time when I truly needed it. He listened there in the doorway. When I ran out of words, I just said, “So … thanks for that. Again.”

Mr. Rogers nodded. He looked down, and let the door close again. He undid his scarf and motioned to the window, where he sat down on the ledge.

This is what set Mr. Rogers apart. No one else would’ve done this. No one.

He said, “Do you want to tell me what was upsetting you?”

The rest is more than worth your time, neighbor.

3. “Colonel Michael Singleton” (The Telegraph, January 2003), suggested by Neil Gaiman

I ventured through the thickest wood, o’er hills and across rickety wooden spans under which dwell only the very sexiest bridge trolls (they have never heard of the internet and will eat you if you try to explain it) to climb a talking tree atop a mountain and whisper a single word into the ether: “Gaiman.”

This, as most people know, is the only way to contact Neil Gaiman. He then sent a fox riding an owl riding an elephant riding a second, extremely annoyed fox, all of them inside a hot air balloon basket, and they appeared after two days (during which time I had to urinate on the talking tree, who had some pretty colorful thoughts to share about that), and then the owl opened its mouth and dropped a piece of paper, which had the URL for this obituary on it. I borrowed the tree’s iPhone to read it and boy, did we smile!

Colonel Michael Singleton ran a boys’ prep school and was of the philosophy that young men “should be neither cosseted nor cowed,” which is as great a recipe for raising a decent human as ever I’ve heard. I’m not 100 percent on board with all the Colonel’s methods, but I admire his sense of politeness: “Knocked unconscious during action in Holland, he was saved only when a family emerged from a farmhouse cellar to drag him inside. In peacetime he returned to thank them and was delighted to be reunited with the field glasses which he had mislaid in the blast.” He was also wounded three times in battle. Later, he was appointed a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

There’s a lot more, but not too much, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

4. “The most awful kind of grief. The most beautiful memories. So long, son.” (Chris Erskine, Los Angeles Times, March 2018), suggested by Carrie Seim

My friend Carrie is a journalist who has been writing for years about all sorts of things; since journalists read a lot, I figured she’d be able to suggest a powerful example of this type of writing. And she sure did. I can’t imagine writing something like this, and yet I can, just a little bit, because writers write through pain. It’s one way that can help. Sometimes it exacerbates the agony but usually it helps – sometimes because our words end up helping someone else, who tells us so. That’s the greatest honor a writer can claim, I think.

5. “Eloquent Barbara Jordan: A Great Spirit Has Left US” (Molly Ivins for Creators Syndicate, January 1996)

“Barbara Jordan, whose name was so often preceded by the words “the first black woman to . . . ” that they seemed like a permanent title, died last Wednesday in Austin. A great spirit is gone.”

Hell of a lede. But then, it’s Ivins, who specialized in ledes, kickers, and everything in between. She catalogues Jordan’s magnificent life of public service, sure, but she also gives us personal gems:

Jordan’s presence was so strikingly magisterial that only her good friends knew how much fun she could be in informal situations. Before multiple sclerosis crippled her hands, she loved to play guitar, and she loved to sing to the end of her life. Jordan singing “The St. James Infirmary Blues” was just a show-stopper.

Barbara Jordan was the first black person from the South elected to Congress since Reconstruction. But she was a lot more than her resume, and Ivins gives us a glimpse at Barbara Jordan, musician and friend.

6. “Molly Ivins, 62; humorist who targeted her wit at the powerful” (Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, February 2007)

I love Molly Ivins — not personally, as I’m sad to say I never met her. But when I was a teenager in the late ‘90s, her work furthered my love affair with political humor, a love that began when I was a mere kid reading my grandparents’ Art Buchwald books. Here’s Elaine Woo on the final days of Molly Ivins:

In her last weeks, she devoted her waning energy to what she called “an old-fashioned newspaper campaign” against President Bush’s plan to escalate the Iraq war. “We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders,” she wrote in her last column two weeks ago. “And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war.”

What would Ivins have to say today about the Trump administration’s policy of ripping families apart at the border? I have a feeling that, with some small edits, it would look much like what she wrote above.

I miss her, I miss her, I miss her.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group”, which she also wrote.

Editor: Michelle Weber